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How I Became a Kid Again: A Cinematic Journey in Prague

November 21, 2017
A wide view of Prague, Czech Republic from the top of a hill
The view of Prague from the top of the observatory tower at Petřín. Photo credit: Juliette Greene

Hello everyone! Currently I am writing from my apartment in the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, where I am studying narrative filmmaking at the Prague Film School. I am here with about nine other Obies, which is pretty wild, as it's been like a mix of home and newness all at once. I apologize for not writing in a while–I’ve been enormously busy with working on projects so it’s been difficult to find time to write!

Here are some fast facts about my experience so far:

  • Prague is fantastic, and very hip.
  • Prague is also quite cold, perhaps due to large amounts of the cold stone in the buildings (not sure if there’s any scientific basis to this, but it’s just what my mom and I think).
  • I didn’t pack a winter coat with me and that was a HUGE mistake. Do yourselves a favor if you study abroad in Europe in the fall and bring a frickin winter coat. And wool socks.
  • I was in the same room as Margaret Atwood for an hour and a half. She was about thirty feet from me the whole time. It was very cool.
  • People walk their dogs here unleashed. The dogs just follow their owners around, and they're extremely well behaved.
  • It’s extremely hard to find a Guinness in any place except for Irish pubs here, but then again, I am studying in the Czech Republic, not Ireland.
  • Free tap water virtually doesn’t exist here, so I carry a water bottle.
  • My neighborhood (Vinohrady) is aggressively hilly, so I had sore legs the first few weeks here because I was running on different terrain than what I'm used to.
  • Prague cinemas screen movies for significantly longer periods of time than American cinemas do, which has allowed me to see some movies that came out earlier this summer that I didn’t get the chance to see when I was in the US (The Beguiled).
  • There's a lot of vegetarian-hostile restaurants, but if you look hard enough, you'll find that there's a thriving number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
  • A lot of Chinese restaurants here serve french fries as sides with their dishes. I am very confused by this, as a Chinese-American. 
  • Prague people have extremely good taste in backpacks. Never before have I ever seen such stylish work and school bags on my daily commute to and from school on the tram. Step it up, America, and get backpacks with a single buckle closure!
  • I’ve started reading Dracula, just as some light bedtime reading. Plus Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, which is the first spy novel I’ve ever read.
  • There’s a ton of really cool lighting shops in Prague, just all over the place. It’s great to just turn a corner sometimes and just stumble upon a shop with a lot of hip-looking lamps in the window. It’s these small moments of joy that I live for.
  • I've also taken what some would call The First Step in Becoming A Very Serious Actor: I cut my hair for a role!
    • It sounds a lot more extreme when it's said that way, but I took my hair shears and very roughly buzzed the back of my head in my bathroom.

I was absolutely terrified before coming to Prague, because I don’t speak any Czech. Luckily, many Czech people speak English so I don’t have to rely on my German or my French to communicate things. I also am amused when tourists come up to me and ask for directions, and I see a look of shock come across their faces when they hear my American accent.

Study abroad has been such an immersive experience that I really haven’t had much time to sit back and be introspective about how it’s impacted me thus far. But one change that I am aware of is that I’ve simultaneously “grown up” more, but also have become more in touch with my inner seven-year-old. So in the process of “growing up,” I have also become more like a child again, if that makes any sense. I’ll explain further. 

When I was a kid, I was probably like most other kids in that I was not self-conscious at all. I would love going on stage at my summer camp and act in silly plays and just make a fool out of myself in front of lots of people. Then, like most other kids, I got older and more self-conscious, and perhaps a little jaded, and I lost that element of play and joy that I used to have. Everything became very Serious with a capital “s” and I would tell my parents that I felt like I was 35 years old all the time.

And then I decided to take an acting class here at the Prague Film School, and I was challenged to just let go and act completely silly and fully commit to doing something, no matter how ridiculous it was. And as the class progressed, I noticed how I was itching to do improv exercises like leading everyone in the class in a dance to the music my teacher would put on, and to use this primal, unhinged energy that I was filled with all the time as a kid. But most of all, I saw how much I actually enjoyed being like a kid again. Even though the class was on Monday nights after a long day of classes, I would be there with a huge smile on my face and just absolutely loving every minute of it.

And thus, I learned a really important part of filmmaking and acting, which is the element of play. I mean, everything that happens in the process of making a movie is artificial. It’s a highly controlled, highly calculated activity, and it’s basically just an epic form of make-believe, especially when you get things like a green screen involved (look at these behind the scenes material from my new favorite Marvel movie, Thor: Ragnarok if you don't believe me). So I’ve discovered, through getting re-acquainted with my inner kid, that we can celebrate that part of filmmaking by approaching it in this way, using the primal, uninhibited parts of ourselves that were there when we were children.

That’s not to say that I’ve been making only comedies here. It’s actually quite the opposite, and I’ve been a little surprised at how I’ve only made dramas here. My instincts as a screenwriter tend to skew towards comedy, particularly dark comedy, when I’m not really writing anything with a grand vision in mind. But I think having this light-hearted philosophy of child’s play and filmmaking will make tackling difficult subject matter less emotionally-taxing for me, especially if I’m going to act in my own films again.

Essentially, this transformation from More Serious Jules to Less Serious Jules can be illustrated more saliently in the transformation that Thor just went through in Thor: Ragnarok. In case you haven't seen it or aren't familiar with Thor in any of the previous Marvel movies (I don't blame you, Thor was one of the least exciting Avengers for me), he was largely a self-serious, awkward, space alien version of Hamlet with great hair and an annoying brother. But under the helm of one of my favorite directors, Taika Waititi, Thor has undergone a radical transformation in Ragnarok where he is now a silly, sensitive weirdo who also happens to also be the God of Thunder. In a sense, Prague has been my own Ragnarok (without the connotation of what Ragnarok actually is in Norse mythology)–a lively injection of lightness and humor in an overarching story that has often skewed overly serious in the past.

On another note, Prague has been a wonderful city to study filmmaking in. As I mentioned earlier about the Prague cinemas, it seems like there’s just an overall better film culture here than even back in New York (or maybe I’m just not as tuned into the film culture of my hometown, but that’s unlikely). Every couple of weeks it seems there is a film festival going on in one of the two main art house theaters, and I’ve had the chance to attend one that featured films that played at Cannes this year that haven’t been released yet (called Be2Can), and the Aussie and Kiwi Film Fest. I especially loved the latter festival because it featured a number of Māori films, and, being Māori myself, I experienced a sense of wholesomeness in seeing the work from other filmmakers in my community. In a way, it added context to what I am currently doing in Prague, as an indigenous filmmaker whose ancestral home is more than eleven thousand miles away from where I currently am. The theaters were packed with audience members for the screenings, Czech or otherwise, and it was gratifying to see that so many non-Māori people are interested in seeing Māori stories. Seeing both the films and the amount of people that were also there was such a contrast to the isolation that I experience on a day-to-day basis as the only Māori, nay indigenous, person I know in Prague and the Czech Republic. And given that I am just about to go into production for my final film of the semester that is inspired from my own experiences as a multiracial indigenous person, I feel especially grateful to have had this extra little “push” that reminds me of why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Though I'm trying to live in the present as much as possible in the remaining time I have here in Prague, I can't help but wonder how different I'll be once I return to Oberlin. It could be that I really won't be different at all to anyone who knows me, but I predict that I'll have a different outlook on being a student. One of the most valuable things I've learned in Prague is how fun it is to make a fool out of myself sometimes, so I hope I can bring this lesson back to me when I return back to campus next semester.

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