The Filmmaker's Journal


In my third year of the MFA Film Production program at the University of Southern California, Communism crumbled in Eastern Europe. On the morning of November 20, 1989, the front page of the Los Angeles Timesblared "Regime Reels As Czechs Protest." In the coming weeks, freedom finally came to my Czech relatives, whom I had visited for the first time in 1983. I knew that I wanted to go to Prague and make a film about how their lives were changing.  I took a leave of absence from USC and quickly tried to figure out what I was going to do.

Out of necessity, I decided to shoot it myself, as well as do sound recording.  I bought an old CP-16 film camera (these days digital video would be the way to go), a Sennheiser ME-80 shotgun mike, and a Sony Pro Walkman, and had it crystal-synched so the sound and film would match at 24 frames per second. I called Ross McElwee, who made Sherman's Marchwith a similar set-up, and he gave me helpful tips on how to work it out.  Shooting as as a "one man crew" would make the filming much more intimate, which is what I was after. If possible, I might be able to find a sound person at the the film school in Prague.  By March I was ready to go. 

What Am I Doing?
Thursday March 8

I'm on Czechoslovak Airlines Flight 755 to Prague. Made the nine hour flight from Los Angeles to London, and now I'm thirty minutes from being in Prague. All this planning and now I'm finally here. Arrived plenty early at LAX. Carried a loaded magazine of film onto the plane to possibly shoot upon arrival in Prague. I avoided getting my film x-rayed in Los Angeles but no such luck at Heathrow. After the Lockerbie air bombing everything gets x-rayed, no matter what.

At Heathrow I waited in the duty-free area for my connecting flight to come up with a gate number. Finally it did, and as I sat down at the gate I looked at a group of homebound Czechs (mostly smokers). As I watched them chatting and smoking I thought to myself, "This is all so ordinary! What's this film going to be about? What am I doing?"

I guess anxiety is normal. Once on the plane to Prague, I had no idea what the food was that they were serving. Already I'm wondering if I should film my meeting with Vladka at the airport or wait a bit. It would be without sound, since my tape recorder is packed away.

Oh man. Talk about rushing headlong into the unknown.

First Day
Friday March 9

Been up for a day and a half, though I did sleep a little on the plane. Customs took awhile. Changing money-- confusion. The money changing rules are still Communist.

I misunderstood and thought the fellow behind the window said I could change a small amount of money every couple of days. But what he was really saying was that if I did that then I could only stay in the country for three days. This was the Communist government's way of making sure visitors exchanged a nice amount of foreign currency, and didn't exchange it all on the black market. They made you change money for the amount of days you were staying. So I changed money for a month's stay, at a pretty crappy rate, though I'm staying for four months.

I AM HERE. Vladka looks great. She and her father Vladimir were waiting outside of customs. Vladimir hugged me and pinned a Vaclav Havel pin (former persecuted playright and recently elected President) to my jacket. We tied most of my equipment to the baggage carrier on top of his battered old car. I was tempted to pull out my camera, but was exhausted-- and it just didn't feel right to start filming. I want to ease into it. Not be too pushy with the camera.

Upon arriving at the apartment Vladka suddenly said she had to go to an English class, and she asked me if I'd like to go too. No, I replied. I have my phrase book in case I need to ask Jirka or Vladimir for something. She was surprised. It turned out she wanted me to go with her to meet her boyfriend, Radek. She didn't want to tell me this in front of her parents, who don't approve. I found this out after we left.

We caught a tram to Radek's place. He was just leaving as we arrive. We go out to eat and talk. They both say great things about the changes in their country. "Freedom is great-- political freedom is just ideas. People are so used to standing around not really having to work, so now they don't know how. They are standing in a group touching the surface of a new door, but they don't know what to do. What is this new thing? How to deal with it?"

Then on to a disco-- really like a small disco in the United States-- the same young, trendy people. I am so incredibly excited about being here, in the midst of history. Jirka, Vladka's mother, is as funny as ever. It still is not real.

Getting My Bearings
Saturday March 10

Slept most of the day. Jet lag has left me in a perpetual stupor. Hopefully I'm shaking it off. Vladka was at work part of the day, so Jirka (Vladka's mother) and I tried to communicate. She flipped through my Czech-English dictionary trying to explain what she thought of Radek, that he was "impertinent," etc. It might make a funny scene to film, her flipping through the dictionary, looking up at me trying to explain things. I just don't know how personal, how much of me, I want in the film. It's a whole new aspect, though some of that would be okay. Hmm. I think I do need to be in it, maybe in episodes, but with large sections attempting to be verite.

David (Vladka's younger brother) came home from the army on holiday. He has grown a lot and is much different from the young boy I remember last time I was here. Jirka came into my room and woke me up this morning, with David following behind her. Took me by surprise. We all went to their garden outside of Prague. The garden has a little hut with beds, stove, heater, etc. Very cozy. We sat and broke walnuts, drank tea and talked about the future. Vladka wants to get a joint venture going, with other parties outside Czechoslovakia, and try and get a restaurant started. I definitely want to follow that. She and Radek seem to be "partners" in the new economic situation.

I want to be filming already, like in the garden house, and with David home-- but it would be too soon. We can make a trip to the garden again once I start filming. Perhaps I'll get the camera out tomorrow and just set it up. So they can see it and start getting used to it. I'm thinking less and less that I want a sound person -- it's hard enough for me to feel comfortable about filming. A stranger would make it harder. I see this film as a very intimate look at one family and friends in Prague, not a big outlook on the political situation.

March 12, Monday

Went with Vladka to meet with Mr. Ciste, an agricultural big wig who can make things happen for Vladka, Radek and their Syrian investor friend who wants to open a restaurant and hotel in Prague. I wished that I could have turned my eyes into a camera, because this guy and his partner were great. Each was in a sparse room on one side of a long table, on which was one phone, some papers and a little calendar. The partner kept dialing the phone, listening, then hanging up. Finally he got through-- and then he spoke English! "Hello Klaus!" Man, it would have been great to film. But Vladka is meeting them next Monday, and she thinks they wouldn't mind if I film them. I hope I can. It would be great with subtitles.

I could have shot today. It crossed my mind, but you can't push too hard. Now these guys have met me at least. Still, Mr. Ciste asked Vladka what area of economics she was studying, and she replied, "I'm not sure yet. They haven't decided what to call it." Priceless.

Also met Alice this afternoon, a friend of Vladka's. She works at Barrandov Studios; she's the clapper person. I think she was flirting with me.

Tonight Jirka and I had a discussion, however stunted, about Vladka and Radek. She asked if I had been to his apartment. What could I say? I said yes. She was upset, because she has never been there, and I have. I tried to explain that Vladka has foolish fears about what they think of Radek. Jirka said Radek was no good-- neni dobre. I have become the go between and I don't like it. I try to be as diplomatic as possible. Well, at least I have a conflict for the film.

First Roll of Film
March 16, Friday

I'm on a weekend trip to Munich with Vladka and Radek. I shot my first roll of film yesterday in the car. A short interview with Vladka in the car about coming to Germany and then the two of them interacting in the car. Also at a rest stop-- a more extensive interview with Vladka, except I had the damn Walkman in pause the whole time so...I have to NOT use the pause button. Better to roll a lot of tape and get it than to try and conserve and not get the goddamn sound.

I don't know how much of this trip will be usable in the final film, but it was good to get the camera out and film with Vladka. She is very at ease in front of the camera, amazingly so. She asks if she can help me out with the equipment. Radek is more outwardly amused by it all. I need to carry the camera around more; the thing is heavy. I need to find an average setting for the sound level and not worry about it while I'm filming. It's hard to worry about focus, sound -- and ask pertinent questions. Difficult first shoot cause we were on the move.

Every Day Is An Adventure
March 19, Monday

I've forgotten how it is to be in Europe. Every day can be such an unexpected adventure. Today I met Dan, Vladka's friend from Romania, who, after taking me to a cafe in the main Prague train station to wait for Vladka, revealed that he apparently had one of the three remaining "lost" copies of the Declaration of Independence. His father found it in his grandfather's attic. Dan would like me to call the U.S. Embassy in Prague to try and arrange for Dan to meet someone at the embassy in Bucharest. He would like to get a U.S. visa and go to the states to get the document authenticated.

Pretty wild. I'm quite curious about the reaction I'll get from the embassy. Dan has been unable to even approach the U.S. Embassy in Romania because of the intense interest people have in going to America. I said I'd be happy to help. He offered to pay me money if the document was real, etc. I said no. He said that he would like to help Vladka with money then. I did say that if he would be in my film, in an interview - that would be fine. Could make a wacky segment. Who knows, maybe he has the real thing. His grandfather was in the United States in 1903.

Vladka came in a bit ago and sat down to talk. She doesn't think people here are ready to really work. They have had it easy-- getting a wage for not really working very hard. Great stuff. I'd like to have her say on camera. People don't realize that all the wonderful things under capitalism are a result of hard work. She also talked about the lack of feminist thought here. She wants me to tell Radek what it's like in the U.S.

(Journal entry two weeks later) Dan returned with the document. Unfortunately I had to tell him that it was a souvenir-- an antique-- but still a souvenir. His grandfather must have bought it at a gift shop while visiting D.C. Dan insisted on going to the U.S. Embassy. So we did, and a bemused official confirmed my sad news.

The Filmmaker's Journal-- Continued

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