20 Years of Democracy in Film

In 2009, we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communist rule in Central Europe. Verzio Film Festival and its partner festivals One World Prague, DOK Leipzig, One World Bratislava, and Watch Docs Warsaw, are presenting documentary films from acclaimed Central European filmmakers which in different ways address the achievements, challenges, damage and deceptions accompanying the roads to parliamentary democracy. Our festival program includes seven films. Jan Švankmajer’s satirical The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990) presents a humorous summary of post-war Czechoslovak history, warning of the Stalinist intolerance being reborn in the new nationalist guise. Jan Špáta’s The Greatest Wish (1990) includes references to his banned 1964 work, and collects the answers of young generations from the 1960s and the 1990s, thus creating a generational chronicle of the atmosphere of two crucial moments in Czech history. Gyula Gazdag’s Hungarian Chronicles (1991) also presents a societal portrait, this time through the personal stories of three men and a woman recalling their lives between 1956 and 1989 in Hungary. Another Hungarian documentary in the program is a classic on the economic transition by Pál Schiffer, The Videoton Saga (1993). Schiffer documented the decline of a on-time socialist industrial shop-window, the Videoton electronic factory in Székesfehérvár. Slovak veteran filmmaker Dušan Hanák joins the panorama with an interpretative documentary on the history of socialist Czechoslovakia Paper Heads (1995). The more recent Polish production Goat Walker (Bartek Konopka, 2003) focuses on the consequences of economic changes, addressing recent measures against poverty and unemployment in rural Poland. Last but not least, acclaimed German filmmaker Thomas Heise presents his latest experimental work Material (1988-2009), presenting previously unused film material he had shot during the time before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These films, featuring stories of democratic transformation and the restoration of intellectual freedom, but also encounters with capitalistic thinking and the consumer society, are supplemented by a variety of further documentaries, available for viewing on-line in original with English subtitles via www.20years.org web-site. The films are presented there in five thematic categories, and accompanied by supplementary articles to contextualize the films and stimulate discussions in an on-line forum. The films are available for streaming for free until the end of 2009.

The program

Thomas Heise, Germany, 1988-2009, 164’
A visual diary shot around the time of the fall of the Berlin wall and never released before. Assembled in an associative way, in which chronology takes a back seat to sense and atmosphere, it shows images of the late GDR (re)defined over and over again. A non-linear version of history.

A visual diary assembled from previously unused film material shot at the time before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Put together in a poetic, non-linear way, Material takes off from the premise of recycling, archaeologically as well as reflexively, orphaned images, vagabond, almost ghostly scenes. Such as those recorded by Thomas Heise himself, during the staging of a play by Heiner Müller – but observed from the point of view of the relationship between the audience and the piece, and between the two directors. Images of Democratic Germany up to the present, where political acts, television shows, interviews with prisoners and policemen, the fall of the Berlin Wall and even stones thrown at Müller’s lens follow one after the other. Any film or digital format suits Heise’s digressive memory exercise. Just as the director himself says: “Those residual images have besieged my head, constantly reassembling themselves into new shapes that are further and further removed from their original meaning and function. They remain in motion. They become history. The material remains incomplete. It consists of what I held on to, what remained important to me. It is my picture.”

producer: Heino Deckert
editor: René Frölke
camera: Sebastian Richter, Peter Badel, Thomas Heise, Jutta Tränkle, Börres Weiffenbach
sound: Uve Haussig, Jürgen Schönhoff, Robert Nickolaus, Maxim Wolfram

selected filmography:
Children. As time flies, 2007 / Lucky (Niggers), 2006 / Mein Bruder. We’ll Meet Again, 2005 / The Foreigner, 2004 / Fatherland, 2002 / Neustadt: The state of things, 2000 / Barluschke, 1997 / Jammed - Let’s get moving, 1992 / Volkspolizei 1985, 1985 / Why Make a Film About People Like Them?, 1980

The Goat Walker
Bartek Konopka, Poland, 2003, 50’
A university in Wroclaw undertakes a social experiment: to fight poverty, the inhabitants of a small community are given goats to breed. A humorous portrait of harsh Polish realities.

The main character in this humorous and grotesque story is a female goat, by means of which we learn about recent measures against poverty and unemployment in rural Poland. A university in Wroclaw puts forward a noteworthy social experiment related to centuries of Polish agrarian tradition: instead of financial benefits, the inhabitants of a small community are given goats. They are expected to provide basic foodstuffs such as milk and cheese for "welfare" recipients who cannot be accused of passivity. Many of the families who took part in the experiment had never raised goats, so they gained a lot of new experiences thanks to the animals. The film is a comic portrait of Polish reality in the context of an enlarging European Union.

producer: Maciej Skalski
editor: Jaroslaw Barzan, Bartek Konopka
camera: Piotr Rosolowski
sound: Franciszek Kozłowski, Michal Baginski
music: Piotr Braun, Wojeiech Waglewski

selected filmography:
Rabbit a la Berlin, 2009 / Three for the Taking, 2006

The Greatest Wish
Jan Špáta, Czechoslovakia, 1990, 85’
What is your greatest wish?, Jan Špáta poses the question to youngsters in 1964 then in 1989. Generational chronicle of two milestone moments in Czech history.

“What is your greatest wish?” Jan Špáta put this question to young people in 1964, at the time of political liberalisation and great aspirations. The first generation to come of age after the Second World War commented openly and critically about socialism. Consequently, it is not surprising that the film was banned in 1969. Jan Špáta returned to the question he asked in his survey in 1989. The desires of the new generation are veering towards material security yet they openly criticize the lack of freedom in the country. By coincidence, the last day of shooting was 17 November, and the crew even asked the armour-clad police on Wenceslas Square what their biggest wish was. Spata’s film is a generational chronicle of the atmosphere of two crucial moments in Czech history.

producer: Masa Charouzdova
editor: Jan Petras
camera: Jan Špáta
sound: Miroslav Šimčík

selected filmography:
Between light and darkness, 1991 / Live for Happiness, 1989 / Carpe Diem, 1988 / Get Up and Walk, 1987 / The Land of St. Patrick, 1987 /Karel Gott, 1986 / Greece Transforming, 1983 / Gustav Mahler Variation, 1981 / Follow Your Happiness, 1979 / Brass Music, 1977 / The Sumava Pastoral Poems, 1975

The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia
Jan Švankmajer, Czech Republic, 1990, 10’
From the garbage pile of history Stalin's plaster head rises - now painted in the Czech national colors - from which a new, though still invisible, child is delivered. A biting satire on the legacy of the communist past.

Shortly after the change of the communist regime, Jan Švankmajer, a renouned Czech surrealist artist working in different media, created a short „work of agitprop,” his most political work reflecting on the still close socialist past of his country. It begins with the "Liberation from Fascism" in 1945, and proceeds to the "February affair" in 1948, to the "thaw" starting in the mid-1950s, to the "Prague Spring" in 1968, to the "normalization" after 1969 and finally to the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989. In only ten minutes the absurd tragic stations of the "real socialism" in Czechoslovakia are shown. The story evolving from the delivery of a small Gottwald-bust from the brain of a cut-open Stalin plaster head doesn't reach a happy-end with the „velvet” revolution. From the garbage pile of history Stalin's plaster head rises - now painted in the Czech national colours - from which a new, though still invisible, child is delivered. Švankmajer’s short satire integrates animation, period photos, posters, and other material memorabilia and pervasively argues that a period of transformation is marked by the inevitable legacy of the communist past.

producer: Jaromir Kallista
editor: Marie Zemanova
camera: Svatopluk Maly
sound: Ivo Spalj

selected filmography:
Lunacy, 2005 / Little Otik, 2000 / Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996 / Faust, 1994 / Food, 1992 / Flora, 1980 / Meat Love, 1989 / Darkness-Light-Darkness, 1989 / Self-portrait, 1988 / Another Kind of Love, 1988 / Virile Games, 1988 / Alice, 1987 / The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope, 1983 / Down to the Cellar, 1982

The Videoton Saga
Pál Schiffer, Hungary, 1993, 65’
The saga of the decline of the Videoton Electronic Factory in Székesfehérvár, once a socialist industrial shop-window. A classical documentary on economic transition.

The saga of the decline of the Videoton Electronic Factory in Székesfehérvár. Once a socialist industrial shop-window, Videoton used to be showered with state awards and military commissions, many of them coming from the Soviet Union. In 1987, 12 billion forints were invested to upgrade its research and development department. In spring 1991, as the economic crisis unfolded, Videoton production dropped by a third, its debt grew exponentially, and finally the bankruptcy followed suit. Most of the employees had been connected to the factory for decades and did not see bright chances to find new jobs. Yet in the overall mood of despair new ideas of how to provide for the family slowly emerged. Mrs. Farkas started a second-hand clothes shop getting help from the family to start a business. Ex-foreman Imre Varga planned to open a security company. As through the next months they and many more workers are sacked, we witness their struggle to adapt during times of crisis. A classical documentary on economic transition by Pál Schiffer.

producer: Péter Kővári
editor: Béla Nyíri
camera: Balázs Bélafalvi
sound: Frigyes Wahl

selected filmography:
Elektra, avagy: Bevezetés a kapitalizmus politikai gazdaságtanába, 1995 / Engesztelő 1956–1989, 1989 / Az ibafai kovboj, 1987 / A Dunánál, 1987 / Kovbojok I–II., 1985 / Földi paradicsom, 1983 / Nyugodjak békében, 1982 / A pártfogolt, 1981 / Cséplő Gyuri, 1978 / Mit csinálnak a cigánygyerekek?, 1973

Hungarian Chronicles
Gyula Gazdag, Hungary, 1991, 98’
Three men and a woman recall their lives between 1956-1989 in Hungary. Subtle chronicles of communist Hungary by prominent Hungarian director Gyula Gazdag.

Three men and a woman recall their lives between 1956-1989 in Hungary. The narrating protagonists revisit their memories both mentally and physically. One of them survived his own execution, the other became a widower, the third turned from Secret Service officer into a teacher in a remote country village, and the fourth was an intellectual persecuted after 1956. Interestingly, they all remember their youth somewhat differently than they would wish to. There are no conclusions - were there any they would be false. Subtle chronicles of communist Hungary.

producer: Laure Friant
editor: Anna Kornis
camera: Gabor Szabó
sound: György Fék
zene: György Kurtág jr.

selected filmography:
Ginsberg - Egy költö a Lower East Side-ról 1997 / Túsztörténet, 1989 / Hol volt, hol nem volt..., 1987 / Elveszett illúziók, 1982 / A kétfenekű domb, 1977 / Bástyasétány 74, 1974 / A határozat 1972 / A sípoló macskakő, 1972 A válogatás / 1970

Paper Heads
Dušan Hanák, Slovakia & France & Switzerland & Germany & Czech Republic, 1995, 96’
The Kafkaesque absurdities of everyday life in Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1989 are contrasted with archival propaganda footage showing the official version of life in the workers' paradise. A meditation on freedom and lack thereof by the famous Slovak director.

Paper Heads is a highly interpretive, passionate, and sometimes savagely funny documentary on the history of socialist Czechoslovakia. Made after the demise of the regime and the country, it combines archival footage and personal testimonies to open up new perspectives on the country's internal situation between 1945 and 1989. The title refers to a satirical May 1 celebration in which people parade with paper masks that mock Communist leaders. More than a political satire, the giant paper heads which are part of a staged happening on the streets of Bratislava symbolize the timeless dimension of the film’s message, and the significance of Hanák’s oeuvre in general: this is a reflection on what makes us human, on Hanák’s constant “search for his lucky number”, and on faith in the face of skepticism. Along with a personal look at the Czechoslovak past, the film also portrays the uncertainties and controversies of a post-communist society.

producer: Marian Urban
editor: Patrik Pašš, Alena Pätoprstá
camera: Alojz Hanúsek
sound: Igor Vrabec, Pavol-Ján Jasovsky
music: Pavel Fajt

selected filmography:
Private Lives, 1990 / Silent Joy, 1985 / Goose Bumps, 1983 / A Place Among People, 1981 / I Love, You Love, 1980 / Doctor Jorge, 1977 / The Rosy Dreams, 1976 / Ma-tel-ko no. 9, 1975 / Flight of the Blue Bird, 1974 / Pictures of the Old World, 1972 / Leaving a Trace, 1970 / 322, 1969 / Variations of Tranquillity, 1967