The hybrid films of the influential director and teacher Karel Vachek, little known outside the Czech Republic, are presented in this first U.S. retrospective. Although Vachek (b. 1940) began making films during the Czech New Wave of the sixties, his controversial political works, including his early short Moravian Hellas and the 1968 cinema verité Elective Affinities, were banned, and Vachek was unable to continue filmmaking until after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. His epic Little Capitalist Tetralogy-New Hyperion, Bohemia Docta, Who Will Watch the Watchman?, and What Is to Be Done?-makes up for the time lost while he worked odd jobs in France, Germany, and the United States before returning home. Each clocking in at more than two hundred minutes, the four films focus on the “birth of a nation,” the period from the 1989 Velvet Revolution to 2002, as the Czech underground moved above ground.
Vachek's obsessive, highly original films introduce us to figures who have remained on the cultural periphery and from that vantage point can, in his words, “say important things, even when the time does not want to listen.” In the Tetralogy and his most recent film, Záviš, Vachek provides intimate access to an array of key Czech artists, poets, historians, and philosophers as well as political figures, scientists, and religious leaders-many of them former dissidents-whom he draws into conversation with one another and himself to plumb the “state of the nation.” What results is critical of much in modern-day politics and culture, yet Vachek proposes an alternative, a moral society informed by dissident artists and intellectuals. Mixing cinema verité, improvisation, and staged scenes, Vachek's polyphonic films border on chaos; yet for those who are patient, his carefully selected threads weave into a fascinating and informative perspective on the political and intellectual history of the Czech Republic. Vachek often appears on screen driving home his points, cajoling his interviewees as he paces back and forth, at times ducking out of the frame or walking away from the camera-a provocateur philosopher of the absurd and the serious. We welcome him in person on June 21 and 24 to continue the conversation.