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doc talk | Peter Keough

Recalling how Jan Nemec changed history

A scene from Jan Nemec’s “Oratorio for Prague.”
A scene from Jan Nemec’s “Oratorio for Prague.” Facets.org

Jan Nemec, who died March 18 at the age of 79, was one of a generation of young filmmakers — others included Miloš Forman, Jirí Menzel, and Vera Chytilová — who set in motion the Czech New Wave of the 1960s.

His debut film, “Diamonds of the Night” (1964), an adaptation of Arnošt Lustig’s Holocaust novel, marked him as one of the most talented and original in the group. So did “Report on the Party and the Guests” (1966), a Buñuelesque allegory about a fête that degenerates into a sinister game. That film also drew the wrath of the Communist authorities, in part because the sadistic host of the party resembled Lenin. The film ended up on the censor’s shelf for the next 20 years.


Meanwhile, optimism still surged as the Czech New Wave converged with the 1968 “Prague Spring,” the period of political reform initiated by the Czech leader Alexander Dubcek. But both perished when Soviet tanks rolled in, crushing the dream of “Socialism with a human face” and the promise of a new cinema.

Nemec didn’t go down without a fight. Armed only with a camera, he took to the streets to film the brutal takeover. Smuggled out of the country, his documentary “Oratorio for Prague” was the first proof that the Soviet invasion was not by invitation of the Czech people, as was claimed. News programs around the world broadcast the footage, and in 1988 Philip Kaufman included it in his adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Nemec himself has a cameo in that film — as a documentarian interrogated for filming the invasion.

In real life, Nemec paid a heavy price for his courage. The new hardline regime banned him from making movies and did not allow him to leave the country until 1974. For the two decades after that he wandered the West unproductively and did not resume making films in earnest until he returned to his homeland after democracy was restored in the 1989 “Velvet Revolution.” Those films include “Code Name Ruby” (1997), which combined documentary, fiction, and the supernatural to create a collage of his country’s past, present, and future.


His last film, “The Wolf From Royal Vineyard Street,” just finished at the time of his death, will premiere in the Czech Republic on July 1.

An uncompromising visionary, Nemec exemplified the power of cinema to seize a moment in time, and sometimes to change history.

“Report on the Party and the Guests” is available on DVD at www.criterion.com. “Oratorio for Prague” and “Code Name Ruby” are available at www.facetsdvd.com.

TransFatty documentation

Patrick O’Brien had it together at age 30. Known as TransFatty, he was living it up as a DJ, an online personality, and an avant garde filmmaker. Then he was diagnosed with ALS. Though his brain would continue to function just fine, he’d gradually lose all motor control. He was told that he had two to five years to live.

Ten years later, he is releasing “TransFatty Lives,” a feature-length documentary about his personal journey, from his wild and crazy DJ days to his perhaps wilder and crazier days as a resident of the Leonard Florence Center for Living in Chelsea. On a ventilator, he still parties and goes to concerts and sporting events. He also fell in love and fathered a child. Now he’s made a rollicking, inventive film — just by moving his eyebrows, which is how he communicates.


“TransFatty Lives” has its local premiere on April 3 at 10 a.m. at the Revere Showcase Cinema. It is a special screening for the “ReelAbilities Film Festival,” which takes place at various venues April 3-14.

For more information go to www.reelboston.org.

Missed beat

Most people know about Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, but Beat poet Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) remains in obscurity. In part that is because Kaufman never thought much of fame and ambition, and following the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, he took a 10-year vow of silence. Also, much of his poetry was spontaneous and never written down. Yet its surreal strangeness and beauty earned him a reputation as the “American Rimbaud.”

Billy Woodberry’s documentary “And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead” redresses that injustice, exploring the tragic life and career of the half Jewish, half African American artist who combined politics and poetry in his haunting, visionary works. Woodberry draws on rare archival film and photographs of the North Beach, San Francisco Beat scene of the 1950s and combines them with interviews with Kaufman’s fellow poets and a subtle jazz soundtrack to evoke the mood and mind-set of a vibrant cultural era. Perhaps best of all are the film’s voice-over renderings of Kaufman’s verse, which are vivid reminders of his visionary work.

“And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead” screens on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive in the Carpenter Center. The filmmaker will be in attendance.


For more information go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2016marmay/woodberry.html.

All magicians are liars

James “The Amazing” Randi is not only a great illusionist but he is also one of the best at exposing illusionists who dupe the unwary (he won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant for his work in 1987). Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s documentary “An Honest Liar” profiles Randi and engages in some sleight of hand itself. Instructive, moving, and suspenseful, it screens Monday at 10 p.m. as part of the “Independent Lens” series on PBS.

For more information, including additional broadcast dates and times, go to www.wgbh.org/programs/Independent-Lens-5.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.