What would it be like to assist Josef Koudelka? What could an assistant learn simply by observing and helping the legendary Czech photographer? Koudelka Shooting Holy Land, a new documentary film making its U.S. debut today at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (and showing again this Sunday, July 31), gives viewers an opportunity to watch Koudelka photograph in Israel and the West Bank from his assistant’s perspective. The 72-minute film does more than this, but its appeal lies in its proximity to Koudelka, who offers short asides about photography, about his life in Communist Czechoslovakia, where he lived until age 32, and about his escape and subsequent exile. The film also includes long sequences showing his black-and-white panoramic images from the project, as well as contact sheets from previous bodies of work that show the photographs he marked for printing.
To make the film, Gilad Baram, an Israeli who was assisting Koudelka during a trip to Israel in 2009, primarily used static shots of Koudelka taken from a tripod. The opening sequence shows Koudelka a few feet in front of Baram’s camera. He is photographing a roadway that runs between two massive, cement walls that rise like canyons on either side. The narrow passage ends at a steel gate guarded by a watchtower. Because Baram’s camera is stationary, the shot emphasizes Koudelka’s movement as he works for two minutes to frame the scene. Finally, he crouches to the video camera’s right, clicks, then turns and smiles at the filmmaker, letting out a quiet laugh.
Koudelka began photographing in Israel in 2008 as part of a group project, “This Place,” which involved 11 other photographers and resulted in a touring exhibition and accompanying catalogue, as well as monographs by each photographer. Stephen Shore, Wendy Ewald, Jeff Wall and Frédéric Brenner, who initiated the project, are among the others who worked in Israel for the project. Each photographer explored different subjects throughout Israel and Palestine. Koudelka chose to focus primarily on the barrier wall separating Israel from the West Bank, making several trips to photograph between 2008 and 2012. Aperture published his monograph, The Wall, in 2013
In the film, Koudelka explains that the barrier reminds him of growing up within the borders of Czechoslovakia and the Iron Curtain, which limited his movement and separated him from the outside world. Yet he also seems to appreciate the wall as a subject for photography. “Of course, I didn’t like the Wall,” he says, “but in the same time, it is pretty spectacular, this Wall.”
As Koudelka moves through Israel and the West Bank, we see him sitting and looking, waiting for light. Or changing the film in one of his two panoramic cameras. Or crawling on his side in-between coils of concertina wire looking for a photograph. In one scene, Koudelka and his assistant chat with a soldier and local authority figure about their right to photograph. In another, Koudelka shows some curious Palestinian children his camera. As he photographs a guard tower, a soldier warns him over a loud speaker: “Photographer, move away from the fence.” At one point he flees a hailstorm.
We also see Koudelka returning to places he’s already photographed. He compares work prints to what he sees, and notes how scenes have changed since he first photographed them, presumably on a previous trip. Sometimes he seems satisfied he’s made a better picture. At another point, as he confers with the filmmaker about a stack of prints, he notes that sometimes returning to a landscape, “you are more sure if something is all right, because you can’t do it better.” Later, Koudelka talks about a photograph he made in Rome. Ten times he returned to the place, and he could never improve upon the picture he made originally.
Throughout the film, Koudelka also connects his project in Israel and Palestine with his own history and with two of his previous bodies of work—Gypsies and Invasion 68: Prague. He recalls photographing the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, the first and last time he photographed a conflict. Czech citizens, regardless of their differences, rose as one, he recalls. “It was a miracle. And I would never believe that people can change that way,” he says as the film reveals a series of his contact sheets. What united the people of Prague, was that, “You don’t want them [invading soldiers] to be here,” Koudelka explains. “That’s what makes Palestinians strong, too.”
Near the end of the film, Koudelka reveals he “didn’t want to go to Israel” initially because, among other reasons, “I knew that it is complicated, I didn’t want to get mixed up with it.” Koudelka says he tried not to get involved “because I know, if I worry or if I don’t worry it doesn’t change anything. But what I realized that I can do, I can go around and show some people what they maybe haven’t seen.”
Find more information about the film, including screening schedules, here.
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