Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?

What were the two last years in the life of former dissident, ex-president Václav Havel like? How did he reflect on the fact that he was gradually leaving this world? Documentarian Petr Jančárek talks about his upcoming documentary film capturing the final stretch of Havel’s, life, the rough cut of which was shown at the Ji.hlava IDFF in the Studio 89 section marking this year’s anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution.

From the upcoming film Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?

Václav Havel was and certainly will remain one of the most prominent figures of Czech history of European and even global dimensions. Being a director of his own life, his fascinating story is full of paradoxes, absurdity as well as twists and turns, often caused by the fact that he stubbornly insisted on keeping his actions in line with his consciousness and putting the common good above his own. 

Who would not want to make a documentary about such a character? It was my great honour when in April 2009, Václav Havel asked me in his Prague offices whether – as he himself put it – I “wouldn’t want to record the rest of his life”. I could give only one answer to his question, although I had no idea what his proposal would entail. Havel’s co-worker Martin Vidlák wrote: “Director Petr Jančárek started to work with President Havel in 2003. He regularly recorded Václav Havel’s video greetings and speeches for Czech and international meetings and events which the ex-president could not attend in person. In 2006, we collaborated on TV trilogy Václav Havel, Prague – Castle about president’s federal days and three years later, Václav Havel suggested further collaboration with Petr Jančárek. He was absolutely open to Petr and trusted his directing and cinematography skills. Petr, on the other hand, took utmost responsibility for the collected footage, limited the number of crew to minimum, and his collaboration with the ex-president’s office and security was smooth as well as his unobtrusive presence at the recorded events.”

From the upcoming film Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?

Havel through new lens

It was not so easy to turn down all new offers and dedicate my time to Václav Havel, financing the shooting initially from my own sources and combining the work with other projects in progress… My friends fortunately helped with the funding – the co-owner of rights to the footage is the Michael Kocáb Foundation. 

Havel’s extraordinary life has inspired numerous books, historical studies and documentary films. However, I am convinced that his footprint on the Czech and international scene is so unique that there is still space for many more different renditions of his life and fate. However, me and my colleagues – co-author of the script Martin Palouš and editor Jan Turek – have to find a completely new lens to look at the dramatist, dissident, politician and statesman.

"We have approximately two hundred hours of very rare footage to process, containing so far unreleased scenes from Czech and international public occasions which Václav Havel attended, his meetings with prominent figures and with entirely unknown people..."

We have approximately two hundred hours of very rare footage to process, containing so far unreleased scenes from Czech and international public occasions which Václav Havel attended, his meetings with prominent figures and with entirely unknown people. The footage captures his presidential schedule as well as his private life.

Our protagonist is able to stay on top of things and be aware of the general implications, at the same time being capable of formulating a brilliant analysis of reality. In addition to his appearances on camera and comments for microphones, he also produced his own dramatic pieces, essays and presidential speeches. Apart from our time-lapse footage, we use these works as additional sources to describe Havel's figure. 

Director of his own life

I have personally always been fascinated by the fact that Václav Havel was a dramatist not only in the standard sense of the word. He was constantly sketching and staging each movement around, in his essence acting like a director from the very beginning of his creative existence, long before he started shooting his own film, Leaving.

From the upcoming film Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?

Another quite substantial and characteristic feature of our protagonist was that there was practically no difference between Havel as a private person and Havel as a public figure. The fact that these two were identical was an obvious expression of his spontaneity as well as his profound responsibility and ingrained need of self-control. I guess that he was actually constantly struggling with his own doubts and weaknesses, which I often experienced in his company. But he always managed to immediately find his way out of these struggles – as a dissident, prisoner, politician or free citizen – being able to take a clear stance and make the right decision. This might also be the key to Václav Havel as a protagonist in front of the camera where he appeared more often and more willingly than anyone else. On top of that, he was always inspiring, witty, playful and I am sure that he never did it for the show. 

We are now in the post-production stage, repeatedly watching the whole footage and discovering previously overlooked treasures and additional material for situations we are already working on. The entire process is absolutely fascinating. But there is always the ruthless reminder of the most obvious fact – that we have a raw diamond in our hands that we mustn’t destroy during the grinding. To leverage and process the footage collected in the last three years of Václav Havel’s life as best as we can is the fundamental prerequisite for the film’s success.

Translated by Viktor Heumann

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starší články

17. 12. 2019

from current issue:

New releaseShooting About KunderaDocumentarian Miloslav Šmídmajer describes the process of making a documentary about Milan Kundera with the working title “Milan Kundera: From the Joke to Insignificance.” Miloslav ŠmídmajerThemeNest in the bedroomPeter Hames, well-known British film historian and author of the book The Czechoslovak New Wave sent his remembrance to Karel Vachek to our magazine.Peter HamesThemeNever stop laughingPaolo Benzi, the Italian film producer and founder of the independent film production company Okta Film, describes for dok.revue how he met famous Czech documentary filmmaker Karel Vachek, who passed away last year. Paolo Benzi is also the main tutor of the Emerging producers in Ji.hlava IDFF.Paolo BenziThemeBehold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightenedIn this English issue of dok.revue we have collected some remembrances to Karel Vachek, the respected Czech documentarist who died in December 2020 at the age of 80. One of the contributors is Olaf Möller, a well-known film theorist and critic collaborating with many renowned film magazines (Film Comment or Sight & Sound), film museums and festivals (e.g. Il Cinema Ritrovato or International Film Festival Rotterdam).Olaf MöllerThemeEvery human being should get to wear comfy shoesThe Czech documentarist Karel Vachek was a chairperson of the jury at Yamagata international documentary film festival (YIDFF) in 2009. The board member of YIDFF and the former director of this festival, Asako Fujioka, has a remembrance of him smoking his pipe and going to the mountains with Japanese poet and filmmaker Yoshimasu Gozo to recite poetry to the skies.Asako FujiokaThemeLike the dog on the beach...American film historian Alice Lovejoy writes her remembrance of Karel Vachek, the remarkable Czech documentarist to whom we dedicate this English issue of dok.revue.Alice LovejoyInterviewThe times of lifelong careers are overAn interview with documentarian Jindřich Andrš, whose film A New Shift won the Czech competition section Czech Joy at Ji.hlava IDFF2020.Vojtěch KočárníkInterviewGoing to the Polish Turf with Our Own TeamInterview with documentary filmmakers Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák about their latest joint film project Once Upon a Time in Poland that shows how religion and faith are misused in contemporary Poland for mass manipulation and political purposes. The film‘s Czech premiere was held as part of the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival 2020.Kamila BoháčkováIntroductionDok.revue 1.21This issue is dedicated to the doyen of Czech documentary filmmaking Karel VachekKamila Boháčková