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Czech Republic: Oscar-Winning Director Becomes National Hero

  • Jolyon Naegele



Prague, 9 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The director of this year's year's Oscar winner for best foreign film, "Kolya," says Czechs treat him differently now that he has won an Academy Award.

Describing his return to Prague and the crowds that greeted him at the airport last month, Jan Sverak says he feels like the first Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.

"Like Gagarin, I am a national hero who came back from space," he said.

Sverak made the comments in Prague yesterday during a visit to the studios of RFE/RL.

The young director, whose first film, "Elementary School," was nominated for an Oscar three years ago, says there was no way to seek U.S. financing for "Kolya" because the subject matter was so different from what American studios and producers are looking for. He says he was interested in how the character of an old man was changed by a four-year-old boy.

"It was about Czech and Russian friendship, a Czech man and a Russian boy, a film made in the Czech language, and it was set during the Communist regime in Europe and no one cares anymore about this subject. So it was a problem to persuade the European co-producers that we can't make this film in the English language because a lot of jokes are based on the difference between the Russian and Czech languages," he said.

At the start it was far from clear that "Kolya" could make money and be marketed abroad, says Sverak. He says Czech distributers said no one would go to a film about a Russian. They begged him not to name the film "Kolya" after the little boy because moviegoers would assume it is a Russian film and avoid it.

Ever since the film's U.S. distributer acquired "Kolya" last year, Sverak says he has been deluged with some 40 scripts from U.S. studios interested in making a film with him. He says he still does not know what his next film will be. He notes that his father, Zdenek, who wrote the screenplay for Kolya and played the role of the old Czech, is currently writing a script which he may use.

Sverak says he is afraid of going to Hollywood to shoot a film because "in Europe, the director is the author of the film, while in America, the director is mostly a hired hand to make the product."

Sverak says he would prefer to make English-language films in Europe, where he says "no one can tell the director what to do." He says that English-language audiences viewing a subtitled version of Kolya understand about 70 percent of the jokes and information conveyed in the film. He says this shortcoming could be resolved by re-shooting the film in English.

Sverak notes that making films in the Czech Republic is not profitable because of the small audience of Czech speakers and the low price of movie tickets -- the equivalent of $1 or $1.50.

Sverak says Czech cinema faces a crisis since most people prefer to stay home and watch television than go to the movies. He notes that in Russia, the poor maintenance of movie houses has contributed to a collapse of movie-going as people prefer to buy cheap, pirated videos than sit in "filthy, smelly, dangerous movie houses."

Asked what effect his Oscar will have on the Czech film industry, Sverak says the prize benefits Czech directors in a variety of ways by building their self-confidence and by building investors's trust in the future of Czech cinema. He says "Kolya's" Oscar will also contribute to the success of future Czech films on foreign markets.

Sverak says that "Kolya's" Oscar means that the barrier that Czech films cannot work anywhere else but in the Czech Republic has been broken. He notes the film has not yet been released in Russia because the offers so far have been very low.
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