On the Price of Bread Rolls and the Existential Nature of Blood

in 56th Karlovy Vary International FilmFestival

by Marek Cermák

One of the fundamental aesthetic questions addressed by humanistic and cultural educational institutions around the world is this: how can something as subjective as art be judged? In their new documentary, Adéla Komrzý and Tomáš Bojar do not seek a direct answer, but show how this theme can resonate even in something as purely practical as university entrance exams.

The Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (AVU) is the oldest art school in the Czech Republic and also the most prestigious university focusing on fine arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.). That is why every year, it attracts dozens of applicants to the several rounds of demanding entrance exams. The film Art Talent Show (Zkouška umění, 2022), which was presented as one of the three documentaries in the newly created Proxima competition section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, takes a purely observational look at that part of the admission procedure in which teachers first evaluate the submitted mandatory works and then conduct personal interviews with the applicants. Initially, the film may seem to be more concerned with the potential students themselves and the running of the educational institution as such. However, the opposite is true.

The more time we spend with the teachers in each studio (painting, new media and printmaking), the more we get to know them and their way of thinking. And in doing so, an increasingly complex picture of the contemporary approach to art in general emerges. The teachers try to provoke the candidates to think for themselves and to take a firm – often very distinctive – position on various philosophical-aesthetic-moral issues. Is it existential to paint with blood? Is school a tool that rapes creative freedom? Why should anyone care about your opinion? These are just snippets of the questions that candidates face in interviews.

However, Adela Komrzý and Tomáš Bojar’s film goes even further and at times offers an escape from the theorizing, albeit often funny, interviews through scenes with different protagonists. In them, for example, two doorwomen at the school reception deal with the price of bread rolls; or three men who walk through the building every evening, switching off the lights in each classroom, comment mundanely on the admission works on display. This also brings into the film the level of “ordinary people” who, although they have less to do with the entrance exams themselves, extend the theme of subjectivity and evaluation in art in a contrasting way.

The filmmakers consistently follow an observational documentary style, placing the camera in positions from which they can survey the entire action in the room, mostly from one firmly composed angle. The exception are some short scenes set outdoors, in which two eccentric New Media Studio educators guide the blindfolded candidates through a park behind the school to undergo a powerful collective and bonding experience together – something they say is their primary goal in their teaching.

The Art Talent Show is a film that often had the audience at the Karlovy Vary festival laughing out loud, with the film coming in sixth place in the Audience Award, just behind this year’s Palme d’Or winner The Triangle of Sadness. Although the most humorous parts of the film are devoted to the personal interviews, thanks to the depiction of the teachers’ clash with some of the strongly opinionated candidates, the filmmakers fortunately also give enough space to moments when the teachers are alone (for example, when they are brainstorming topics for the next exam assignments). This does not give the impression that the authors are merely making cheap and easy laughs at the poor candidates, although the choice of people depicted makes one wonder whether this is really a representative sample or a dramaturgical choice in the editing room.

After the screening, viewers will not leave with a clear idea of how to think about, interpret, evaluate, or teach art. But the outcome of the film can also be a simple understanding that art forms are so vibrant and diverse that there simply can’t be a single, right answer – and that this is okay.

At the 56th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Art Talent Show was the first winner of the newly established Proxima competition and also won the FIPRESCI award in the same category.

Marek Cermák
Edited by Birgit Beumers