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Palacký University
05-04-2015, 13:12, Age: 9 y.

AFO – The University’s Fifty-Carat Gem

By: Pavel Konečný

Academia Film Olomouc is in very good shape for a fifty-year-old. Its veins are full of young blood and the estimate of its longevity is that of civilisation itself. This is how Matěj Dostálek, its new director, characterised the festival of science documentary films, now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. AFO is in its prime.

“It’s my dream come true, it’s exactly how I wanted AFO to be,” announced Vice-Rector Petr Bilík, who was behind the major changes to the festival in 2007.

AFO was born in 1966, on the initiative of Petr Kudela, at that time a programmer of the Prague Short Film Festival. The festival of science documentaries was a part of the celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of the restoration of the university. Students took part in the organisation of the festival from the very first year. The festival was divided into one day for medical films, one day for films on natural sciences, and one day for films on sociology. The last day of the festival was for films on popular science. At nights there were public screenings.

Taken for granted

Rostislav Hladký, a former AFO director and currently the University Chancellor, says the academic community soon took it for granted. “Over time it seemed that the festival just exists, that somehow it works and will go on working happily, forever. Representatives of the faculties and university supported it pro forma, but when it came to brass tacks like finding a space for it, and especially the financing and taking an active part in the festival, it all fell through,” he described. As a student, he took part in the festival in the 1970s.

All the festival directors who came in with “new blood” shared the same fate. “I worked at Academia Film since I was a freshman, carrying the film canisters from one cinema to the other. Finally, in 1998, I became its director for the next three years,” remembers Jan Schneider from the Department of Czech Studies, that also played a role in the festival’s beginning. Another member of the department, Eduard Petrů, was a long-time organiser of AFO.

Today Schneider says it is fitting that the festival has been taken over by the Department of Theatre and Film Studies. “The people who took it over are those who have a legitimate interest in the festival and they have wrested it from its autonomous status. There was no desire on the part of officials to support the festival. Its organisation was cumbrous, too institutionalised, and with too many narrow rules,” remembers Schneider.

Film directors whose works had been banned in the dolorous totalitarian years had a special affection for AFO in those days. They were not allowed to shoot feature films, but documentaries were tolerated. And so a number of important Czech filmmakers such as Alan František Šulc and Olga Sommerová travelled to Olomouc. After the Velvet Revolution, icons of world filmmaking began to come here, too. Under Schneider’s direction, the first such was the British documentary filmmaker of Australian origin, Clive James.

A blind alley

AFO fell into a crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. First there was the arrival of video, when AFO became an exhibition of instructional films; a decade later, it was forced to search for its own identity.

“The festival did not react to the changes in technology, so I fell into my own trap when as Director of the Information Centre in 1996, I proposed that part of the festival be made up of multimedia projects,” Hladký illustrated. This catapulted him into the role of AFO Director. He added that he was relieved to hand the festival over to Schneider a few years later.

“When I was a student, they showed films that were unwatchable. Some of them I even had to introduce, such as “Arterial Perfusion in Orofacial Areas” and “Lubricating Chainsaws with Vegetable-Based Oils” – which shows you we were racing down a blind alley,” remembers Vice-Rector Bilík. He stated that the festival often invited guests who never met with the public… because nobody bothered to show up.

Lack of audience was something that the organisers of the first AFO also complained about. Fifty years later, AFO broke its own audience record. Just like last year, and the year before, and the year before that.

Bigger or better?

The penultimate AFO director, Jakub Korda, maintains that record audiences are not everything. “Before, AFO was less oriented on younger audiences. We wanted to get students to fill the seats voluntarily, which is what happened. Today students go to AFO on their own, and one can read on the social networks how much they are looking forward to the six-day festival,” Korda said.

This year’s AFO had 5800 accredited viewers, and many more attended without accreditation. And all for free. “The quality of the festival is not about the audience numbers, it is about the quality of the programme, and the quality of the films in competition. Every year we have our pick and the greatest problem is that we have to refuse so many quality films. It’s enough to make the programmers shed tears,” Korda revealed. Last year he handed over the reins to Matěj Dostálek.

“AFO in the future could easily be more modest, and to no detriment. Its mission is to serve the university and its students. It does not have to get bigger and bigger. I don’t want it to fill stadiums, that is not the path to satisfy its audience. I would like to see AFO as more intimate,” Dostálek said.

The new director agrees with Korda that invited guests are essential. Not only that popularisers of science come to Olomouc, but that they will return. “Before they leave, they take a look at their calendars to see when AFO will take place next year,” Korda remarked.

Dostálek has in mind special lectures by such experts. “So that they would be heard here and nowhere else. The idea is that important guests would meet once a year in Olomouc. So that everyone in the field world-wide knows that if they want to talk to somebody important, they’ll be at AFO in April,” Dostálek added.

Not a university festival, a European festival

A fundamental change occurred in 2007. “It never ceases to amaze me how I started trying to convince everybody that we ought to consider AFO as a festival of popular science documentaries. I remember their shock and blanket refusal. This was a genre which was of no interest to them at all,” remembered Bilík.

Until that time, AFO was riding the wave of documentary films because it had lost its bearings on popular science in the previous period. “I wanted to support documentary films as a discussion on social problems. So that they were more a mirror on science than just a popularisation. The questions which surround science are ethical and moral – genetic engineering, smart weapons, and so on,” Schneider said, defending his concept.

After Schneider, Hladký took over the festival again. “I wanted the festival to be in the interests of the city, the Olomouc region, and Czech Television,” Hladký remembered. In that time he also transformed AFO by finding multiple sources of funding. And together with David Hrbek, he radically extended the accompanying programme, which had its apex in the visit of the American singer Suzanne Vega to Olomouc in 2006. Hladký was awarded the Olomouc Region Award for AFO at that time.

But the Department of Theatre and Film Studies wanted something else. “A narrow profile, but at the same time, one that is unique. I said that anyone can have a feature film or documentary film festival, but we have before us a real challenge, to make the festival attractive goods. Popular science films already had a different form than before,” Bilík said, clarifying his position.

New timing (Spring), new visuals, and theme songs. And also expansion abroad. “I took our catalogue to Paris, to the biggest festival of popular science films in Europe – Pariscience. When I asked for their catalogue, they gave me a bulletin which featured fifteen films. I had no idea what it meant. But that was their entire festival. So I pulled out our catalogue, four inches thick, and put it in front of their international guests. Complete silence. I explained how in Olomouc we have a festival which has one hundred programming blocks, and their jaws literally dropped. Everybody important in the field in Europe was there. And nobody knew how to react. I invited them to Olomouc, and from that time, they have been travelling here. Including the Pariscience director, who used to be our jury foreman. Soon we realised that we are the biggest festival of its type in Europe, and one of the biggest in the world. And that came as a surprise to us, because we had never mapped the competition,” Bilík recalled.

The right choice

“The idea to bring AFO back to pure popular science films was the right choice. The basic concept of bringing filmmakers and scientists together was done to perfection this year. Richard Dawkins and Lawrence M. Krauss in Olomouc? Just a few years ago, nobody would have believed it,” Korda stated.

“And that I would introduce this evening, was beyond my imagination. I couldn’t believe that I would have the honour to introduce Krauss to you once again – and Dawkins as well,” as AFO Director Jakub Ráliš told the audience, as AFO 50 reached its climax.

“If we projected what AFO would look like in ten years based on the past seven, AFO would be the biggest event and the biggest festival in the Czech Republic. Now the task is keeping up the standard, and I want to keep it high,” said Dostálek, the current AFO director.

AFO has become the university’s family jewels. “Certainly we will develop along different lines in the future. It is a dynamic experience, starting with the organisation by students, whose generations keep changing, so AFO changes with them. I think it will be here as long as Palacký University will be here, and that will be until the end of civilisation as we know it,” stated Dostálek.

Work started last year on AFO’s fifty-first; this year the staff is already working on its fifty-second.

AFO decade-by-decade

1960s | Within its first three years in the 1960s the concept and structure of the festival was fixed. Some films were screened for professionals, some for the public. Films were followed by discussion. There was a debate over the festival name: Academia Film Olomouc won out over Camera Scientica. In the relatively open 1960s, it boasted guests from the West – Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.

1970s | In the 1970s, AFO was at times a breath of fresh air, featuring films unusual and even banned. Filmmakers came to Olomouc who were not allowed in Prague studios. And films were shown which could not enter normal distribution.

1980s | The 1980s were awash in VHS cassettes. Videos and instructional films on things like cataract surgery were the norm. This was the time when A/V Centres were established at Olomouc and other universities.

1990s | In the 1990s came multimedia and CD-ROMs. The festival’s significance declined slightly and computer firms saw it as a springboard for further outlets.

2000s | The start of the century was a transitional period, bridging a spiritual return back to AFO’s beginnings in the 1960s. It proved that the combination of film and university is productive even in the new millennium. However dwindling finances made for existential problems. There was an emphasis on the accompanying programme and organising workshops.

2010s | AFO works closely with television, has significant new sponsors, and a new direction. World-class guests and filmmakers, and each year a bigger audience.

Sources: Memories of eyewitnesses and information from Bachelor’s theses by Tereza Tylová and Michaela Gurňáková.

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Last update: 19. 09. 2012, Vladimír Kubák