Mira Janek (born Miroslav Janek), 1954
Mira Janek was born in Náchod, northern Bohemia in 1954. Both of his parents worked in office jobs at a textile factory in the nearby town of Úpice, where Mira and his sister were raised. Mira says he had a normal ‘small town childhood,’ playing tennis and volleyball and skiing. His father was an amateur filmmaker and introduced Mira to photography and film at an early age. Mira attended gymnázium and then applied to study at FAMU film school in Prague. He was rejected and embarked upon mandatory military service instead. Mira was recruited by the Armádní umělecký soubor [Army Arts Studio] as a photographer, which he refers to as a ‘fantastic’ experience. He left the military after two years in 1976 to take a job as an assistant editor at Československá televize [Czechoslovak Television]. Working with a number of established documentary makers at Czechoslovak Television was a ‘wonderful school,’ says Mira, who had applied to FAMU on two subsequent occasions, and twice more had been turned down. He stayed at the state broadcaster until emigrating.
Mira left Czechoslovakia in 1979 with his four housemates. He says that an agreement had been made that if everyone in his home received exit paperwork, they would emigrate together; otherwise not at all. The five (including Mira’s partner and future wife, Tonička) traveled to Munich and stayed there for one year while American visas were processed. In 1980, Mira came to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where two of his former housemates had friends. Mira says he found work within four months of moving, as he was able to show prospective employers some of the films he had made in Czechoslovakia, which a friend had smuggled to Munich. In Minneapolis, Mira worked initially for large corporations producing in-house films, on public service announcements and occasionally a small independent feature or documentary. He says the film and theatre community in the Twin Cities was ‘intense’ and remembers his time in Minnesota fondly. In 1987, Mira moved to New York City. There, he worked on a number of films with the director Geoffrey Reggio and the composer Phillip Glass.
In New York, Mira followed the Velvet Revolution and refers to these events as ‘a big excitement,’ although he says he did not consider returning to Czechoslovakia at the time. He returned to the Czech Republic in 1996, when both he and his wife were offered work there. Mira made several documentaries for Czech Television Ostrava, including Nespatřené [The Unseen], which received a number of awards on the festival circuit when it was released in 1997. It was around this time that he was approached by FAMU’s documentary department and asked whether he would join the staff. He has taught at the film school ever since. In more recent years, Mira is perhaps best-known for co-directing Občan Havel [Citizen Havel], which follows the late Czechoslovak President Václav Havel through his time in office. Mira says work on the film ‘deepened [his] admiration’ for the former president. Today, Mira lives in Prague with his wife, Tonička.
Mira became interested in film at an early age
“My father discovered film for me, because he was an amateur filmmaker. That means that I grew up with still cameras and movie cameras – 8mm – around the house. And I, my first memories are that I am walking on skis and my father is [makes camera sound] with an 8mm camera. So he taught me how to take pictures, how to develop photos, etc. And I was ten then. So it started like that. And when I was 14 he showed me how to shoot a camera, and from that moment a new group was formed, a group of friends, and we were making movies together all the time.”
Mira remembers some of his earliest works
“They were short fictional films, and I remember very well the first one. The first one: it was winter time, lots of snow, and all the trees were like white with frost. And I took the girl I was in love with at the age of 14, I think, and I took her to nature and I shot beautiful shots of nature and her, and then I put some Bach music with it. But that was not a fiction. That was just an impression. But the first fiction was a boy and a girl. They are in love. They walk in nature and look at each other and hold hands, etc. And then they are coming to town, my home town, and all of a sudden an angry father comes (and it was played by my father) and he comes to them – and this is his daughter in the film – and he is very angry and tells her to come home. That was the story.”
For his military service, Mira worked as a photographer for the Army Arts Studio
“If they wanted some pictures from the symphony orchestra or this band or this band, they would send me to a tour and I would take some pictures. But most of the time I did my own pictures, I just went to the dark room in the morning and I did whatever I wanted. It was great, fantastic. And you know, you can imagine, there were also actors who were announcers during that year etc. I met lots of musicians, very interesting people. I met a lot of interesting people there. And of course, we were basically more or less free, you know.”
In the late 1970s, Mira worked as an assistant editor at Czechoslovak Television
“Well, of course, every film had to be approved. So, when it was finished, some person came and looked at it and they said ‘Yes’ or ‘[Change] this,’ you know? But it wasn’t anything very oppressive, because people were used to these kind of guys. So sometimes, intentionally, they put something wrong in the film. Because they knew this will have to go out. And, it’s like bait for fish – because these, the approval guys – they would come and would say ‘Ah! This has to go!’ And they were happy, satisfied, that they did their job. They went away, and the film was the way the director wanted it. That was a typical trick of the directors.”
Mira says that he never thought he would emigrate
“I didn’t like the idea of immigration, not only for myself, but also for other people. I thought that it is not the thing to do, that one should stay here and put up with the bulls**t here. So I don’t know how all of a sudden it changed. There are two things in my life that I was refusing or that I was not likely to do – it was my belief not to do them – two things: one is immigration, and the second is a country house. And I did both.”
Mira has fond memories of Minneapolis
“Well, Minneapolis is a bit of a provincial town. But the film community and the theatre community was very tight, because in all this big place, you found this island of basically creative people who liked to hang together every night somewhere, and that means friendship. So we had many very dear friends in Minneapolis. And it was also the time of the excitement about independent cinema. Everybody was hoping that he’ll make some film without Hollywood and it will make it into the movie theatres and everything. So there was a lot of enthusiasm.
“I made a feature film in Minneapolis, I think for $20,000 or $30,000, because everybody was working for free on the film. And it was full of actors and cars and all kinds of stuff. And it took a long time to shoot, but everybody was so excited that ‘We are making a film! Great!’ So if you have this kind of experience, and you know the people really did it with pleasure – and then, when somebody else was making a film, we would help him or her, whatever, you know. It was this kind of excitement. We did jobs to make a living, and then in our free time we did all these films for grant money. And this kind of shoestring kind of production with people who do it voluntarily and gladly, that creates tight friendship, you know. And that’s why I say it was a very intense family there, which in New York cannot happen like that easily.”
Mira discusses the public response to Citizen Havel
“It was something incredible. Of course, the first public screening was like a dream. Because the reaction of the public was exactly as I would wish. It is a very funny film and everybody was laughing all the time. So, if you have people laughing for two hours it is like the biggest reward and you know that you did it right. What happened was the first month of distribution there were maybe like 15 prints or something, the first month of distribution, there were many theatres in Prague sold out – totally sold out. And they kept telling us, sold out, sold out. And I didn’t go to them, but many people kept telling me ‘I went yesterday to Citizen Havel, it was sold out.’ And people after the film, they stood up and they were applauding. And I said ‘This is fantastic!’ But I also knew that they were not applauding the film or the director. They were applauding the idea of a decent politician. Not even Havel, but a decent politician, you know? Somebody who cares. And that was wonderful.”
Category: New York City, Oral History