I get the sense that Czech society doesn’t have any heroes and so we create media heroes. Is Roman Smetana a media hero?
I don’t think so, but I can understand a similar view of the matter. The way in which the media have approached this story, and how they turned Roman into a Don Quixote who goes against the current and who risks spending far more time in prison for something utterly frivolous – I can understand that. In this, our film contributes to this issue as well, and by not remaining on the surface as to what is actually going on around Roman, it gives people a chance to get to know him better. To see his motivations and his doubts, and to come much closer to him. If you were to ask me whether Roman Smetana is a hero, I would answer somewhat ambivalently. I don’t consider his actual act of vandalizing buses to be a heroic act, but I absolutely understand it. It is a natural response to something that I cannot identify with and that I don’t want to be associated with. For example, if the Jihlava festival had a sponsor that I didn’t agree with, and if that sponsor’s ad was played before my film, then I would whistle, I would stand up for myself, and although I would be aware that the festival cannot function without that sponsor, I too would have a fundamental need to stand up against it. What I see as heroic or courageous is in his later behaviour. How he behaved once the whole issue was caught up in the juridical machinery and when he started to be faced by the legal repercussions. And that he did not back down from his position. Many people mockingly said: “A hero for having drawing antennae?!” But that’s complete nonsense. Nobody really respects him for that. In my opinion, anyone who has been following this story at least a little more carefully respects him primarily because he never betrayed that initial and slightly ridiculous act.
Is the case of Roman Smetana a question of freedom of speech? Especially since Smetana has received plenty of space for his views and opinions in the media?
I primarily believe that it is a conflict between law and justice. The greatest mistake made by the court in Olomouc and by judge Langerová is that she interprets the law within the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. She claims that Roman’s act was not a political act, but of course it is a political act. She claims that it is simply vandalism, but that is a completely specious argument. Jiří Pospíšil countered – and in my opinion this is a highly successful argument – that what if Roman Smetana had written “I love the ODS” on those buses? Would he have been similarly ordered to pay damages and spend twelve days sweeping up Olomouc? I don’t think so. The important thing is the content of his message, what he was trying to say – and then we are no longer talking about vandalism or not. Here we are talking about the right to an opinion and freedom of expression. Paradoxically, it has had a very positive influence on the political scene in the sense that since then no politician has dared to persecute someone for vandalising his billboards. The circus that Roman succeeded in unleashing has caused all politicians to be on their toes.
In your documentaries, you often work with caustic irony. How do you know when you have exceeded an ethical boundary beyond which you are manipulating people?
It isn’t a conscious attempt at being ironic. I don’t think anyone is even capable of doing that. Instead, I think it’s a natural need to laugh at something that we find ridiculous. When we feel that somebody is lying through their teeth, that they are not being authentic, then we should admit it and not hide it. It’s about being direct, about being incorrect in the sense that we don’t accept the general agreement that I’ll pose you a question, you say something, and if it makes you look stupid then we’ll try to say it differently somehow... Some journalists and reporters take this approach. We are fare more uncompromising during filming, and in the editing room we very carefully consider whether we might unnecessarily harm someone or whether it might be exaggerated parody. Neither would help the film. Our aim is not to laugh at people. We are interested first and foremost in open debate on a particular topic. And if we find something entertaining, ironic or harebrained, then it is reflected in those films.
You frequently take the media into your sights. In your latest film, you set a television news report to the music of Bedřich Smetana. But aren’t you one of them now, since you work for Czech Television? Haven’t you lost your objective distance?
That is an interesting question. I don’t know whether I am capable of assessing this myself. Just as those television reporters that our film shows in an unflattering light are not completely capable of evaluating themselves. But unlike the media, we do not hide the process of filming. Unlike us, they either don’t want to or can’t film us, turn to us documentarians. They pretend that they aren’t there, and that they are objective. And all the while they work according to a cookbook that tells them what to do, essentially without any chance to improvise. Yes, in some ways we are all in the same boat, but I think that we are willing to show both shores, and in some things we are more open, free, and perhaps even more truthful.
When you hold a press conference in support of Roman Smetana, aren’t you getting too involved in the issue? Doesn’t that make you an activist yourself? Do you think that you, too, are contributing to creating that media bubble?
I understand where you are coming from. I think that the scene with the press conference doesn’t feel all that activist because we invited a string quartet and stylised the situation so that it doesn’t have that one-dimensional righteous anger. As we say in the film, we couldn’t remain behind the camera and pretend that we didn’t agree with him. What happened to him and how courageously he has been dealing with the impacts – we feel that personally, and it really got Filip and me so angry that we decided to take the same path. For instance, to incite others to do the same, which may end up helping Roman. I think that the biggest problem is the person who thinks that if he goes and anonymously draws antennae, that he is somehow supporting him. He isn’t. There is only one way to support Roman Smetana: go and draw antennae and sign your name under it. Do it publicly. Follow his example one hundred percent. Don’t do it anonymously.
We invited those journalists to the press conference in order to tell all of society: Come and follow our example, and his. Come and reclaim the freedom to scribble on political billboards that were partially financed from suspicious sources. Don’t just watch Roman struggle from the comfort of your living rooms and then write on Facebook how cool or what a moron he is. Come and get your hands dirty; after all, it’s so completely normal to have the right to write something on those lying billboards. I have a real problem with people who say that Roman Smetana destroyed those advertisements. He didn’t destroy them, he added to them. He didn’t tear them apart, didn’t cover them up, didn’t paste over them. Everything that they put there, he left in place. He didn’t destroy their message, he added to it. That is dialogue. That has been completely left out of the debate over what Roman did. I feel that political advertising intervenes so aggressively into public space, and it is to a large extent financed from the public budget. Everybody knows that it is a lie and that those politicians aren’t binding themselves to anything. I believe that we have the right to respond, even in such an unconventional manner. I really do believe that. They are such poisonous, tasteless, barefaced lies that I just cannot agree with the notion that they have to be respected out of some kind of sense of correctness and order.
Your latest film strikes me as an exasperated sigh over the conformity of the Czech nation, which has lost all of its Švejk-like sense of rebellion. Do you feel that we are not engaged enough in public life?
I have a pretty ambivalent relationship to the Czech tendency to avoid conflict. I am actually quite happy that we don’t run off to war, that unrest and demonstrations play out without anyone dying, and that we don’t have that hot-headed passion in us that causes the Spanish to overturn cars. I believe that in some ways this lack of hot-bloodedness is wonderful, because we tend to make fun of things instead, to make ironic comments about those stupid elites. I really like that. But there are two sides to every coin. Unfortunately, all this is an expression of a certain level of indifference. Maybe it’s because the media flood us with all those affairs, and people get the sense that there is no point. What to choose from, what to respond to, what to become engaged in? I can see that a little among my students. They have so many options as to where to go, what to study, what subject to try out at other schools, that they prefer not to do anything. I think that diversity of choice leads to a certain feebleness.
Martin Mareček once declared that he cannot imagine a documentary that is not in some way engaged. You yourself are a documentary filmmaker who likes to influence public events, for instance by blocking a highway or building a fake supermarket. Are there any limits to engagement?
I don’t actually have a driving need to be an activist; if anything, I get angry when somebody wastes their potential. My greatest problem with my students is not when they mess something up or something doesn’t work out, but when they don’t work. When they are lazy and put things off. I get most angry at this useless apathy, because it is the greatest killer of everything. So activism in the sense of activity, not in the sense of exaggerated, ostentatious social engagement.
You have worked for commercial television and are currently working on the series “Czech Journal” for Czech Television. Do commercial and public media take a different approach?
I’m considering whether to be honest and to slam shut my door to the Czech media world for the next ten years (laughs). I went to work on “Yes, Chef!” with great trepidation. I did it primarily because I really like him and always found him interesting. That show’s message is that things should be done properly, which I like. I was also worried about what kind of pressure and demands I would have to face. I was incredibly surprised that nobody pressured me into anything. I wasn’t forced to make it more fun; nobody wanted it to be more breezy, dynamic, entertaining. Nobody pushed me to do product placement. I hadn’t had that amount of freedom in a long time. Hats off, I have to say. I am afraid – and I’ll say it politely – that I can’t speak as enthusiastically about Czech Television, which I feel is a real shame. I am worried about where this will lead in the future...
What opportunities do beginning documentarians have? Is the Czech documentary in good hands?
Except for the sceptical intimation of how things work at Czech Television, I believe that Czech Television is still the main partner of authentic and original documentaries. With Mr. Dvořák’s arrival, there has been a large turnover in producers and some very interesting and erudite programming directors have come on board – people who understand documentary film. In this regard, I see a certain amount of hope. The fact that Czech Journal – which by the way I spent three years promoting – only succeeded in being made with the arrival of the new management is a sign that the company is interested in living, up-to-date, and contemporary documentaries. All of a sudden, negotiations were possible and for instance at the first meeting with Mr. Dvořák I was very pleasantly surprised at how he asked about things. I never talked with his predecessor, Mr. Janeček, and never had a chance to hear his opinion on the things that we presented them. So in this regard, our communication has improved and gotten moving and at the beginning of the year I was totally blown away. Now it’s just a question of whether it will last or whether there are some darker undercurrents.
Although some people have compared you with American documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, certain films have begun to be labelled “Klusánigans”. Do you feel like all your films are somehow similar?
I really don’t know. I don’t know what that might be. I think it’s all a bit silly. If somehow tortured me in order to describe what all those films have in common, then I’d say that I like playfulness and surprise. I am far more interested in fiction film, so I tend to create documentaries with a story that are much more like fiction films. That might be something found in those films. And maybe I am also sometimes much more focused on what is happening than on how it is said. There are filmmakers for whom the film’s ideological monopoly is more important, and I don’t deny that those films think and contemplate. But in my opinion it should also tell a story and should do so through the strongest things the medium has to offer.
In what ways is it easier to work as a filmmaking duo, and what are the benefits of working on a film alone? For example, are you hard-headed?
Ever since it’s been just the two of us without an editor, Filip and I have argued much less in the editing room. Before, it was like a struggle to see who would be first to convince the editor of his vision. In addition, I have to say that we make our films on a shoestring budget, so working as a duo strikes me as a great way of not being totally alone. You can shoot a documentary in a team of two or three people, and since both Filip and I have the rank of commanding officer, two sailors always walk across the deck with a more solid stride. Sometimes it causes us to shift responsibilities: I rely on Filip to keep an eye on things, and he does the same. We’ve learned to inspect each other and to communicate a lot. I have to say that I have recently noticed that I am happier when I work with him. It’s like rediscovering that sense of joy all over again.