The new documentary The Old Man and the World explores the life of one of the greatest of Czech travellers, Miroslav Zikmund. The exploits of Zikmund (now almost 96) and his partner Jiří Hanzelka made them big stars in a period beginning in the late 1940s.
The film is directed by Petr Horký, a traveller who has himself shot in around 80 countries around the world. Before we discussed the documentary, I asked Horký when his own wanderlust began.
“I guess I was about six years old. My father took me mountain climbing and I decided, this is something I want to do all my life, as I think most boys do at this age.
“Of course, during the time it was impossible [to travel to the West], so I was travelling in the Czech Republic, to Hungary… I was in East Germany, in Russia – which was the Soviet Union at that time.
“Then after the Velvet Revolution I started to travel. Friends of mine started to grow businesses and I started to grow my travel diaries.”
That must have been good timing – you were, what, in your mid teens when the revolution happened?
“Yes, I was 17, 18. It was just the right time for me. I can say I’m part of a happy generation – we received the revolution just at the right time for us.”
Did you already have an interest in film at that time as well? Or did that come later?
“No. At that time I was absolutely sure that there was no chance for me to do any film. So when my friend Miroslav Náplava and
I organised a trip to Mongolia and the Gobi Desert we were looking for a director who could be a member of our crew, just to do a film.
“But we didn’t have too nice an experience with him and I said to myself, there’s no other option,
I have to start myself and do anything – not a film but maybe a two-minute report for television or some magazine, anything.
“So I slowly started, from one- or two-minute materials to longer and longer pieces. My last piece was half an hour, so I’m worried how long they’ll be in 10 years maybe [laughs].”
If I understand it right, the trip to the Gobi Desert and Mongolia was your first big international trip. It must have been quite an education?
“Yes, it was of course. I’m thinking what was the field of knowledge where it was the most important, but it was so important for all of my personality [laughs].
“It was my first of Central Asia, my first experience of real filming. I’m sure that every trip moves a person on a little bit, so when it was my first – and I was maybe 20 – it was very important, of course.”
Incredibly, you’ve filmed in something like 80 different countries. Do any stand out as being particularly memorable?
“Yes, it’s Mongolia still, I have been there four times, I guess. Sri Lanka…”
You’ve also been to the North Pole, to Greenland – you skied across Greenland.
“Yes, I love polar parts of the Earth, so Greenland is part of my heart, definitely, I love it there. And I would love to see Antarctica. I haven’t been there.”
What’s been the most challenging trip to date?
“Maybe crossing Greenland. It’s pretty tough, pretty long, and it’s not so interesting for ordinary people; usually people don’t really know what it means to cross Greenland. So definitely this trip.”
How long did it take you?
“Twenty-five days, I think. Yeah, about 560 kilometres.”
I presume when you travel to these far-flung places that most people you meet haven’t heard of the Czech Republic?
“Most of them haven’t. I have a beautiful story from South America, when I was on I think Lake Titicaca, yes, probably when I was in Peru.
“I was talking with local people and they asked me where I was from. I said the Czech Republic and they’d never heard of it.
“So they asked me, what language do you speak there? I said, the Czech language. They said, all right, we understand, but what is the official language?
“I said, it’s Czech. They said, impossible, how many people live there? I said, about 10 million. They said, you are lying, it’s not possible to have an official language for just 10 million people.
“Of course, the whole of South America speaks Spanish or Portuguese, so for them it was unimaginable that there can be a country so small where all the strange people speak a secret language for only 10 million of them. So yes, it happens usually.”
You’ve filmed with some of the greatest travellers, including Thor Heyerdahl, Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner. Did any of them make a particular impression on you at the personal level?
“Yes, Thor Heyerdahl. We met over a period of five or six years – the last six years of his life. We became something like friends, if it’s possible to say that – he was very much older than me.
“But we had something in common so there was a reason to meet each other, to talk not only about filming but about life, about travelling.
“It was very important for me personally, and for my job – just to learn how to do things, how to communicate, how to prepare, how to build a workflow of a job.
“We are still in contact with Thor Heyerdahl’s widow Jacqueline. We have a very nice relationship and in November we are going to meet her, to introduce her to our small daughters, so they know each other.”
You also became friends with one of the greatest Czech travellers, Miroslav Zikmund, and now you’ve got a documentary about him the English title of which is The Old Man and the World. How did that film come about? I met him several years ago and he seemed like a private man. For example, on his card there was no phone number.
“Yes. He is a private man and this is maybe kind of his fortress, his way of preserving his personal space. Because even though he is almost 96 years old, he is still very famous.
“He is not a typical star, on the front pages of newspapers, but almost everybody in our country knows him, and what’s important, wants to talk with him.
“Because he’s a very interesting person. His charisma is very strong – as you met him personally, I think you can say that that’s right.”
“And it really is very interesting to meet him and talk to him. He lives in Zlín, quite a way from Prague, and he lives in his own world a little bit. He keeps it safe and quite preserved.
“We became friends about 20 years ago and I’ve had the idea of doing a film about him, about his life, since maybe six years ago, when I started to ask him.
“Every time I asked him, he said, let’s talk about something different. When I said, what about making a film about your life, he said, I have too many things to do with my personal archive so maybe we can postpone it and talk about it later.
“Suddenly about three years ago he said, I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve decided that you can start the film, Petr. And if we will do a film about my life, let’s do it properly.
“He offered me his personal diaries for his whole life. He’s been writing it for 75 years, maybe. That’s the dream for every documentary maker – to receive material like this, a charismatic person and his whole life’s diaries.”
Considering that you’ve known him for 20 years was there anything surprising that you learned about him in the film-making process?
“Of course, of course. You know, I am sure you have close friends, but it doesn’t happen too often that you talk just about their life or your life.
“So when we started to work on the film we started to talk about a special periods of his life. It was something like a journey in time.
“We went back, not only through his personal history but through the history of the Czech Republic and almost through the history of the world, the last 100 years.”
Given that he’s almost 96 years old he experienced many key moments in modern Czech history.
“That’s right. He experienced the invasion in 1968. He also met all of our presidents. Only two of them didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Mr. Zikmund – Hácha and Husák.
“But he personally met for example Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk the founder of our country – and who can say that now?
“It was difficult for me at the beginning to decide how to build the story of the film. Should I focus on the official history? Should I focus on his travelling history? It was difficult at the beginning to decide.”
You mentioned 1968. I know after ’68 he and his travelling companion Hanzelka were no longer allowed to travel any more. But previous to that what had his relationship been with the government, with the authorities? He was a member of the Communist Party.
“Yes, he was, it’s a good question. When Mr. Zikmund and Mr. Hanzelka were on their second big expedition, a five and a half year trip through Asia and back through the Soviet Union, they decided to ask for membership of the Communist Party.
“That was in Japan, on the territory of the Czechoslovak Embassy in Tokyo. So these are quite bizarre circumstances for asking for membership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
“It helped them when they were travelling through the Soviet Union. Being Communists they had slightly better relations with the locals there.
“They travelled through many parts of Siberia, for example, where no foreigner had ever been before. The people asked them, how can you appear here? How is it possible that you can just move here with your cars? So it helped them very much.
“What is important to say is that when Mr. Hanzelka and Mr. Zikmund did anything, as is my experience, they did it properly.
“When they decided to become part of the Communist Party, they decided to work on the development of our country, to be active.
“So when they went back to Czechoslovakia they started to cooperate on opening communism, on building communism with a human face, as it was called at that time.
“In 1968 when the invasion by Warsaw Pact armies of our country took place, it was very difficult for them because of the bad situation for the country.
“But I think for them it was some kind of personal crisis because they had to decide if they had helped to build the position for enemy armies and if they had helped to build something bad – and what to do about that then.”
Today how does Miroslav Zikmund view his activities at that time?
“He… because we have talked about it and this is in the film, he felt it as a serious mistake. But once you do something, you cannot undo it.
“The only thing to do is to try to work to make it better. Or to somehow undo the bad consequences you helped to bring into being.
“So he says, we were old and clever enough not to commit suicide, and we decided to work against the bad things that were happening in our country at that time.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 29, 2014.