One of the highlights of this year’s Jihlava festival of documentary films was the Czech premiere of Kings of Šumava, which combines real interviews with animation to tell the gripping story of Josef Hasil. A native of the mountain range, Hasil was a border guard turned cross-border agent whose derring-do in smuggling defectors across the Iron Curtain led Czechoslovakia’s secret police to list him as the “king of Šumava” in their files.
Some see Hasil, who himself escaped from a Communist prison, as a hero while, as the film makes clear, others have never forgiven him over the shooting dead of a border guard. The testimony of Hasil himself, who lives in the US and is now 95, shows he too has some regrets about the past.
The director of Kings of Šumava is Irishman Kris Kelly. When we spoke in Jihlava, I asked him how somebody from his part of the world had come to tell this relatively little-known Czech story.
“It starts with the producer, Vratislav [Šlajer], who had a certain vision that was about looking at the story from a universal point of view.
“He started looking at directors he knew outside the colloquial or Czech culture. Not that it would be negative or pejorative to do it in that way – it’s just that that was his vision.
“I knew Vratislav from before from Screen Ireland stuff and he approached me and said, I have this film in the early stages and some research material – I’d love you to take a look at it and see if there’s anything you could bring to it.
“I instantly had the same obvious questions that everybody asks me – Why, why do this?
“And I instantly thought of a film that I really loved.
“Being from Belfast, the first time I saw Hunger I thought, I love that this is made by somebody [English director Steve McQueen] with a perspective outside of Belfast.
“It actually opened certain doors in my mind, of how to consider conflict and all the facets and sides that come with it.
“I thought, If I approach it from a naive point of view, asking questions, then it’s another way to look at a local hero, or villain, or whatever way he’s perceived.”
“And growing up with that it felt like, That’s a great way – as an addition to the way other people tell stories – it’s a great addition to the narrative of Belfast or whatever.
“So when Vratislav approached with this project I thought, OK, if I approach it from a naive point of view, asking questions, then it’s another way to look at a local hero, or villain, or whatever way that he’s perceived.
“And that’s up to the audience, or that’s up to the person.”
What was it that grabbed you about the story of Josef Hasil?
“For me, it started with the borders.
“Being from Belfast, there’s a huge significance there. And how I’ve been affected and how my family have been affected and how the people around me are culturally affected.
“So the idea of somebody who would smuggle people across the border was a story that I could relate to on certain levels.
“What was exciting about it was the fact that it was a culture I didn’t know and didn’t understand and wanted to understand, so I could approach it from that kind of naive, childlike point of view.”
Apart from Hasil himself, one of your main characters is this woman who many, many years ago, when she was young, he helped across the border. Could you tell us a bit about her story?
“For me her story started with the research material and hearing the literal story of how she crossed the border.
“After that it was the conversations with her in Canada.
“It became really obvious that it’s more than just that crossing.
“Once I spent some time with Vlasta and once I got to understand the subject more… this is a film that took me many years to understand what I wanted to put on screen.
“And I realised that she for me both asked a lot of questions and answered a lot of questions when it came to that duality of Hasil being a hero and maybe not a hero, in some people’s eyes.”
That’s one thing that comes across clearly. She takes him as a total hero, others even in his own family wouldn’t use that term and others again see him as a kind of villain. For people who don’t know his story, why is there this ambivalence about Josef Hasil?
“Because there is always that duality. And with his story it is clear that it depends… and Vlasta says this many times in the film – it really depends on which side of the fence you’re sitting on.
“It depends on your perspective.
“To me, that’s where one of these links drew back to Belfast of all places – you could turn a corner and be on a different street and the rules of the world would be very different.
“The idea of somebody who would smuggle people across the border was a story that I could relate to on certain levels.”
“So I felt compelled by what she was saying and the family…
“I think even for people who would consider him a villain, the conversation doesn’t make a statement – it doesn’t say he is this or that.
“It just asks you those questions and allows you to think.”
But he did pay a huge price. Or rather some his nearest and dearest paid a hell of a lot – they went to prison, they died. From your perspective, was what he did worth it?
“I feel that there’s an innate aspect to Hasil where the value of ‘worth’ is a difficult thing to make tangible.
“I personally believe that was his destiny.
“I feel that his actions are part of who he is as a person.”
In the accounts of his earlier days, he seems almost like a James Bond figure. He was working with the US agencies in West Germany. He was ghosting across the border and even when he’d already left he was coming back. Is that a fair comparison? Was he larger than life?
“That definitely leads me on to the animation and why that was chosen as a medium to portray that aspect of his life.
“Because my experience with doing a lot of animation is that it’s a great way of allowing people to accept that this is subjective and that this is potentially make-believe.
“And those aspects of his James Bondesque life are to be perceived in any way that you want.
“It’s maybe difficult to believe that he was 20 feet underwater in the cold in the winter, breathing threw a straw.
“The logistics of that are even difficult to understand.
“But in reality that’s what people want to believe and that’s what maybe sometimes people need to believe – and that’s part of the film and its narrative.”
How does he himself view this myth of the “king of Šumava”, as he came to be known?
“As he says in the film, he doesn’t see himself as the king of Šumava.
“I found him a very warm, nice, positive man, who didn’t want to receive any glory for his actions.”
He’s still alive – he’s now in his 90s. How is he doing, do you know?
“The last I spoke to him, his health had definitely deteriorated from the first research material.
“And even when editing the film with Anna [Johnson Ryndová], who is an incredible editor, there was a decision to definitely not use certain material, because it felt exploitative, even though some of it was poignant and kind of emotional.
“Because you could see how this person who was very physically capable of these things that I would certainly wouldn’t be… you could see that his health was deteriorating.
“I feel that Josef Hasil’s actions are part of who he is as a person.”
“But I really hope he gets to see the film.”
For you, ultimately what’s the message of Kings of Šumava?
“The message is about freedom and that certain aspects of that are innate.
“I think Josef Hasil is an example of that innate freedom that somebody will always strive to achieve.
“And I hope the film will allow you to question borders, question the reasons why people decide to take certain actions.”
But it’s also a great yarn as well, right?
“Yes, of course, and being Irish I love nothing more than a great yarn [laughs].
“And it’s been an absolute pleasure to be part of one that’s even outside of my culture.”
You worked on this film for many years and I guess you were back and forth here a lot. What kind of relationship did you develop with the Czech Republic in that time?
“It can only be described as a love of the Czech Republic.
“It kind of grew. It wasn’t a conscious decision to take my career down a path where I was in Prague or the Czech Republic, but it’s just kind of grown on me and I think it’s really incredible.
The music in Kings of Šumava is by David Holmes, who’s done many enormous Hollywood movies. How did you get him?
“I’d worked with David in the past on a number of his projects.
“He did a fantastic film a few years ago and, through the studio I have in Belfast, I did the visual effects on it.
“I’ve worked on various productions that he has produced as well.
“He’s an incredible guy, with such a talent.
“Through us working on his productions I was able to ask him, Look, I have this really beautiful story and thing I want to say, and it’s in the Czech Republic.
“And he trusted me with his material – and I very much appreciate it.”