“Self-introduction, right?” says a teacher, looking through a candidate’s portfolio blankly for the next term in art school. “It’s extreme self-presentation and absolutely nothing else,” another shrugs, before noticing the painted penis-shaped vibrator that’s also part of the submission and observing dryly, “The main thing is that ‘it’s covered in silver spray.’ Welcome to Prague Academy Entrance Exam Week 2020 and Tomáš Bojar and Adéla Komrzý’s irreverent but oddly upbeat “Art Talent Show”, a documentary less about art or talent than about the task of Sisyphus to assess one and nurture the other.
As a result, we don’t see the works of art themselves too much, perhaps just enough to be deeply grateful for not having the work of the teachers. Instead, Bojar and Komrzý, two documentarians collaborating for the first time, focus on the different processes and approaches used by different studios to sort through the current crop of applicants, and on teachers’ conversations with each other and with their future ones. students during the stressful, exhausting and, presumably for some, heartbreaking few days. (The film ends diplomatically just before the final choices are announced, so we never know exactly which hopes were dashed.)
Similar to Frederick Wiseman’s series of documentaries about institutions and the communities they serve, here certain personalities emerge gradually, but never to the detriment of the whole. Kateřina Olivová and Darina Alster, the co-directors of the New Media studio, are particularly lively, with their close bond and odd couple vibe making for a comfortable but confrontational interview technique. Both queer women, their discussions with students often revolve around gender and sexuality, such as when a student’s pansexuality leads the two to friendly bicker over whether bisexuality is an outdated concept.
But then, these questions of identity, alongside social justice concerns, seem to preoccupy a large portion of incoming students, making “Art Talent Show” also an incisive commentary on the generation gap. Painting teachers Marek Meduna and Petr Dub, whose questions are deliberately designed to push students into an uncomfortable debate, are briefly intrigued by a non-binary student’s use of the first person plural (curiously, their work seems not to consist only of drawn male genitalia love). Later, Meduna and Dub ask a vegan contestant to confess that she would love to try human meat.
It helps that most aspiring artists themselves have an inherent desire to provoke: one videographer casually describes an idea for an installation that revolves around the idea of infecting a partner with AIDS as a means of preventing them from cheat ; another candidate, completing the written portion of an exam, chooses to cover the answer sheet in bright orange paint. The supervising professor moderately indicates that this might not go down very well with the art historians and theoreticians who evaluate these tests, and of course we see the orange paper eliciting a disconcerting reaction from the panel of markers, who have already been kindly amused by the students’ eccentric understanding of what a basilica is.
The film’s scattering of attention over so many days, so many disciplines and so many discussions could make for a jittery experience were it not for the calmness of Šimon Dvořáček’s elegant camerawork. And whenever the pace gets too choppy, editor Hedvika Hansalová returns to Dvořáček’s signature photo: a wide, beautifully framed entrance to the Academy that’s guarded by an older lady who sits behind a glass-encased reception, a almost as if it were a work of art on display.
It is unlikely that such a fanciful idea would have occurred to this woman. In her interactions with students and professors, she seems to be a decidedly pragmatic type. His down-to-earth attitude provides a funny contrast to the all-out experimentalism in the upstairs bedrooms, where what one teacher jokingly calls the institute’s “selfish, sociopathic phallocrats” set increasingly bizarre tasks and exercises, such as a blindfold trust. walk to a nearby park or a sudden urge to shout as loud as possible.
The enjoyable and absorbing film looks set for a healthy run on the documentary festival circuit, but its deserved victory in the Proxima section at Karlovy Vary – a rare triumph for a non-fiction film in a lineup heavily focused on fiction – also points out its accessibility to the general public of festivals and arthouses. Because whether you consider this illuminating documentary a portrait of an institution, a snapshot of a generation, or a sketch of the dedication and endurance exhibited by teachers, “Art Talent Show” bears a vivid comparison to the different styles and modes of artistic expression that it highlights. But maybe not the spray-painted silver dildo.