Directors Peter Kerekes, Pavol Pekarcík, Ivan Ostrochovský,
Slovakia/Czech Republic/Croatia, 2013, 87 min
During the 1980s, three individuals decided to fight against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in their own unique ways. All three were captured and thrown in jail. In the present day the Communist regime has ended and the Czech Republic remains a proud democracy. But our three protagonists – now released from prison – try to move their lives forward as they dwell upon the past. But as they search for love and meaning in their lives the boundaries between past and present, fantasy and reality and hope and despair begin to blur. The film had its premiere during the 48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The very term “terrorist” is couched in hyperbole and melodrama. Every time the word is uttered images of death, destruction and wickedness are evoked. Yet, as Velvet Terrorists (the title, of course, echoing 1989’s Velvet Revolution in which the Czech people managed to overthrow the Communist regime via peaceful means) shows, the truth is often something much more mundane. Here our terrorists are less than criminal masterminds, but simply more a trio of regular men rallying against their overseers with a resistance that is heartfelt yet seemingly minor.
We have Stano, whose plan was to blow up a tribune in which the Communist leaders were due to sit. Instead he got drunk, was found with the explosives by his side and spent five years in jail. And there is Fero, who planned to assassinate Czechoslovak president Gustav Husak and even managed to contact the CIA. But they didn’t take him seriously and Fero’s hidden cache of explosives was found leading to a 14-year prison sentence. Finally there’s Vladimir, whose rebellion consisted of blowing up bulletin boards which netted him four years in jail.
Ostensibly, the film is concerned with exploring the nature of the three main protagonists and finding out what makes them tick beyond their youthful ‘indiscretions’. Thus Stano is looking for love, Fero lives with his family and Vladimir is looking for a protégé to carry on the fight that he began all those years before. On this level, the film is certainly successful and it works as a pleasant – and sometimes subtly humorous – examination of a group of men of advancing years as they try and define what their lives have meant up until this point. From the perils of dating to trying to teach your son how to do handbrake turns, each tries to deal with modern life in his own unique way.
Yet, as the film goes on and each character reveals more about their past, the film’s more ideological and psychological aspects come into play. As the characters open up to those around them and reveal more of their pasts it becomes clear that the revolutionary acts are very much how they define their lives (especially in the case of Vladimir). On one hand this is simply ideology – each hated the Communist government for both personal and political reasons and wanted to do their bit to shake it up. Even though their crimes were small and insignificant – even Fero’s plot to kill the Czech president seemed riddled with inconsistency – each felt that they were striking a blow against the system. As pointed out during the film “Even little David can cause trouble to Goliath.” Crucially, the film never mocks the characters and lets their small acts of resistance become some of their crowning glories.
But the film also shows how the label of “terrorist” can be as intoxicating as it is ideological. Stano soon regales dates with stories of how he made explosives, while Fero tells his teenage children about smuggling weapons. Most tellingly, Vladimir spends the time with a young girl – his handpicked protégé – and it’s the training of her that seems to give him the most meaning. Here the line between reality and fiction begin to blur. Were their actions those of freedom fighters or of those simply wishing to inhabit the role of “hero”. And should it matter either way?
Aesthetically, the film mirrors this blending of fact and fiction with some stylised material and cinematography. From a number of explosions that seemingly come out of nowhere to some arresting sequences (such as the moment that Stano goes from painting a wall to painting out the dimensions of the cell he had to live in on the floor) the film is chock full of lovely and affecting character moments. But it also helps us question that reality in which the characters lived and that which they face now. As Vladimir continues his training regime, he mentions that his new protégé must not tell anyone what she is doing – which seems a bit difficult when there are cameras following them everywhere.
Both a study of masculinity and an examination of revolutionary ideals, Velvet Terrorists is redolent of the likes of Czech Dream (the directors of which also produced this) and manages to be a subtle work that deals with weighty themes in a clever and often affecting way. _