The spirit of the USA’s Wild West is alive and well in Czech Republic tramping culture, as witnessed by the new film Amerika from writer-director-star Jan Foukal.
It isn’t a documentary, but it isn’t exactly a narrative feature, either; this soul-soothing journey through backwater Czech lands offers atmosphere and melancholic remembrance of in lieu of story, and you either go with it or you don’t.
The whole concept is likely to feel foreign for the uninitiated. In the US, “tramp” is a term that originated around the time of the Civil War for a hobo or vagrant that feels “the call of the road” and lives as a drifter travelling through the countryside.
The term was co-opted by Charlie Chaplin for the iconic character he played in most of his films, and the culture of tramps and hobos came to prominence during the Great Depression; my favorite depiction of the lifestyle was in Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North Pole, which starred Lee Marvin as a freight-hopping hobo determined to travel aboard the train manned by a sadistic conductor played by Ernest Borgnine.
In the Czech Republic, tramping dates back to around the same time, and has an unusually specific reverence for American culture: not necessarily depression-era hobo culture, but the cowboys and Indians and the Wild West that represented an idealized version of the country as seen in Tom Mix westerns.
While a tramp in the US was likely forced into the lifestyle through social and/or economic factors, the Czech version was generally attracted to a romanticized Jack London version of the lifestyle, and lived a “normal” working life before taking it to the countryside on foot during their leisure time.
Foukal’s Amerika isn’t really concerned with this backstory; for a more informative overview of tramping culture in the Czech Republic, check out the short documentary Tramping in Bohemia on YouTube.
Instead, this film is all about living the experience of tramping in the modern-day Czech Republic, which involves travelling by bus or train to a remote village and heading out into the forests with a map, a sleeping bag, and a pair of trusty cowboy boots.
The film centers around Foukal and his Canadian friend (of Czech heritage) Barbara Adler, who take to the countryside to get the full tramping experience. But while this duo features onscreen throughout the film, we rarely get insight into their personal stories.
Amerika is more about the journey itself, and the people they meet along the way: an elderly woman who lives alone by the river (and really knows her mushrooms), a journeyman who helps them build a makeshift raft using empty plastic bottles, and the jolly folk that congregate at tramping camps in the middle of nowhere.
Some of the best insight into the culture occurs during the sequences at the camps, filled with guitar strumming by the fire, flowing alcohol, and ritualistic traditions that include the remembrance of those who have passed. The good vibes bleed through the screen.
In the film’s most touching segment, a long-time tramper unspools some black & white 16mm for Foukal and Adler and narrates adventures of times long past, of a group of friends heading out into the wilderness every weekend before returning to the city for the working week. It’s the same kind of journey we take during the course of the film.
Amerika is constructed as a narrative feature: there’s no acknowledgement of the film crew, including cinematographer Jan Baset Střítežský, tracking this journey. But I think it’s safe to assume that the characters and events portrayed are generally true-to-life.
Foukal is lead singer of the folk-rock group Johannes Benz, whose music is incorporated sparsely throughout the film; at one point, Foukal warbles out the nostalgic tune One & One for Adler onscreen.
If you’re interested in the kind of culture and mentality contained within, you’ll find a lot of appeal in Amerika, and the 70-minute running time helps it go down easy even if you’re not. It’s plotless and aimless (much like its characters), but that’s kind of the point: for those on the same spiritual wavelength, the laid-back look into this world is especially appealing.