The Czech Development Agency will screen the new full-length Czech documentary, The Ark of Lights and Shadows, at the French Institute in Prague on May 22 at 7 pm. The film, which currently has a rating of 86 percent at the csfd.cz ratings site, will be screened in Czech with English subtitles.
A discussion in Czech, with film director Jan Svatoš, and with Jan Blinka, who is responsible for CzechAid projects in Ethiopia and Zambia, will take place after the film.
Admission to the event is free, but the limited capacity means that anyone interested will have to book a seat at the French Institute website.
The film is about the almost forgotten documentary filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson, a married couple who went on adventures in Africa, the Pacific and other then-remote locations in the 1910s to ’30s.
“I first encountered the story of Martin and Osa in 2008 when I was studying at FAMU (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts), where I came across a reference to two documentaries made by a certain Martin Johnson in the textbooks. I was surprised by the year in which they were made because most of the African films at that time were shot in studios in the US or Europe and had very little to do with authenticity,”Svatoš said.
“I came across the [Martin and Osa Johnson] Safari Museum in Kansas after a detailed investigation of the available materials, and the management team there was enthusiastic about us working together,” he added, explaining the initial impulse to shoot the documentary. The museum was established in 1961 to preserve the filmmakers’ legacy.
Svatoš made the film after almost 10 years of preparation, background research and explorations of film archives, including the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Before shooting the almost unknown story of film pioneers there was a photographic expedition to Kenya in 2010, which resulted in the award-winning documentary Africa obscura.
“The film was more or less the story of photography as a visual medium. I organized a photographic expedition at that time and went to northern Kenya with some old analogue technology. We were aiming for some sort of photographic catharsis, and in the forgotten corners of dry northern Kenya at that. Whereas in Africa obscura we were looking for the actual places where the Johnsons worked or visited, in Ark of Lights and Shadows we focused on their lives and legacy in broader contexts,” Svatoš said.
The documentary Ark of Lights and Shadows is not only the first to present unique archive footage from Africa taken during the 1920s and 1930s, but also aims to recall the remarkable lives of the Johnsons and their modern way of thinking, close to the contemporary concepts of humanism and environmental protection.
“Although the Johnsons lived during the last century, we are connected to them by a great many topical issues of today. Their story is one of overcoming stereotypes, human courage, protecting the wild, respect for other nations and a devoted marriage, the power of Hollywood and the irony of fate,” Svatoš added.
The key moment that led to the creation of the film was cooperation with staff at the Safari Museum in Kansas, who allowed the filmmakers to use archive material.
This cooperation was helped considerably by events in 2010, when the Czech filmmakers found the Johnsons’ darkroom in the middle of the forest on Mount Marsabit, something that not even a National Geographic expedition had managed to do. It was not easy to find enough money to shoot the film. Support from the State Cinematography Fund was joined by a crowdfunding campaign.
Svatoš was also helped by a meeting with renowned director Werner Herzog, with whom he discussed the picture when it was under preparation. “I understood from this that absolute creative freedom is worth the down time in production. That it is a good idea to stop working on a film for a while, earn some more money and then go back to it,” Svatoš said.
The extent to which the story of the Johnsons have been forgotten is quite surprising. At the time, they were celebrities on the same level as Charlie Chaplin or Jack London, and the British royal family had no hesitation in traveling to Kenya to visit them. Nonetheless, their story was never captured on film.
All there was, in fact, was a French television report about them in the 1990s. On the other hand, of course, the Johnsons are latently present in other films they directly or indirectly inspired, such as the well-known films about Elsa the lioness, Robert J. Flaherty’s very first documentary Nanook of the North, and Tarzan, in which authentic footage of African animals taken by Martin Johnson was used.
Their archive footage is now highly valued in Kenya and in Vanuatu and Borneo as the oldest cinematographic footage of those areas. The Johnsons nighttime photographs also inspired Captain Robert Obrein of the Kenya Wildlife Service to come up with a revolutionary system of monitoring the last 78 black rhinos, while images of Sabah, Malaysia, were used to restore buildings that had been destroyed by Japanese bombing during World War II.
The Johnsons’ message might seem something of a paradox in light of the rising popularity of mass tourism to the wilds of Africa and its down side. After all, the Johnsons promoted photography at the expense of the intensive big game hunting that was unsustainably practiced by the Western elite in Africa at the time. Africa is now faced with the opposite problem – that of mass tourism, with the camera again playing a leading role.
“I was personally brought to their story by an awful experience from my first trip to Africa in 2007. It was then that I witnessed a queue to see a leopard surrounded by about 15 cars and I saw how the photographers were willing to break the rules and put the animals at risk just to get a good snap. I now travel to Africa mostly to see friends, including those I have among the natives. In my view it is sometimes better to put the camera down and just look or listen. That momentary pause in taking photos often has a greater influence on getting the desired pictures than just unimaginatively pressing the button,” Svatoš said.
The event, organized by the Czech Development Agency will be held to mark Africa Day.