OCDF 2018: 5 Questions with director Tomáš Bojar

Friday 7 September, 2018

As the country’s president holds a conference in which he will announce whether or not he intends to run again, the Czech national press compete to cover this strange and secret event. Offering unique access behind the scenes of multiple newsroom simultaneously, Tomáš Bojar’s Breaking News is a compelling, entertaining and carefully composed observational look at journalism, “objective” reporting and the cycle of news production in the modern age.

Breaking News screens at DocHouse on Sat 8th September as part of Open City Documentary Festival. Book tickets here.

Where did the idea come from to chronicle this particular moment in Czech politics and the news coverage? 

The day when Czech president Miloš Zeman announced his candidacy for presidential re-election had considerable dramaturgical potential. Once I learned that the president was going to announce his decision exclusively to a group of friends, sympathisers and supporters, thus deliberately cold-shouldering the press, I immediately pricked up my ears. I had previously been scouting quite a few newsrooms on a regular basis, so now I began to ask individual journalists how they felt about that issue and what they were going to do on that day.

It turned out that Zeman’s manoeuvre had had a fairly unambiguous effect: it seemed to have piqued their interest way more than if he had planned to hold a standard press conference by way of announcing his candidacy. It was also obvious that they were ready to expend quite a lot of time and energy to cover that event. After a little while, it dawned on me that this slightly absurd, possibly even Kafkaesque, situation where the castle is closed to wider public and the journalists have to wait underground might also be convenient for my film.

How did you approach the shooting of the project considering you were covering two different news teams in a tight time scale?

We had acquired quite a bit of experience with this type of coverage during the shooting of Two Nil (2012), a film I made before with Pavel Abrahám. We had used twenty two cameras on one day on that film, so the eight cameras with which we shot Breaking News with were, by comparison, a piece of cake. There were some minor technical mishaps, but other than that, everything went swimmingly throughout the entire day. I think it paid off that we had not underestimated the preparatory stage so everybody knew exactly what they were supposed to do.

Erika Hníková was in charge of the crew at the Prague Castle, while Martin Mareček ran the filming in the Hospodářské noviny newsroom (I stayed in Czech Television myself). Both Erika and Martin are very experienced directors with whom I had cooperated for quite a while. Other than their professional expertise, we had also developed a good relationship, so I knew the two crews were in good hands. We had discussed the purpose of the shooting in considerable detail, and I had also introduced them to the surroundings and the main protagonists. They subsequently proved their directorial intelligence and flexibility by being able to respond sensitively to various unexpected twists and turns which occurred throughout the day.

On this note - a lot of great moments in the film come from when things go wrong, when technology fails or people are caught off guard, how did you prepare yourself for the unpredictable and unfolding narrative when making the film?

I had been spending months and months in the newsrooms before we actually shot the film, so I think I was quite well aware of the different types of situations that may emerge. But obviously, I always knew that the most interesting moments will be the unexpected ones – those that simply cannot be scripted. To me, this unpredictability is definitely one of the great thing about cinema with “social actors” - sometimes things just happen in such an impressive, yet totally natural way. As a scriptwriter for fiction films, I often think that I would never be able to write such scenes.

Considering our current landscape of distrust of the media as well as the changing relationship between politicians and journalists, what do you want people to take away from the film?

Most of all, I like to make films that are open to different types of interpretation – even those that I would probably dislike. But to answer your question: I would be happy if viewers see that the people working in the media are neither villains nor treacherous conspirators, but largely decent individuals trying to get their job done

I certainly do not think that the media is beyond criticism. Traditional media organisations cannot always avoid superficiality, hastiness, and the tendency to be swayed by the mainstream opinion. And yet, when one sees what the non-traditional media are capable of, it is no better. Judging by their news output, I’d bet my boots that the editorial staff in all some obscure news websites hardly ever reference their sources and double-check on the information they receive.

Traditional media outlets at least try to maintain the standard procedures. They do not always succeed at this, but even that sense of obligation counts for something. In fact, this is to some degree analogical to the dichotomy between traditional and non-traditional political parties: the former can certainly be criticised for their corruptibility, the ivory syndrome that alienates them from their electorate, or their absence of values. I will therefore admit that I chose the traditional mass media primarily because I tend to sympathise with them on principle, particularly in this day and age. However, that does not make me oblivious to their various flaws.

I did not approach the filming process with some preconceived idea, and I was ready to show all the relevant events that took place in the two newsrooms on the same day. However, if this effort had tarnished the reputation of the traditional media, I would still have most probably persisted. In the realm of filmmaking, there is nothing more dangerous than the question, “Who is going to benefit from this?” I think that once we start to think too much about the potential consequences of our artistic expression, and begin to accommodate these concerns, we are not likely to contribute any valid and substantial artistic observation.

Breaking News is a wonderful observational study. Who are some of your influences when it comes to documentary filmmaking?

I think I´m mainly influenced by fiction films, which are so truthful in their observations that you could in a sense call them documentary too. To name just a few, it´s the films of John Cassavetes, Roberto Rossellini, the Dardenne brothers, Andrea Arnold and most importantly Robert Bresson. When it comes to the documentaries in a narrow sense, I very much appreciated for instance Sacro Gra and Fuocoammare by Gianfranco Rosi, Armadillo by Janus Metz or Solar Eclipse by a good friend of mine Martin Mareček.