“History is but the nail upon which the picture hangs” wrote Alexander Dumas and bearing this in mind is perhaps one of the best ways to enter into the world of the film Zamatovi teroristi (Velvet Terrorists) whose metaphorical nail shrewdly conflates past and present history and whose narrative paints an esoteric and off-beat picture of life under the Soviets in the former Czechoslovakia. Velvet Terrorists, a Slovak/Czech/Croat production, is a clever amalgamation of three separate accounts of idiosyncratic and individual small rebellions perpetrated on the Communist authorities during the Soviet occupation. Three directors – Ivan Ostrochovsky, Pavol Pekarcik and Peter Kerkes – were responsible for making the film and while it might seem safe to assume that each vignette was directed by one director, I was informed during a conversation that all three were involved with all three vignettes – so this is not a port-manteau film. Nor is it strictly speaking, a fictional or a non-fictional film. The stories are true and the actors playing the subversives are the actual individuals who carried out the defiant acts – and who were each given disproportionately high prison sentences for their various acts of defiance – but the tales are set in a fictional world. A sort of film a clef, if you will. It was this imaginative approach to the storyline that impressed the three FEDEORA judges of the East of the West strand which lead them all to agree that it was the best film in the competition.
It should be noted at this point that a close runner-up for best film was Zazrak (Miracle) a Slovakian/Czech co-production directed by Juraj Lehotsky with a stunning debut performance by non-professional actress Michaela Bendulova whose screen presence as a defiant but self-defeating young woman who gets caught up in low-life crimes and is bearing an unwanted pregnancy is both a harrowing and redemptive experience to watch.
Now it is worth observing here that some of the former Easter Bloc countries – much like America and its Vietnam history – have taken a while to cinematically uncover the truths both unpleasant and absurd of their post-war histories. But when these histories begin to unfold in genres beyond the expected realist and dramatic ones and can be presented in quirkier and more humorous forms, then a sense of a nation coming to grips with its past and learning to live with that metaphorical nail and picture of Dumas’ becomes evident and the films begin to reflect this diversity of interpretation. Velvet Terrorists succeeds admirably in reflecting this post partum historical situation.
The narrative of the film is set in the present but a present very much with one foot in the past. The message (and this is not a message film) seems to be – especially in the third sequence – that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Revealing their own stories of their past small, but brave, acts of subversion each character Stan, Fero and Vladimir tells his story to contemporary Czechs and as each does, the tone palette of the film shifts between resignation to the Soviet past to distrust of the present post-communist state based upon another false ideology – capitalist consumption. The directors have each narrator tell his story – usually direct to camera but sometimes within the semi-fictional world of the movie – about how he came to be incarcerated by the regime and what his particular act of subversion was. Stano had plans to blow up a speaker’s platform in a stadium on the night before May Day celebrations, for which he received a sentence of five years. Fero planned to assassinate President Husak which he hoped would kick-off an anti-Communist insurrection, he too landed up in prison. Vladimir engaged in repeated anti-regime acts, the majority of which involved destroying propagandistic billboards. As each recounts the story of his past within a contemporary setting of his present circumstances a touching, absurd, humane and heroic portrait evolves.
The film opens quietly, as we see an abandoned chimney in the landscape which, after a few seconds is blown up accompanied by the sound not of a boom but a ding from a desk bell – a conceit which plays throughout the film. A man is standing nearby and the screen turns to black with the stark white word Stano written across it. And this is how we enter into Stano’s story of his past and his present. He is a builder, or more relevantly, a man who sledgehammers houses down. We next seem him in his kitchen, face to camera, telling his tale. We see him with friends and on his own pursuing his little hobby of blowing up trees. He is clearly lonely and in common with the other rebels appears to be a man out of time. We next encounter him at a table at the aptly named Hotel Romantik where he is awaiting a blind date. The awkwardness of the situation is evident and during the course of his segment of film we realise that this will be a recurring theme. As he sums it up at the end of the film, a perfect date would be to go on a picnic to a secluded lake with a beautiful woman having – unbeknownst to her – planted explosives in the middle of the lake and at an unexpected moment to set them off. In fear and surprise she would then thrust herself into his arms. “This to me is the perfect date”, he states.
Fero by contrast seems to be happily married with children. He recounts his tale of subversion and imprisonment in a more matter of fact manner. He continues however to keep in shape, and to teach his children how to drive a car in order to escape authorities who might be trying to trap them. He also keeps a pistol hidden, which he lovingly greases and keeps ready for future use while all the time practicing his shooting and boxing. Like Stano and later Vladimir we learn that each of these men prioritise keeping fit and ensuring readiness for any necessary future anti-government actions. Fero also enjoys making amateur bombs.
In the final and strongest episode of the three we hear Vladimir’s tale. Vladimir, a former body builder tells his tale of destroying billboards of communist propaganda, but he is also keen to take on a rebel apprentice and train her in body, mind, and spirit so that she will be ready for… what? We don’t really know. Although in a beautiful finale to his story, which I won’t spoil, a strong and amusing clue is provided. The relationship between his young female trainee and himself is touching, humorous and endearing. There is a hint of sexual chemistry between the May-December pair but the directors have shown great restraint in not taking the easy and distracting path that elaboration on this point would have made.
Velvet Terrorists is an insightful, intelligent and amusing semi-documentary film which presents the too easily forgotten Soviet past in a serious-minded way to a generation of iphone/ipad/ipod junkies who seem, this film implies, to be brainwashed into submission and conformity by the hegemonic culture of globalisation. Religion it seems is not the opium of the masses – consumption is.
Will a film like this get a theatrical release in English language territories? Unlikely. And so I finish this report with a frequent sounding lament – a film like Velvet Terrorists would once have happily found a cinematic home at the many rep cinemas that used to dot the landscape in the 60s to mid 80s. A time when subtitles probably meant an interesting European film rather than hard work, and certainly signalled a film experience decidedly not of Hollywood’s making. But the mighty multiplex now rules and in filmic terms it is the multiplex that is the opium of the masses.
James Evans, UK