Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation

November 11, 2006

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Last Monday night the gang and I were treated to a provocative and entertaining DVD projection at our local Czech consulate. Jan Novak, bearded, soft-spoken and ingratiating, introduced the film that he made with his son Adam, Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation. Czech beer was provided free of charge, and the consulate staff was pleasant and well-organized.

During Havel’s farcical car trip through East Bloc Czechoslovakia in 1985, the future president of the Czech Republic was ceaselessly harassed by the Czech secret police. It was just what Havel expected. During this time of intense repression in Czechoslovakia, Havel and the rest of the dissidents who signed Charter 77 made openness their watchword. They sought to provoke and enrage the totalitarian system that stomped on their liberty, and also to publicize their subversive actions to the international community, instead of meeting in secret or communicating in code. With this goal in mind, Havel set out on a summer vacation to purposefully goad the state into throwing him in jail again.

The film depicted Havel’s car trip through Middle European hills and vales in clever reenactments. The anti-drama of a Volkswagen Golf pursued by three cars of somber plainclothesmen brought the viewer into an absurd comedy instead of a harrowing docudrama. “I still remember [Havel’s] license number…” reminisced one cop.

The Czech old-timers who attended the screening knew well the absurdity of total-surveillance state-communism, and they particularly enjoyed the propagandistic Czech news broadcasts that highlighted the ups and downs of that year’s wheat harvest. From occupied France to Pinochet-era Chile, it’s clear that survivors of totalitarianism prefer to think back to the amusing ironies, rather than to the betrayals and the torture and the paranoia.

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Another Czech TV sequence showed the Spartakiada, a compulsory gymnastics exhibition in the Strahov Stadium in Prague. It impressed me as a particularly fascistic extravaganza. The Soviets organized the most talented athletes from the Eastern Bloc who would converge in a grand shirtless display of Communist discipline and agility. These overtly nationalistic gymnastics demonstrations seem not to have not caught on in the West.

Hot Wings recommends Citizen Havel Goes on Vacation!

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