Everybody Needs Good Neighbours: Meet CaSFFA Juror Stephen A Russell
Everybody Needs Good Neighbours: Meet CaSFFA Juror Stephen A Russell

While it is certainly true that the citizens of our national capital of disputed dual nationality are now blessed with the glorious Czech and Slovak Film Festival (CaSFFA) annually, its spiritual home is, of course, the cinematically obsessed city of Melbourne.

It’s a movie-mad metropolis that I, myself a dual national (though, to the best of my knowledge, neither an MP nor a Senator of the Australian Parliament), have been proud to call home for almost a dozen years now, hailing originally from Glasgow. In that time, I have marvelled at the multicultural mix of the Victorian capital. In particular, my brave Scottish heart is warmed by the sheer breadth of international film on offer, no doubt as a natural consequence of that very excellent smorgasbord of now neighbouring nationalities.

A ridiculous wealth of foreign film reaches our shores each year, whether that’s through the mighty meritocracy of the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Gallic grace of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival or other such pillars of projected portals into other worlds, including the newer but no less necessary CaSFFA.

Some corners of our global filmic output I have been blessed to deep dive into for more than two decades now, first as a culture-hungry teen seeking out cinematic windows onto our wondrous wide world off the back of my meagre but well-guided pocket money, and then as a budding, now reasonably veteran journalist. Other pockets of our planet have been less readily available to me, and that truly is the brilliance of a passion-driven platform such as artistic director Cerise Howard’s fifth annual CaSFFA program. Through her carefully crafted annual showcase, I have been able to greatly increase my consumption of the cinematic output of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as their near neighbours.

The Cleaner

That has included memorable new movies like Peter Bebjak’s stylishly disorientating The Cleaner (Čistič), Jan Prušinovský’s blackly comic The Snake Brothers (Kobry a užovky) and the stirring Pavol Demitra documentary 38, directed by Daniel Dangl and Lukáš Zednikovič. I relished last year’s FIPRESCI prize and AFCA Award-winning Eva Nova (Eva Nová) by writer/director Marko Škop, and the festival has also introduced me to a rich vein of celluloid history through classics like Václav Vorlíček’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Kdo chce zabít Jessii?) and Pictures of the Old World (Obrazy starého sveta, pictured above), Dušan Hanák’s haunting documentary inspired by Martin Martinček’s black and white photography.

Eva Nova

It’s been a truly welcome awakening, and as my love of Czech and Slovak film deepens and broadens, I’ve come to anticipate this time of year eagerly. Given the rich cinematic output available in my surrogate hometown and the vibrant mix of nations who have similarly come to call Melbourne – and, indeed, Australia – home, the choice of ‘Neighbours’ as this year’s overarching theme seems particularly pertinent. This even if it does somewhat amusingly call to mind my teenage devouring of a certain suburban cul-de-sac-set soap opera that offered a sunny escape from occasionally inclement Scottish weather and featured an ear-wormingly cheery theme tune that is now stuck in my head once more.

That’s part of the beauty of CaSFFA, really. No, not its tenuous link to Australian teen television, but rather that it continues to honour the enduring friendship of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, nations that share an incredible history and have provided the world with so many excellent movies.

The Cremator (dir. Juraj Herz, 1968)

I’m truly honoured to have been asked to play a hands-on role this year, joining the AFCA jury which will deliberate on the best new movie on offer this year, so I’ll refrain from tipping my hat as to which of the latest batch has me most excited. I will say that I’m thoroughly looking forward to diving headlong into this year’s impressive line-up and, of the old kids on the block, I’m particularly thrilled about the Juraj Herz retrospective hosted in conjunction with the Melbourne Cinémathèque. CaSFFA 2017 is bound to be another magnificent whirlwind of new ideas and alternate perspectives on the past and I am ever grateful to Cerise and the gang for their tireless work that truly enriches the cultural calendar in both Melbourne and Canberra.

Stephen A Russell

Stephen A Russell is a freelance arts journalist with a passion for film whose work can be found care of Fairfax and SBS, The New Daily, The Music and The Lowdown Under, among other reputable sources of cultural criticism. You can also hear his dulcet Scottish brogue and wayward snorts courtesy of Joy 94.9, Radio National and Noosa FM.