AFO 58 international festival of science documentary films: And the winner is…

AFO had over 300 events in its calendar this year, with 159 film screenings and seven winners of its prestigious glass kaleidoscope. Photo: Jan Hromádko
Sunday 30 April 2023, 20:12 – Text: Martina Vysloužilová

AFO: The 58th International Festival of Science Documentary Films, Academia Film Olomouc of Palacký University is now over. It had over 300 items in its calendar this year, with 159 film screenings and seven winners of its prestigious glass kaleidoscope. This year’s edition had 6,500 accredited visitors.

The jury of the International Competition highlighted two films featured in this year’s strong competition. Special mention went to the documentary gem All That Breathes, the first film ever to win Best Documentary at both Sundance and Cannes, which can now add another trophy to its shelf. The jury also awarded the “between genre” aspect of the film, with its emphasis on peoples’ and animals’ coexistence, and also the intimate and gentle approach to which director Shaunak Sen takes his protagonists.

“First, we were enthralled by the mutual support of the filmmakers and the unique atmosphere of the community connected to the film as well as discovering more about the world around us. The international and domestic guests stress the unique atmosphere of the festival and the inspirational reactions of the audiences. Selections for the 58th year of the festival exhibit a broad spectrum of methods how to inspire diverse groups of viewers via original filmmaking. Unique, artistic recording of the world makes it possible to expand the consciousness of the public and inspire them to think about a better world, one shared by us all,” said AFO chief programmer Ondřej Kazík.

The main prize in the International Competition went to the documentary Constant. This medium-length film essay poses questions about the fundamental human aspiration to measure the world in all its aspects, connecting it to political power and the desire to control and subjugate. It was this thematic aspect articulated in the documentary which impressed the jury most, together with its innovative visuals, which continued to amaze the audience.

The Czech & Slovak competition also had two winners. Special mention went to the documentary Lidi (Humans). The jury applauded how Kateř Tureček examines diversity, confronts heteronormality, and allows a glimpse into the hearts and minds of persons who do not fit into the cis-gender category. The main prize and CZK 50,000 went to Neviditelné krajiny (Invisible Landscapes), directed by Ivo Bystřičan.

“The jury awarded it for its pure cinematic language and minimalistic approach, carrying the basic message: We should listen more carefully to the planet on which we live,” said the jurors in their verdict. In conjunction with that statement, the documentary is unique and innovative visually and above all aurally, and not only in the small pond of the Czech & Slovak documentary film scene.

And the prize for short film? It was won by the film Haulout, an immersive screen narrative of 25 minutes of detailed observations by marine biologist Maxim Chakilev, who researches how walrus migration reflects climatic change. According to the jury, “It is not only a masterful and absorbing cinematic experience, but it approaches the topic with care, revealing a story both beautiful and cruel”. The winner of the extraordinarily rich short film competition this year deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Short Film.

And that’s not all: the student jury gave its prize to the documentary Path of the Panther, an emotionally-charged story about the threatened existence of the Florida panther. The jury made up of Palacký University students awarded it for its look into the natural environment of this wild cat, normally hidden from the human eye. “Massive efforts went into the making of the film, which is not necessarily noticeable at first glance. This is the life-long work of dozens of people who are trying with all their might to preserve this slowly disappearing big cat from possible complete extinction,” the jury wrote.

The AFO prize for significant contribution to the popularisation of science went to Chris Impey, cosmologist and Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, author of popular science books on astronomy, including studies of distant galaxies and searching for exoplanets and extraterrestrial intelligence. He has lectured to NASA engineers and Buddhist monks in India, and here gave a lecture on the end of the universe. The Norwegian director Eva Charlotte Nilsen was also in Olomouc; as were Esther Elmholt, director of the documentary After Nature; the American documentary filmmaker, cinematographer, and producer Ian Cheney; film historian Peter Krämer; Portuguese sound artist Raquel Castro; and many others.

“I really think this year’s festival was very successful. Not just in terms of numbers of visitors and the great programme, but also that the festival was able to attract VIP guests from all over the world. They loved the festival atmosphere and professionality of the whole team – which for us is the greatest reward. I’m very grateful to all our partners, without whom the festival could not operate on such a high level, and I’m really proud of the entire organisational team. I truly believe there’s no better festival in the world,” said Eva Navratilová, festival director.

For the first time, financial support was announced for works in progress; these applied to the prestigious product-pitching industry workshop Camp 4Science. Their jury awarded 3 projects. The main prize of USD 25,000 went to Sandbox Films for Leandro Lisorti’s A Certain Civilization. At the last minute, two projects were awarded as a surprise; each received USD 10,000: Carbon Permanence (Hans Baumann) and Ghost Dads (Tracy Jarett and Emma Moley).

AFO has been held by Palacký University Olomouc annually since 1966. The festival regularly introduces the best contemporary science films by world-renowned producers, with famous Czech and foreign scientists and representatives from the film and television industry as presenters. The goal of AFO is to shatter the prejudices and stereotypes of “boring” educational films; so too those of the natural and social sciences and the humanities. The driving organisational force of the festival mainly comes from contemporary and former students of the university. In terms of sheer numbers of accredited viewers, AFO is one of the biggest film festivals in the Czech Republic. AFO 59 will take place from 23–28 April 2024.


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