Since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Czechoslovakia’s underground movements have been slowly rediscovered and the numerous communities of musicians, poets and fine artists accorded their proper place in history. Meanwhile, underground films from the 1980s – and the stories of the men and women who made and watched them – have languished undiscovered for nearly 30 years. A whole subculture disappeared after 1989 – not just the physical reels of film but also the industry that sustained it. At long last though, the history and output of underground cinema in Prague’s final decade of communism is being unearthed and studied, and to mark the occasion, as part of the Open City Docs Festival 2015, the Czech Centre hosted a number of events: Czech Docs in London.
On 20th June, Czech filmmaker and film theoretician Martin Blažíček introduced four short films made by an underground community living on the outskirts of Prague in the 1980s: a time when Czechoslovakia had been in the grip of communism for more than three decades. While the filmmakers’ activity wasn’t exactly legal, the state was more permissive about these things than they previously had been, and this marked a considerable change: a decade earlier, following 1968’s fleeting Prague Spring, Alexandr Dubcek’s popular liberal reforms had proved too much for the Kremlin, who retaliated by invading Czechoslovakia with half a million troops. The Communist Party had hardened its resolve and in the ensuing purge half a million members were expelled – with a corresponding emasculation of the arts. The era of ‘normalisation’ had begun: a façade of apparent unbridled joy and prosperity promulgated by the state whilst – in reality – deadening routine and rigidly enforced silence sapped people’s lives and energies. Communism’s final two decades were characterised by cynicism and a soul-destroying atrophy: an attitude of ‘we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us’ increasingly prevailed. Humour and satire provided relief and exposed the gap between socialist rhetoric and reality: seeking to breach this chasm and grasp some meaning in their lives, there was an outpouring of resistance by artists and intellectuals.
Those making the films in the 1980s used multiple pseudonyms, a tactic that both aided their camouflage from state view and abetted the illusion that, in this underground movement, hundreds were involved. The reality was very different – about 10 directors produced more than 80 short films, and astonishingly all were shot on one Super-8 camera shared between the lot of them. In fact their work can be dated, with near exactness, from the camera’s purchase in 1981 until 1986, when someone lost it. The films were screened in private houses – typically invitation-only events where you had to know someone – and only about 50 people in total were involved in making and consuming them: the majority of this group having day jobs provided by the state, in factories or on the land.
Blažíček, who’s been studying the films and interviewing some of those involved, says the group’s motive for making the films was primarily boredom – they were bored with official state cinema and bored with their day-to-day existence. That they were ‘artists’ was an idea the group flatly rejected, deeming art useless and pointless: they had simply wanted to film their own lives. While the films are cultural products of a very specific time and place, it’s hard nonetheless not to place them in a tradition of experimental film-making, the four short films Blažíček selected showing an apparent – and profound – debt to the 1930s Surrealists (though one questions how films like Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930) became a touchstone for thos behind the Iron Curtain). Hand (Carodĕj Oz , 1986) is a case in point, a 5-minute short pivoting around a bony, gnarled hand that crawls tarantula-like over a dark terrain, disembodied from its owner. Likewise, A Fairy Tale for Madmen (Pigi, 1985) is a 20-minute melancholic psychodrama about a woman who thinks the world is a zoo – metamorphosing, in the last scene, into a she-bird desperately trapped in a snowy landscape, flapping her wings but getting nowhere. Both films hint at a pervasive claustrophobia and ever-present sense of menace.
In the aftermath of 1989’s Velvet Revolution, as forty years of communism drew to a bloodless close, the Super-8 films were shelved and most of them stored in a freezer – until six years ago when a major power cut resulted in their being covered in congealing, melting meat products. A long and painstaking process of restoring and digitising the films is now underway, and despite the filmmakers’ denial of their artistic value, the works are being recognised as something of goldmine, a unique product of their time and place, providing rich and enlightening material on that most reliably mystifying of periods in European history: the recent past.
Diaries and Communities: Czech Underground Cinema in the 1980s was screened on June 20th as part of the Open City Docs Festival 2015, supported by the Czech Centre London.