Life Is Like a Steam on the River

Documentarians Robert Kirchhoff and Filip Remunda describe their adventure of making the Steam on the River.

Steam on the River (Pára nad řekou, Filip Remunda, Robert Kirchhoff, 2015)

The three protagonists portrayed in the film set off on their music career in the 1960s: Laco Deczi – trumpeter, Jan Jankej – contrabass player and Ľubomír Tamaškovič – saxophone. They all believe in themselves and the music they are playing. And they have no other choice. We wanted them to unite and become one in this frame of mind. Each of them is different. One feasts like an animal in the zoo, and another hunts for food in the jungle. But we have ruled out the option to make our film into a documentary portrait.

New Haven, Connecticut. Laco Deczi lives in a wooden cabin by the seaside. It is also the seat of the famous Yale University and a birthplace of the 43rd U.S. President George W. Bush. Population of one hundred and twenty thousand. A very peaceful place. We came here to meet with Laco during the preparations for the shooting. He drove us around the city, stopping by a pile of debris and regretting that we had not been there a week earlier to capture the demolition of a factory stack. He wanted the film to open with a scene in which he would have played his trumpet on the backdrop of falling bricks and demolition noise. The shooting itself unfolded along very similar lines, with Laco spicing the film up with his own ideas. The film opens with a scene of a police car with lights on pulling over in front of a jazz club, and a cop entering the club and later escorting Deczi back to the car. He orders him to put his hands on the car roof and advises him about his rights under arrest and arrests him for making three blunders in a song by Dahoud Clifford Brown. The cop was actually Laco’s neighbour living in the same street, Arpad, a son of Hungarian emigrants. Laco spontaneously surprised him during lunch and asked him if he could play a cop kicking out a jazzman from a music club for messing up a song. Although he’d had a couple of beers, Arpad did not think twice and went to get his car from the station, put on his uniform and joined us on the set. The film was scripted as a sequence of absurd images, a documentary jam-session, in which all characters freely improvise and react to situations which, albeit prearranged, were always left open-ended. So when Chris DePino, a former train conductor, lobbyist and a staunch political supporter of George Walker Bush, called to his ranch in Texas suggesting a recording of a concert of Czechoslovak jazzmen, Laco could have easily stood face to face with the second mightiest man on the planet. But rather than on this mighty man, we focused on Chris and Laco as too good friends who like to fool around.

In the same way, we worked with other characters. Regardless of whether we were shooting Jan Jankej in a St Nicholas costume earning his living in front of a German department store or Ľubo Tamaškovič who set out on a trip to Paris to find his spiritual brother Ray Stephen Oche, with whom he used to play to sold out clubs more than forty years ago. The road to fame is paved with hardship and doubt. The tiresome odyssey is exhausting but at the same time motivating. The everyday routine turns into a succession of expectations, quests, surprises, disappointments and... losses.

They have stayed true to themselves and they are now looking at each other. The situations thus open up the existential topic of the lightness of being, and of death. In the world inhabited by three billion musicians, these three come to the forefront. They appear as part of the absurd, humorous and tragic stories of their lives, as if navigating a mighty river. And time flows. Ľubo Tamaškovič in the film’s opening scene says: “Worldly fame is just a gust of wind. A human life is like a steam on the river, so why hurry?”