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The Iron Lady of Czech cinema

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Věra Chytilová (ČTK): On her 80th birthday, director Věra Chytilová received a medal from Prague's Academy of Performing Arts. (ČTK)On her 80th birthday, director Věra Chytilová received a medal from Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts. (ČTK)

Sometimes called “the Margaret Thatcher of Czech cinema”, director Věra Chytilová is almost as famous for her spicy personality as for her experimental style and patently feminist themes. Since she emerged on the Czech New Wave scene in the early 1960s, Chytilová has nabbed awards and accolades at film festivals in as far flung cities as Bergamo and Chicago. She is perhaps best known for her film Daisies, which helped usher in what some consider to be the Golden Age of Czech cinema, just before the Soviet invasion in 1968. On Monday Chytilová, who still makes movies, turned 80 years old.

Born in Ostrava, Chytilová entered the Czech film industry rather late in her career, after first studying architecture and philosophy at Charles University in Brno. She entered the acclaimed Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) in 1957 and graduated in 1962 at the age of thirty-three.

Short-lived freedom

Breaking boundaries with unique uses of color, sound, cinematography, as well as her use of montage and non-actors, coupled with her feminist and sociopolitical messages, Chytilová’s films soon drew the watchful eye of the Czechoslovak government. In 1966 the communist regime banned her most famous work, Daisies because of its depiction of wasting food, “the fruit of the work of our toiling farmers”. The film follows two girls who decide that the world is going bad and so they too should “go bad”. The vibrant use of color, camera techniques, and witty dialogue cemented Chylitová’s international reputation when released just a year later.

But the relative freedom enjoyed by Chytilová and other directors was short-lived. In 1968, Soviet tanks rolled through Czechoslovakia, bringing with them massive changes that centralized and restructured the film industry, increasing its censorial control and discouraging unorthodox forms of art, sending fellow directors and contemporaries such as Miloš Forman into exile.

Although Chytilová remained in Czechoslovakia, her work became the target of political censorship and many of her films were ,”shelved”, or never released or completed due to government restrictions. Beginning in 1969 and lasting for the next seven years, Chytilová was unable to produce or direct films, attend foreign film festivals, or work with foreign producers, and her scripts were often rejected or ignored.

After years of never completing another film, Chytilová sent a letter to the Czech President Gustav Husák explaining her plight and the problems she encountered while trying to find work. Asserting her loyalty to socialism, Chytilová explained in her letter: “I regret that I have to tell you that I am still the victim of unfair discrimination, even though there is not the slightest justification for this because it is clear that all the opposition to me is based on a mixture of false assumption, personal hostility, and male chauvinism.” A year after sending the letter, Chytilová released a new film, a feminist comedy called Apple Game.

Fighting for funding

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Chytilová has been a strong advocate for centralizing the Czech film industry. Currently a private institution, the film industry suffers from a lack of funding and difficulties releasing movies internationally. She’s felt the monetary squeeze first hand, as Chytilová has been unable to find funding for her pet-project, Face of Hope, about the writer Božena Němcová.

In the meantime, Chytilová has continued to make movies, and has dabbled in different genres of film, including producing documentaries for television. And she has not shown any signs of ending her career soon. In an interview with the Prague Post said “I’d like to retire from filming, but then I always find another subject to look into,” though critics have been less kind to Chytilová over the past few years, claiming that she has lost her touch and her flare for film has progressively dimmed.

Despite the critics’ opinions, Chytilová will be regarded at any age as one of the greatest directors in Czech history.

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