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IFFR 2020

Adam Oľha • Co-director of Athanor – The Alchemical Furnace

“We had an opportunity to witness the process of creation from up close and over a long period of time”


- We talked to Adam Oľha, one of the co-directors of the documentary Athanor – The Alchemical Furnace, about the process of capturing how foremost Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer creates art

Adam Oľha  • Co-director of Athanor – The Alchemical Furnace

Cineuropa sat down with Slovakian documentarian Adam Oľha, one of the co-directors of the documentary Athanor – The Alchemical Furnace [+see also:
interview: Adam Oľha
film profile
, to talk about the process of capturing how foremost Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer creates his art. Oľha studied documentary filmmaking at FAMU, and has worked on documentaries by Lucie Králová, Jan Sacher and Pavel Abrahám, as well as for Czech Television. In addition, he shot a feature-length documentary about his family, called New Life of Family Album. He worked on The Alchemical Furnace, which screened at the recent IFFR, with Jan Daňhel.

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Cineuropa: Can you reveal more about the genesis of the project The Alchemical Furnace?
Adam Oľha:
Jan Švankmajer decided to use documentary footage in Insect [+see also:
film review
interview: Jan Švankmajer
film profile
. He wanted to have a “making of” made about his previous projects, but at that point he knew that the footage would wind up in the film as a natural part of it. He referred to it as an objective kind of humour that originates from unpredictable situations during the shoot. Countless hours of footage were shot, from which Jan Daňhel and I constructed the basis for Insect after the movie was filmed. It was a starting point for a deeper kind of immersion. Jaromír Kallista [the producer of Švankmajer’s films] told us during the shoot that it would be good to make a film about production company Athanor, where their works have been made since 1987.

We had a unique opportunity to witness the process of creation from up close and over a long period of time. The shooting continued naturally and organically. Švankmajer is done with making features; however, since then, he has written two novels, and he is currently working on his third book. He devotes his time to free-spirited creation and travelling. We all agreed that we didn’t want to do a biographical portrait, but rather an immersion in the process of how he creates his art. We started to shoot the film back in 2017, and we looked back in time as far as Švankmajer’s childhood.

How did Švankmajer react when he found out that he was going to be the subject of a documentary?
He would not have started shooting a film about himself by himself; in fact, he wouldn’t even have thought about it, since he surely has more important things to do. I believe the crucial trigger came from producer Jaromír Kallista, who realised that it was time to reveal what goes on behind the scenes to the world. Švankmajer agreed, and he let us shoot in the spirit of “objective humour” during the period that followed, without making any interventions or suggestions as to what should or should not be in the film.

I believe the most important factor was that Jan Daňhel is a member of the surrealistic group and that they have known each other for over 20 years. There was already a bond of trust between them, so we were able to skip the mandatory definition of roles. The movie is about the process of creation, and creation is in constant flux.

There are several parallel storylines in the documentary; how did you make the final selection?
We had a lot of footage – I don’t dare say how many hours precisely, but it was over 100. We spent the majority of our time watching the footage and selecting scenes that we would mercilessly cut out. That took about half a year. The editing itself was a rollercoaster ride. We told ourselves that we wanted the film to be independent in form, so that it would not be an attempt to copy Jan Švankmajer’s signature style. We knew that we wanted to proceed in terms of three principles that are mutually intertwined, as in the case of alchemy. Specifically, these were Jan Švankmajer, Jaromír Kallista and Eva Švankmajerová, who completes the triangle. However, a very important element was the whole surrealistic group – Jan Švankmajer’s second family.

A very surprising and touching passage in the film is about Švankmajer’s wife and collaborator, Eva Švankmajerová. He had not talked about her or their relationship in public before.
Švankmajer did not talk about his wife Eva publicly; however, in his last book, Cesty spasení [lit. “Roads of Salvation”] – which also served as one of our sources of inspiration and which contains excerpts from his diaries – he does write about her. He is connected and fused with her completely, both professionally and privately, and naturally, that piqued our interest. We didn’t expect him to talk about her to the degree you see in the film. I think she is an immensely important figure in his life whom he can ceaselessly relate to, even after her death. He started to talk about her unprompted and just went on. At that moment, we knew that he probably wanted to have it on record somehow.

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