When No One Is Returning: The Films of Karel Vachek

by robbiefreeling
June 4, 2009 2:41 AM
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The Czech Republic’s European Union presidency started with a bang in January with the controversy over David Černý’s sculpture “Entropa,” installed in the European Parliament and featuring Bulgaria as a Turkish toilet, Sweden as an Ikea box, and France permanently on strike. And before the country’s six months in the Brussels spotlight are up, the work of another of its artistic provocateurs, documentarian Karel Vachek, will be on view in the United States, in retrospectives of his documentaries at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Made between 1963 (the very beginning of the Prague Spring) and 2006 (two years after the Czech Republic’s accession to the EU), the films offer a wide-ranging chronicle of forty years of political and social change in one corner of Central Europe, refracted through the director’s trademark hybrid of cinema vérité, performance, and philosophy.

Vachek has been in the States twice before—once with a retrospective of his long-format documentaries of the Nineties in 2002, and once twenty years earlier when, banned from filmmaking in his home country, he moved to Jersey City. After returning to Czechoslovakia in 1984, Vachek tended high-pressure boilers and drove delivery trucks until being allowed to work as a filmmaker again after the collapse of the communist government in1989. “I leave when no one is leaving and I return when no one is returning, and I think that that is my fundamental life situation,” he says in his 2004 book The Theory of Matter.

The hubris of this title is partly serious, partly performative—an attitude reflected in all of Vachek’s work, which extends beyond his films and book to performance, painting, and pedagogy. Click here to read the rest of Alice Lovejoy's article on the films of Karel Vachek.


Karel Vachek’s films screen in the series “Karel Vachek: Poet Provocateur” at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA, from Sunday May 31 to Sunday June 28, with the director in person on June 21 and 24. From June 6 – 27, the series “The Film Novels of Karel Vachek” screens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, with the director in person June 27.

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