They make great documentaries in the Czech Republic. If this is news to you, that’s ok. It was news to me as well. In anticipation of the nation’s biggest cinema event, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Doc Alliance has curated a handful of recent films for you to stream for free for the next two weeks (through July 13th). It’s not so much a primer on the history of Czech documentary as it is a taking of the current pulse, a showcase of the best work from the last couple of years. All six of the films selected (Show!, The Story of Mr. Love, Treating History, Fragments of P.K. and Year Without Magor — Genius Cannot Be Faked) are clever, compelling and concise. But one of them rises above the rest.
Ivo Bystrican’s Byeway does not sound at first like the most exciting endeavor. Its description on the Doc Alliance page simply reads: “This is a movie about Czechs building a highway to Germany.” Yet as it turns out, building a road can be a controversial affair. The project in question is the last link in the D8, the long-planned highway from Berlin to Prague. Most of it was completed ages ago, but for a variety of political and logistical reasons a single 16km stretch through the Central Bohemian Uplands, a nature reserve, remains unbuilt. As a result, people have been fighting over this comparatively short stretch of theoretical road for years.
Byeway is a profile of the highway, the region and all of the various players in this endless argument. First are the men who are currently building the pylons and laying down the concrete, harried but remarkably stoic. On the other side of the fence is the environmental activist whose organization has challenged the project in court. Appropriately Kafkaesque, it turns out that the Czech government has done a terrible job with the permits, making things even more of a hassle for everyone. Finally there are the people of the region. The lack of a highway has redirected all of the truck traffic to their residential streets. It’s been that way for years now. The entire province has a massive noise-induced headache.
Admirably and impressively, Bystrican keeps this all relatively light. The environmentalist, completely out of touch with the people of the region he is ostensibly trying to protect, becomes a hilarious figure of good intentions and total confusion. The local residents, with their enormous noise-cancelling headphones and collective outrage, manage to stay surprisingly good-humored. This is a country that survived four decades of Communism, after all.
Finally, Byeway has moments of truly staggering beauty. Taking a cue from the poem that Richard Wagner wrote about the area back in the 19th century, Bystrican uses the German composer’s music in a number of wordless sequences that feel like something out of an IMAX nature film, only with more thematic significance. There are aerial shots that seem impossible for a documentary of this scale. It’s the icing on the cake of a funny, wry and very intelligent film and the best use of Wagner since Melancholia.
Watch it below while available.