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Velvet Recall: ‘A Spiritual Revolution’

Posted on 16 November 2009 by admin

By Natalia O’Hara

On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: author, commentator, and Catholic priest Tomas Halik.

We started preparing for the canonization of St. Agnes of Prague in 1987, but there was a delay, and so the canonization was in November ’89. When we left Prague for Rome there was already something in the air.

One evening in Rome, I was out walking, although the weather was terrible. Down a little street I ran into [Archbishop of Paris] Cardinal Lustiger, whom I had met once before in Prague. He said, “Try to contact the Holy Father,” so I wrote a letter. I went to dinner with John Paul II on the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had been on the news that day saying, “There will be an end to communism. You will be free.” I said, “Holy Father, I don’t believe it. I think that in five or 10 years, maybe it might happen.” But he insisted that it would come soon. Continue reading …

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Velvet Cinema

Posted on 12 November 2009 by admin

By Daniela Ivanova

For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.

February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’s From My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’s The Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.

Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.

This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.

The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD

In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.


With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.

Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.

In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.

Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.

“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.

“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”

The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.

Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.

“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.

“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”

INTO THE LIGHT

What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89

“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”

The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.

In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.

While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”

The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.

Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.

To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”

Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).

Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.

“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”

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Zhivkov With Us

Posted on 11 November 2009 by admin

By Boyko Vassilev

More than anyone else in modern times, he ruled Bulgaria. For three and a half decades from the mid-1950s until glorious 1989, comrade Todor Zhivkov, secretary general of the Bulgarian Communist Party, decided the fortunes of the country, and he has left his mark on it ever since.

zhivkov statue

Statue of Todor Zhivkov in Pravets, Bulgaria. Photo by Bruce McDon.

His aides say he collected jokes about himself; even if this is not true, the jokes were countless. They parodied his peasant background and folksy style, but at the end he somehow outsmarted people much better educated than him. Among themselves Bulgarians referred to him by the personal and quasi-respectful “Bai Tosho” or “Tato,” a fond diminutive for father. On 10 November 1989 he was sacked by his party comrades. The political jokes disappeared – and the transition began. Continue reading …

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The View from Carpathia

Posted on 10 November 2009 by admin

By Andy Markowitz

sandor2Since before the fall of communism, Sandor Koles has been at the forefront of building civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. A Budapest native, he founded the Hungarian Village Development Association in 1987 to help rural communities establish local institutions and organizations. In the months leading up to the regime change, he was working with fellow activists from both sides of the Iron Curtain on regional development issues.

In the liberalizing atmosphere of late 1989, Koles entered into a period of what he calls “action research,” moving to the town of Alsovadasz in northeastern Hungary to work with locals there and in the surrounding Cserehat region. It was basic bottom-up organizing. “We didn’t plan to make any revolution,” he recalls.

When the revolution came, in the tumultuous October and November weeks when Hungary’s Communist Party gave up monopoly power and East Germany’s almost inadvertently opened the Berlin Wall, Koles was in Alsovadasz, far from the street protests and urban intellectuals usually associated with the collapse of communism, observing the changes through the prism of village life. Continue reading …

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The Widening Gap

Posted on 08 November 2009 by admin

By TOL

Will Rogers’ quip about statistics being less trustworthy than damn lies could apply equally well to opinion polls. Or rather, to the use of poll data by their most avid consumers, the media. Poll results, nicely tabulated and presented in bite-sized, quasi-scholarly chunks, are often reprocessed by harried journalists into quick news articles, not to speak of editorials.

Widely reported in the days leading up to the big Berlin Wall anniversary, a large regional opinion survey appears to back up a number of popularly held notions about attitudes toward democracy, market economics, and life in general in Central and Eastern Europe since the upheavals of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Continue reading …

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State of Ambivalence

Posted on 08 November 2009 by admin

By Boyko Vassilev

People in downtown Sofia were just going out for lunch, when an unusual happening made them turn their heads in surprise. At 1 p.m. on 27 October a strange crowd invaded the small square in front of the National Theater. High level politicians, leaders of Bulgaria over the last 20 years, flocked there in numbers – prime ministers, speakers of parliament, vice premiers, even one president.

In the transition period after communism’s demise, they were furious opponents. Former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov of the right had clashed with former Speakers Georgi Pirinski and Blagovest Sendov of the left, as well as fellow party members Stefan Sofianski, a former prime minister himself, and former Vice Premier Evgeny Bakardjiev (who in turn used to quarrel between themselves). Paradoxically, former king and Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg met more friends among the leftist politicians than among the rightists. His former chief security boss was there as well – and he was none other than Boyko Borisov, the current prime minister. Next to him stood Zhelyu Zhelev, the founder of the Union of Democratic Forces and the first democratically elected president. He had had his own difficulties with all of the leaders mentioned above.

Yet they gathered to open the exhibition 20 Years in 60 Photos, organized by the EU Commission representation and BTA, Bulgaria’s state news agency. The ceremony was short and to the point. Then the leaders paused for a family photo. Continue reading …

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No More Tractor Barricades

Posted on 04 November 2009 by admin

By Wojciech Kosc

The last time the Polish farmers’ unions managed to make headlines was last year, when one of the most radical announced a “warning protest” of 3,000 farmers in Warsaw against the “critical situation” in Polish agricultural and rural areas. When the day of the protest arrived, however, the number of protesters had dwindled to a mere 1,000.

It was a far cry from the early 1990s, when protests led by Andrzej Lepper paralyzed Poland, as he led farmers to block roads. Populism calculated to gain the support of rural and small-town Poland later elevated Lepper to the posts of deputy speaker of the Polish parliament, deputy prime minister, and minister of agriculture.

In retrospect it looks as if Lepper’s rise was the swan song of populists’ efforts to build their support on the parlous situation of Poland’s rural communities. Continue reading …

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From the Front Office to the Factory Floor

Posted on 03 November 2009 by admin

By Boyko Vassilev, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai

As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with unionists and managers is the fourth in the series that resulted.

MILKO MIHOV, 70, BULGARIA

Mihov is the CEO of J.W. Cappelen Bulgaria, a Vienna-based paper company. He was the representative of Lesoimpex, a Bulgarian state-owned export/import firm, in Vienna from 1972 until 1978.

In the late autumn of 1972 I met Cappelen Senior, a Swede [in Vienna]. He told me he intended to form a company to export paper to Eastern Europe. I was surprised. “Why Eastern Europe? The big consumption of paper is in the West.” He said, “Big changes are coming to the East; it has to catch up in development.” Cappelen signed a contract with Lesoimpex and started his business in Bulgaria in January 1973.

In 1989 nobody had described the path from totalitarian to market economy. We figured it out as we went. … Before 1989 you needed special authorization to export and import. The real change was to untangle the licensing and regulatory regimes. This process continues even now. The simplification of licensing requirements has evoked a new feeling of responsibility among businessmen. Here personal attributes matter. Continue reading …

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Dead Soles

Posted on 30 October 2009 by admin

By Michael J. Jordan

ulius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he’s spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he’s spent the last 66.

As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata’s disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled “unbeatable, eternal Bata” upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.

Today, that’s a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with only a few signs of life on its vast grounds.

“I was very proud, and I’m still very proud, to have worked there,” says Michnik, president of the Bata “School of Work” Alumni Association. “But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself.”

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.

“Here was ‘Strong Bata’ and ‘Strong Socialism.’ Families didn’t have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs,” Mayor Jan Podmanicky says “How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself.”

AN OASIS FOR WORKERS

Batovany, as the town was originally named, sprouted like an oasis from a barren spot in the Danubian hills, as the shoe company branched out in 1938 and ’39 from its Czech base of Zlin. Wooden shacks were built for the first workers.

Julius Michnik landed in Batovany in 1943, a country boy fending for himself during wartime. Jobs were scarce and precious, and anyone who claimed one got a shot of prestige. Michnik enrolled in the four-year apprentice program. He rose early for mandatory exercise in the town square, donned his uniform and cap, and was taught each phase of the shoe-making process.
“The teaching discipline, the upbringing at work – I can’t describe it,” he says. “If you worked hard, you made enough money. Even enough to save some.”

He was rewarded with a bed in Batovany’s first brick dormitory. This was no ordinary workers’ housing. As some in the West bemoaned the toll industrialization had taken on labor, a clutch of left-leaning urban planners designed the “ideal industrial city” that would “underpin undisturbed rest after work,” according to BataStory.net. Inspired by Zlin, Batovany – and other “Batavilles” built around company plants as far away as India – became a prime example of architectural social engineering.

The Bata factory and rail lines sat on the northern edge of town. A buffer of green space separated them from a belt of communal buildings – town hall, cultural center, cinema, department store, church. Then came the housing, with central heating and indoor plumbing, then a rarity for Slovaks.

The Michniks – who met and fell in love at the factory – recall those days fondly.

“Man was made to work for eight hours, to have recreation for eight hours, and to sleep for eight hours,” says Frantiska, echoing a popular communist-era refrain.

Many of the red-brick buildings, especially the charming family homes, still stand today. Yet it’s the town’s unique spatial arrangement that has become the subject of significant scholarship, a remnant of a unique chapter in architectural history.

“The purpose of this ‘utopian’ project was to better prepare living conditions for the working class in a modern industrial city – and it functioned quite well,” says Henrieta Moravcikova, a senior researcher with the Institute of Construction and Architecture in Bratislava. “On the other hand, people realized that their lives were organized a little too much. Only a small part of their private life was left to themselves.”

The history of Batovany as such was short-lived. In 1949, the newly installed communist regime commemorated the legions of company men who had joined the Slovak partisans to fight the Nazis and their Slovak collaborators. They renamed the town Partizanske; the factory was reinvented as the 29 August Works (known by the Slovak acronym ZDA), denoting the day the anti-Nazi uprising began in 1944.Under the communists, Michnik says he brushed aside railings against the capitalist “enslaver” Bata, remaining loyal to the chief who’d instilled a work ethic. At the same time, Michnik was ambitious. To climb the ladder, he allied himself with new rulers.

“If you want to move up, they told me, you have to join the party,” he says. “I was a communist. You can write that. To be a director, you had to be. Every technical worker was. … But I’m not ashamed. I never did anything bad to anybody.”

By the time he retired from ZDA in 1990, Michnik had 1,500 employees working under him. His departure coincided with the decline of the Partizanske works. Robbed of the command economy’s protectionist wall, the plant couldn’t compete with cheaper labor in Asia.

LABOR PAINS

Post-Velvet Revolution privatization saw ZDA broken into several smaller pieces, including Rialto, a moderately large Italian-owned shoe manufacturer that exports primarily to Western Europe, North America, and Japan, and several smaller Slovak companies. Whereas ZDA once employed 10,000 people in Partizanske, only about 3,000 people work in the town’s shoe trade now, according to the mayor’s office. One building at the works that once buzzed with 1,000 employees is now used by only 100; several others on the campus are dormant.

Foreign investment is scant, and unemployment in the Partizanske district, which has a population of about 47,000, reached 22 percent 10 years ago. Today it’s down to 12 percent, according to Podmanicky, eased by the departure of some 2,000 local youth who have headed West in search of work.

One Partizanske 18-year-old, Peter Zavodny, says his parents both worked at the shoe factory, and he likely would have done the same. Instead he works as a car mechanic, but only part-time – they call him when they need him.

“Back 20 years ago, there were fewer things to buy, but at least I would have had a job,” says Zavodny, walking with his girlfriend. “It’s pretty frustrating to be able to work only when they tell you.”

Partizanske is but one Slovak example of a “town or region that, due to its structure of economy, has suffered – or still is suffering – a more difficult transition,” says Lubos Vagac, chairman of the Center for Economic Development in Bratislava. “This refers not only to the one-company makeup, but also to the insufficient adaptation of other sectors, including the local education system; poor cooperation between social partners and schools; failure to identify the future labor and skills demands; and the insufficient capacity of the local or regional administration.”

While Podmanicky and his staff try to lure foreign investors to Partizanske, he says they also encourage local entrepreneurs to take a risk. Andrej Svoboda, a native son, left at 18 in search of work – going first to Bratislava, then to England. He returned two years ago with a business partner from the Slovak capital to set up their own company, Art in Games, which produces visuals for computer games.

Simply coming home was a big part of the decision, says Svoboda, now 27, but he also found conditions in the town ripe for a start-up.

“If you are thinking a bit further, it is a place with good potential,” he says in an e-mail interview. “As everything here is cheaper [than] in Bratislava you can offer more bonuses to your employees.” As Art in Games grows, he adds, the firm has provided amenities like an exercise room, swimming pool, billiards table, and even a small cinema for staff, “as thanks because they work for us. We wouldn’t be able to do that anywhere else.”

While Art in Games carries on the Bata tradition of tending to employees’ non-work needs, entrepreneurs in Bata’s own field have had a harder time. One businessman started a small-scale shoe operation with a crew of 50 in the town, Podmanicky says; it thrived early on but was upended by the recent economic crisis.

“This is the hardest thing to learn about the new system. Things rise, things vanish,” says the mayor, who, like Michnik, unabashedly admits his past party membership. “This town was built on security. But today there is no Bata, there is no socialism. But we’re still here, so we have to try hard every day.”

Still, the laid-off workers populating Partizanske’s pubs are a daily reminder of what was lost.

“Work, it’s the most important thing,” Michnik says. “I see all the unemployed here, spending their last cents in the bar around the corner. When there’s no work, no money, there’s no happy life.”

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Still Comrades After All These Years

Posted on 27 October 2009 by admin

By Anita Komuves

Two pretty girls in their late teens walk arm in arm in front of a light-bulb factory in northern Budapest. Wearing red shirts and red berets, they hand out leaflets to workers coming to start the afternoon shift. Some ignore them and hurry past suspiciously, just as most Hungarians do when people try to hand them something in the street. Others stop to talk and take the flyer, which tells them how capitalism abuses workers and how the current economic crisis was caused by the wealthy but makes the poor suffer. A police officer stands across the street, watching another small group of young people, also dressed in red, handing out flyers at a bus stop. Continue reading …

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