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Czech Economic News Weekend Culture Section Interview June 28, 2002

ROBERT ELLMANN: “IN 20 YEARS MY FILM WILL BE BANNED”

He studied law in the USA and for some time practiced there as a lawyer. After that, he came to Europe and settled in Prague. So far, this description of a boyish-looking, thirty seven year old lawyer doesn’t appear unusual in any way. But the legal work to him didn’t seem enough, so he made – by the way – two animated movies, and he’s going to make more.

The second of Robert Ellmann’s movies was commissioned by Czech Public Television. Fester or Fiction (FRICTION in English) is a combination of real actors and computer animation made up of pictorial collages broaching the real character of modern America. Fester is only a nickname, a reference to the real life ‘hero’ of the film whose name is Steve Preisler, an employee in a chemical factory, and a producer of toxic substances and a writer of scandalous books about drugs, poisons and weapons. The movie was recently broadcast by Czech Public Television.

How does an American lawyer find work in Prague? An advert?

Yes, exactly right. I found a job advert in The Prague Post and I applied for it.

What would you say to a layman for the comparison of legal work in the USA and here in Prague?

First of all, American legal practice is rather different from European legal practice. When in America there is a legal dispute, both parties’ lawyers explain to the judge what the law is and then the judge, in accordance with such advice, decides. Lawyers in the USA serve as the basis for what the judge rules. Here, the judge serves as his own basis for his ruling. In America, time is money. Here, it’s the reverse – money is time. Americans don’t waste time because nobody will pay them for doing it; in Europe, people don’t waste money.

What can you say about the Czech legal regime, especially with regard to corruption?

This doesn’t really pertain to communication with colleagues, but more with clients. Sometimes there were events that certainly had elements of corruption, which did surprise me. However, it is possible that while I lived in the USA I was never important enough to witness similar cases of corruption…

Despite that you wish to remain here?

Yes, I like it here. But it all depends on having good work; if I have it then I want to stay. If not, then I would choose to return to the USA.

What to you is good work?

It’s work that proceeds with certain, correct rules. Meanwhile, I have been looking for good work here, and recently I found a new job, and so far I am satisfied with it.

Your two interests, law and movies, at first glance do not have much in common; how does a lawyer start shooting movies?

One calls the film school and asks there for some soldiers fulfilling their military service obligations. [This is allowed for conscientious objectors and for others and these artist-soldiers are cheaper than professionals.] Also, when I studied in high school, I shot an 8mm short movie, and I had a little feeling that I ought to somehow continue with it. Between that film and the first one shot in Prague, there was the development of the computer and digital film technology which allowed me to continue. I’m not really the type who builds complicated sets and is thrilled by decorations and exteriors. I’m a victim of technology. I don’t even have any interest in mastering a particular [archaic] film-making form for the sake of conveying a message.

Your first film, Tennis Match, received several awards. How was it actually made?

That’s quite a fine story. One of my lawyer colleagues challenged me to a game of tennis. He was a bit arrogant and wanted to play because he knew that I had recently had a knee operation. I said, “Yeah, that’s not a bad idea but I can’t really move so I won’t be a good opponent.” So, I suggested that he play with his eyes covered and with peppers over his ears. He couldn’t see the ball, but he could hear it, sort of, when it would bounce near him. In return I promised that if he would win one volley he would be the winner. That was the first version of my little movie. Ten versions later, the movie was a fight between good and evil; filtered through Jewish mysticism and modern day marketing.

Do these two things go together at all?

Yes, through different associations. It’s only necessary to find them in it. When you are thinking about things like friendship and competition, considering their differences, it’s something different than when trying to find a language for film. Especially, when you are a stupid amateur who has, in addition to that, a bad knee.

We had almost no resources, so I turned to people who were serving their military service at FAMU [the famous film school in Prague which produced Milos Forman] and they helped me. Of course, I was working as a lawyer during the whole process, so I worked on it for about two years. Tennis Match won several gold medals at festivals and MTV bought the rights to it.

So you decided to shoot more movies?

I was pleasantly surprised that Czech Public Television approached me and offered me to shoot something similar. In some mysterious way, a young film-maker who is also a Czech Public Television film manager, Jan Gogola, found me and made me an offer. I think that he took a great risk with us, and I wasn’t so naive to think that I could, basically with little experience, shoot a work of genius. I just hope I didn’t disappoint them with FRICTION and that Czech Public Television won’t be privatized because of this.

We will see. You shot the first film thanks to FAMU; the second – FRICTION – in Czech Public Television; how did they help you the most?

They provided a portion of the money and services. One guy who races Ferraris gave us additional resources, and the rest came from me.

How much?

Altogether a million.

So you are well off?

Not anymore.

Did you choose the theme or did Czech Public Television choose it?

I picked five themes and submitted them to Czech Public Television. Along with Fester, for example, I proposed a tale about famous Prague dogs. One dog lived in Old Town Square, and when people clapped for the dog from below, the dog would prance out on the balcony and would take a bow. Another proposal was about a man who used to ice skate beautiful portraits of people on the frozen Vltava River during winters in the First Republic. I don’t remember the other proposals anymore.

Fester is an animated movie, made almost completely on computers, by digital technology. Did you also decide yourself about this?

I think because of Tennis Match Czech Public Television wanted the film to be made that way. For me it was a real miracle that a publicly funded network trusted me so much. Maybe Czechs don’t even know it, but they have a lot of expertise in computer post-production and animation work. My whole film, by itself, is a special effect, though it’s certainly hard to single out each actual special effect. And maybe it would interest you that in some moments we went further than Czech artists generally have. Generally, trick methods are used whereby one filmed shot is copied over and over, or several shots are combined into one picture, as, for example, was done in Dark Blue World. There are usually seven or eight layers in one shot [7 or 8 different tricks done on computer for one shot]. The movement of the dancer between each scene in FRICTION has about 65 different layers…

That’s maybe why, it seems to me, it is quite hard to follow the idea of the movie, that it really needs to be seen more than once…

That’s the risk I took. I had the same feeling. You know, Tennis Match reflects the universality of life by means that are uncomplicated. FRICTION, however, is a modernized version of the Kabinet of Dr. Caligari from the era of German Expressionism, an era that I really admire – or it’s analogous to Kabinet. When I watched Kabinet, I didn’t get it at all and I had to watch it several times. One of the conclusions of this movie was that society is ill and that people who appear in it are also sick.

I had a similar feeling from your film – depression and tiredness…

But I’m a very optimistic person! It’s only in relation to documenting somebody else’s moods. I had to influence others in the spirit of the mood that the documentary subject generated in me. Fester the chemist – the main character in the movie – is quite fried… In reality. He raises a lot of questions – who he is, how society functions, how he fits in society, and so on. He has probably quite a difficult life, and I hope that that comes through in the movie.

I would say that you weren’t really sure about the form?

I was thinking of how to show such an indefinite person. We didn’t want to document Fester’s life in the way that documentaries are usually made, but more to grasp some feeling and connection, something that approaches the esoteric -- the feeling that I had in Green Bay when I interviewed him. It was a mixture of disgust, admiration, contempt…and other related feelings. And feelings are hard to document. In the movie, allegories turn into metaphors and then return into allegories. After interviewing Fester, I made a transcript of the 70 hours of interviews with him [and that was the basis for the whole thing]. I understand that Fester will probably make some people quite nervous.

You also?

Somehow he does. When I met him initially face-to-face, I was very nervous. I managed to transfer that feeling into the movie. As a film-maker I am not obliged to advertize Fester’s books about chemical substances, and so I tried to make a myth out of him. I probably succeeded because most of the people who see this movie do not believe he’s real.

Where was the movie played?

It was shown successfully in Japan in the Tokyo Video Festival. That is the city in which 13 people died in a crazy chemical attack in the subway. We sent this movie to about 30 festivals but I don’t know which ones will show it yet. In any case – the movie won a gold medal recently in the San Francisco Doc Fest.

Congratulations. By the way, are you trying to learn from other film-makers?

I watched many documentaries before starting, but I have serious reservations about making them. Many of these films are really boring.

For example?

The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl, for example. When watching documentary biographies, you don’t learn much about that person, but more about history. I wanted to document, first of all, the person.

The main character of your movie FRICTION is a chemist who knows formulae for the production of chemical substances and weapons which are open to mis-use. How do you view him from a legal point of view?

It’s about what I told you already. The lawyer presents his view of the law to the judge, and the judge has to decide. The answer is, according to me, the same as the question: where is the gray zone between right and wrong? His right to publish his books had been unassailable. That’s why some lawyers would probably understand my movie as a celebration of the freedom of speech in America. Maybe it is, but I didn’t really try to make it that way. There is another interesting question – an institutional one, and that is – can American leaders continue to tolerate this type of literature? In short, I think that in 20 years my film will be banned.

Why?

Because with the new global era of terrorism, in which the less developed mis-use the scientific achievements of the developed, it will be rather difficult for the representatives of the developed to tolerate freedom of speech to this degree. Probably, all published literature will be under stricter control…

So you will probably have to shoot movies about safer people…Do you have any other theme?

Yes, I do. I would like to shoot a thriller about the Habsburg Monarchy. I’m fascinated by it.

That shouldn’t bother anybody?

I certainly hope not.

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