Fero Fenič: I do only what I enjoy

He is the enfant terrible of documentary films, as well as a successful entrepreneur. We spoke with the founder and director of film and television company Febio about freedom, films, and Czech peculiarities.

In general, people think it’s impossible to get rich on documentaries. What made you found Febio, a production firm that specializes in documentaries, and how do you survive financially?
By establishing Febio I fulfilled my dream of free creativity. As a director under communism, I lived through what lack of freedom of creativity means. At Febio I do only what I enjoy, with people I enjoy. One of the reasons I started with documentary films in the nineties was my feeling that documentaries are in greater danger than feature films. At the beginning people warned me that I wouldn’t be able to survive financially, but I follow my intuition in everything. We were finally able to prove that a documentary studio that produces up to a hundred films a year can prosper, provided there is an enlightened public television system that wants documentaries and that you can come up with ideas that the viewers like. True, it’s not a business that could make you rich, but that wasn’t my goal. If I wanted to be rich, I might try the heating oil business.

You are also responsible for Febiofest, which has been running for ten years – although you always say that this is the last time. What keeps you going, and how would you rate this year’s edition?
Febiofest started out as a fortuitous accompanying event at the beginning of the nineties, a time when theaters were showing only commercial movies, and Prague wasn’t the host to any film festivals. The response was enormous, and interest grew with each year. I wanted to meet this interest. So somewhat against my will the festival was born, and its tenth year was truly splendid. I think this year’s program was of the highest quality, and we attracted celebrities that could adorn any festival in the world – it opened with the film Sky by the German cult director Tom Tykwer, and it culminated with The Pianist by Roman Polanski. Putting the festival on isn’t simple; no matter what I do, I never find sponsors until the last moment. Sometimes I just went for broke – I ordered everything and did the organizing, even though I didn’t have a crown in my account.

The documentary programs that Febio prepares are often precursors to programs that can be seen on commercial television. Why did Czech Television stop airing your ideas?
Nearly every Febio program has been revolutionary for its time, because we created prototypes for many programs that had never yet been seen on TV, then becoming models for shows that are now successful on other stations. Our first cycle, “Oko”, was in fact the precursor for TV Nova’s investigative publicity program “Na vlastní oči” (“With Your Own Eyes”), the satirical “Česká soda” was the basis for today’s “Tele-tele”, “GEN” became synonymous with personal profile shows, and so on. Czech Television is a cumbersome organization, and you have to be very lucky to find someone who not only understands and supports your ideas, but also pushes them through for airing.

“Tele-tele” became Nova’s most popular entertainment program last year. Don’t you regret that a bit?
It was probably my mistake, coming up with such a program before television and society were ready for it – it came as a shock to both. As time passes it seems to me that what we did in “Česká soda” with refinement and culture is now done by Nova in a more primitive manner, but it’s still very successful. My explanation is that not only was Czech television connected with different people and a different sort of humor, but times have become coarser.

But you didn’t let up, and again were provocative when you dreamed up the “GEN” (Gallery of the Elite of the Nation) cycle, which ended last year. This project also had its enthusiasts, as well as detractors, because Czechs are quite allergic to the word “elite”. Why is it important to present the elite to the people, and why do people at the least cast doubts on it in this country?
I invented GEN because I felt that the people are lacking in self-confidence after 40 years under communism. I wanted to inspire them, showing them personalities that were able to achieve something of significance. You could find only a few nations around the world that would repeatedly liquidate their intelligentsia as the Czechs and Slovaks did. People who were capable were afraid to stand out under socialism. My parents raised me not to draw too much attention to myself. They said, “It’s easier to shoot down what you can see.” This condition of egalitarianism persists among the people. It will be very difficult to become a truly multi-cultural society when more immigrants and people of color arrive here.

Your “Cestománie” (“Travel Mania”) is aired by Czech Television during peak hours. Does that mean that documentary programs have finally occupied a better position on TV, or is it just a personal victory for you?
I always wanted documentaries to compete with other genres, not to be just underground-type programs for the chosen one percent of the viewers. My goal was peak hours and a broad viewership. And we have achieved this with nearly everything we have produced. It’s Febio’s greatest triumph, and hopefully documentary makers will come to appreciate this, too. But this victory didn’t come easily. Even “Cestománie”, which is currently one of the most popular programs, faced problems. I submitted this idea back in 1994, but Czech Television didn’t want it. So we had to wait until travel sections became regular parts of newspapers, and then television accepted our idea.

Although you have lived in the Czech Republic for thirty years, with short breaks, you were born a Slovak. Did you encounter any conflicts because of your origin?
I didn’t go through any really harsh conflicts, but there were a few clashes, both personal and at work. They probably resulted due to different environments and mentalities. I’m a person that always reacts frankly and spontaneously, and sometimes this has cost me. At first the people here seemed more self-engrossed – for example, in Slovakia, when we went to a pub, the people with money would pay. Here, everyone paid for his own beers. Also, I couldn’t get used to the Czech “opportunism”. But time heals all.

What do you now think about the partitioning of Czechoslovakia?
If you look at the history of the world, countries have generally united in order to become stronger, and only very rarely have they broken apart voluntarily. It seems to me that we gave up too easily. It’s like a marriage ending in divorce after the first big conflict. But as time has passed, I’ve come to understand that it was probably inevitable, because we are now approaching Europe as two independent countries that can work together if they wish.

A life in numbers
1951 born on 20 March in Nižná Šebastová, Slovakia
1978 graduated in documentary direction from the Prague Film Academy of Performing Arts
1979-1986 director of Bratislava-Koliba Slovak Films; wrote dozens of short and medium-length films, dismissed for political unreliability, then worked free-lance
1983 shot the feature film Džusový román (Juicy Novel), not released until 1989
1989 shot the feature film Zvláštní bytosti (Special Creatures) – the only film of its time that dealt with communism
1991 founded the Febio studio, where during the nineties he produced the cycles “GEN”, “Genus”, “Oko”, “V.I.P.”, “Česká soda”, “Okno k sousedům” (“Window on the Neighbors”), “Jak se žije” (“How Life Goes”), “Zpověď” (“The Confession”), “Cestománie”, and many other documentaries
1993 established Febiofest, a film and television festival
1998 the compiled “Česká soda” episodes became the most viewed Czech film of the year
1999 wrote and directed “Czechoslovak Television Presents”, a unique 24-hour joint broadcast by Czech Television and Slovak Television on the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution
2003 organized 10th annual edition of Febiofest, which was more extensive than all other film festivals in the Czech Republic combined

There is a school of thought that film makers will have it better within the European Union. What do you expect accession to bring?
Cinematography, film production, and a system of grants have a rather good legal basis in the EU. But I think that Czech film will survive only if audiences want it. In general, I’m looking forward to the EU bringing some order here, which means that some Czech peculiarities will no longer apply. Czechs are inventive, they always try to find a third way for everything. They think that what has been developed and verified in other nations isn’t always worth imitating. So they’re always looking for something different, sometimes they get a good jump, but usually, after losing a lot of time, they finally agree on what other countries have already long known. So perhaps this Czech pettiness will dissolve in the greater space.

What will you be doing in ten years?
I don’t make any plans, even for a year – I’m a person of the here and now. I now believe that Febio and Febiofest will survive. I have just finished the second version of a screenplay for a feature film that I’m working on just for my own pleasure, and I have no idea if it will ever be realized.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Open, temperamental, over-sensitive.

How would you like people to remember you?
Why should they remember me? I haven’t contributed any great value to anything I’ve done in my life.






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