‘The Art of Dissent’, or why love, tolerance, and creative freedom aren’t just for fairytales

James D Le Sueur, photo: archive of Art of Dissent/James D Le Sueur

“Love, tolerance and creative freedom aren’t just for fairytales”. That’s the central message of a new documentary called The Art of Dissent, which celebrates artistic engagement in Czechoslovakia before and after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. Written, directed and filmed by the American intellectual historian James D Le Sueur, the film aims to debunk the myth that life behind the Churchillian ‘Iron Curtain’ was static and grey, and to inspire viewers through the messages of Václav Havel and fellow former dissidents.

James D Le Sueur,  photo: archive of Art of Dissent/James D Le Sueur
Prof. James D Le Sueur, head of the history department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that even Czechs have not seen such a documentary before – and not just because it includes exquisite rare or unseen footage.

The three-part film highlights global elements behind the Prague Spring, Soviet invasion, the subsequent ‘Normalisation’ and Velvet Revolution that propelled the playwright Havel to the presidency. Another central theme is the “question of madness” during Normalisation, both real and imagined.

In an interview with Prof. Le Sueur and the film’s associate producer, Mariana Čapková, I began by asking how a historian perhaps best known for his work on violent revolution in colonial France and terrorism came to make a film on dissent in Czechoslovakia.

JL: “I’m an intellectual historian, so I work on the history of ideas. And in the history of ideas, working on someone like Václav Havel is kind of a dream. I’ve been reading and researching about him since 1989 and teaching about him since 1992.

“I was trained as a European historian and was in Germany during reunification, so I was just over the border watching what was going on. I was drawn to Václav Havel mainly as a history of ideas person. But also because in my previous work I have primarily focussed on violent revolutions. I think I’ve done enough of that in my career and wanted to give a non-violent revolution a shot. I also work on the history of colonialism and I approach Czech history in part from a colonial lens. So, 1968, for me, is an empire question.”

So, Czechoslovakia as kind of a subaltern state…

JL: “Subaltern, yes, but also as a colonial question. You know, [Alexandr] Dubček, later in life in his autobiography in later life admits that he didn’t understand that from the Soviet position Czechoslovakia was a colony, which I find kind of shocking, given what happened.

“But it illustrates for me the significance of empire in the history of Czechoslovakia. So I’m interested in those kinds of questions, and it’s also part of a larger book I’m writing about the history of anti-colonial movements and nationalist movements in the 20th century.”

Was there also any impetus from the Arab Spring? Any parallels that you drew from that?

Václav Havel | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio
JL: “There are some parallels and there is a very direct link between Václav Havel and say, North Africa, to me. During the 1990s, Václav Havel became a symbol of a state actor who was trying to do something on behalf of dissidents. So he, along with Salman Rushdie and a number of American and world intellectuals [in 1994] formed something called the International Parliament of Writers and a social network to help writers being persecuted.

“They formed it because of what was happening to Algerian intellectuals. There was a specific series of death threats and executions of Algerian journalists, and Václav Havel, Salman Rushdie and others, including Jacques Derrida, formed a group trying to help writers being threatened or imperilled.

“I knew that and was doing research for a movie I had already started on that topic. I had reached out to Havel [in 1998] and set up an interview before he died, but his health was quite bad at the end. I never got to do the interview with Havel, which would have linked him to the research I had been doing before. This film [The Art of Dissent] is kind of a way to accomplish that.”

Is there a connection to you joining the faculty of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) in 2001? Nebraska has a huge Czech emigre population, and I understand there are a professors teaching Slavic studies, Czech language. Did that have an influence as well?

JL: “It did. This is how Mariana Čapková and I met. I became the chair of the department of history at UNL three years ago, and we have a rather significant Czech endowment that supports Czech history and cultural affairs. So I wanted to do something that would speak to the population of Nebraska – basically one out of every two people there has Czech or Bohemian ancestry. So, I was interested in doing something significant to mark the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

“Mariana and I hadn’t met before that, but I reached out to her because she had been a student at UNL and was connected to cultural things here [in Prague]. So she and I, along with a number of others, created something called ‘Prague Spring 50’. It was intended to be the biggest celebration in the world, or commemoration, on the Soviet invasion – and it was; it was substantial.

“That was how I began to think about doing the documentary. I hadn’t intended doing a documentary necessarily but was interested in doing oral histories with some of our speakers, and then Mariana and I decided maybe there was a chance, if we approach Czech public television, of getting access to their archives and blending the oral history approach I had already been using into a documentary.

James D Le Sueur,  Mariana Čapková,  photo: archive of Art of Dissent/James D Le Sueur
“So that’s what we did for about two years, trying to negotiate with Czech TV access to the materials. We eventually have a movie that’s going to be in coproduction with them and have some of the most important archives in the country in the movie. ”

It’s a good time to bring in my other guest, Mariana Čapková. Tell us how you came to study in Nebraska and how the project came about from your perspective.

MČ: “There is a really nice scholarship programme, the Robitschek scholarship, that brings four to five students to study at UNL. They should be Czech students interested in their culture and history, so they would also bring some knowledge to their American colleagues. When I was accepted to the program in 2007, I also got a job at the university, teaching Czech there and studying international relations for a year.

“After I came back to Prague, I started to develop more intense cooperation between Czech universities and UNL and became kind of a meditator or connection between them. A few years later, James contacted me asking whether I knew someone in Prague who would be interested in the project and could help him.

“And my first choice was to propose that it would be me (laughs). And it was like a dream come true to help organise the Prague Spring 50 conference. And afterwards, the movie project was developed.”

I understand you’re doing a crowdfunding campaign and your goal is to have it on the festival circuit this summer and the air on Czech Television, is that right?

JL: “Well, our goal is to enter the festival circuit in autumn. It’s going to be aired on Czech TV next year after – we’re trying to organise it so that if we make it into the Karlovy Vary festival it would air after that – probably in autumn 2020. There will be Czech and international versions. The base of the film is the same, but one will be either subtitled or dubbed for Czech TV.”

Now, of course there have been many Czech documentaries on related subjects, but you’re taking a rather different approach – not just as an American but a ‘hopeful’ approach, as you describe it.

JL: “Yeah, I think the message that we’re trying to convey is there was something quite special about the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia from 1968 to the Velvet Revolution. And it was a unique constellation of people, rather small in some cases, but what they did accomplish in terms of their impact on culture, artistic life, etc., was quite significant. This is one of the reasons that Václav Havel was so loved at the end of the Cold War.

August 1968,  photo: František Dostál,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“And so what we want to do – and this is something we’ve been discussing quite a lot in the actual editing process the last few weeks – is to make a movie about a subject that is quite tough and yet convey a message of hope. I think you do that by focussing on what the message was.

“And this is why I think I’m attracted to the Velvet Revolution in particular because it was an effort not to resort to traditional, nationalist means to overthrow a totalitarian government. It was more about using instruments like love and tolerance to beat the system, which is a pretty cool way of doing it.

“You know, the system can respond to violence or intolerant activities pretty easily by throwing people into jail, etc. But when you’re throwing decent people in jail – you know, Catholic theologians, or the philosopher Jan Patočka, who died after undergoing interrogation – that’s a pretty serious critique of the regime itself, their response to these kinds of people.

“I think we should be clear that we live in a time of growing intolerance; a time that doesn’t discuss the value of love, civic love – our politics have altered quite a bit since the end of the Cold War. And when Mariana and I began talking about this, we wanted to make a movie that would be a response to that. This is an oblique response to that – we’re not going to name names; we’re not going to criticise people individually – but there are definitely elephants in the room (laughs), in the world context.

“Another way I think that’s different about the way we are approaching the movie is that Havel wasn’t the only one, and we’re trying to get at the network of individuals and the value and strength of networks. We’re also, very importantly, trying to highlight the role of women dissidents, and focussing on a couple in particular who played very important roles, because women generally haven't been part of the story. And we’re trying to take a more balanced approach. Women did play very active roles – they weren’t just typing things for the men.”

Right, and as I understand it, often a choice was made that within a family only one member would stick their neck out because someone had to look after the children… Mariana, I wanted to ask you, as a Czech getting involved in this process, what did you learn, or what assumptions did you have that were maybe challenged?

MČ: “Actually, I’m always saying that the most I learned about Czech history was from James and a group of intellectuals from Nebraska, which is really something that I wouldn’t have expected. And I visited many places with James and talked to many interesting people who I would probably never have got in touch without this project.

“What’s interesting is when we were discussing the Czech and American versions of the movie, the people in Czech TV were pushing us to do the voiceover in a more sophisticated way, for people who know more about the history. But Czech people around thirty, forty years old need the basic information as well.”

You mentioned you’re taking an oral history approach. Are you using mainly interviews you conduct yourself?

Velvet Revolution,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain
JL: “Primarily. We are using a few interviews from the archives conducted by other people and a lot of archival material that, quite frankly, almost no one has seen before. For example, I just did an interview this morning with someone – I don’t want to reveal names or give away secrets – but it is someone whose film was confiscated by the secret police and then broadcast because he happened to be filming a rock group.

“He was a young student, getting ready to go to FAMU, and making a documentary about a rock group and the police took it and broadcast it to demonise the rock group. Even that story people in the Czech Republic don’t know. We have lots of material like that. And I think that’s an example of how the oral history blends with the archives.

“And I should say specifically that I’ve been very fortunate to work with just a brilliant archivist, Martin Bouda at Czech TV, who is ground zero for the film in many ways. He’s really helped us find and think about using particular rare and interesting archives.

“Another example of the film footage we’ve going to use is I think the only existing 16mm colour film shot during [the Soviet invasion] of 1968. Martin Bouda got it from a gentleman in Catalonia who kept it hidden in a suitcase for fifty years – no one has ever seen it. We’re the first film crew to have it and it’s exquisite. It’s like watching 1968 in 3D. It’s unbelievably beautiful. And that’s the kind of stuff we’ve been able to work through in our project.

“I Czechs think they’ve seen a lot of this stuff. I guarantee you they haven’t because no one had the rights to this stuff. We’re trying to acquire these rights, and I think it will be quite a shock when people see what we pull out of the archives.”

Was there a core set of questions that you asked narrators about love, civic engagement and so on?

JL: “I did. I tried to come back to certain themes – one was what is civil society, and how was civil society framed during Normalisation. I think that itself is an interesting questions, and it comes up often time in Havel’s speeches later on. What is the nature of love? What is the role of dissent? How did these intellectuals or activists respond to oppression, and why they choose the course of action they chose.

“I think one of the mistakes we all make is to think that because something happened, it had to happen – the inevitability problem. So one of the questions we try to ask is why was this not an inevitable story. In other words, what could you have done differently that would have changed the outcome of the history.

“It’s kind of a fun question to ask, and everyone responds differently. I think they realise that at certain key points in their lives during this story, they could have made different decisions. And if they had, it would have either helped or handicapped their movement. It’s an interesting thing to think about.”

How many flutters of a butterfly’s wing does it take to thwart a revolution…


You write about [debunking the myth] of a grey life here – that it was all doom and gloom. Much has been written about the ‘Underground’, ‘parallel polis’ and so on – what’s your take on it?

JL: “Without understanding the colour, the vibrancy, the intellectual life – the possibilities of something much better, Normalisation doesn’t make sense. You have to contrast Normalisation with this incredible, dynamic cultural thing that was happening here, right?

Václav Havel,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“There was a swift and dramatic end to that after the Soviet invasion. What we try to do then is show why the invasion and aftermath is so important. And you have to set that against having these incredible superstars here performing in the streets of Prague weeks before the invasion. And it gives it an entirely different flavour. It was very cosmopolitan before 1968, and with the closing of the borders, that cosmopolitan worldview ends.”

MČ: “Do you want to reveal some of the names?”.

JL: “Not yet. (laughs) You have to wait for the movie for that one!”

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d really like viewers to know – whether about the process of the film, the stage it’s in, frustrations, joys…?

JL: “Well, there is a crowd-funding campaign going on, so we’d like listeners to know that we are desperately – not ‘desperately’ – but we are encouraging listeners to contribute to our beautiful project as much as possible.

“It’s really a movie that’s intended to restore hope in politics. That is the intention. When we first started to think about this movie, it was not called ‘The Art of Dissent’, it was called ‘A Beautiful Film’ – that’s what we wanted to convey; that even though it was quite severe and hard to live through this time, something incredibly beautiful came out of it.”

MČ: “I just want to say that we are trying to a beautiful movie, optimistic in an intelligent and nice way – in a way that I’m actually missing in today’s politics.”

JL: “Right. There are two world statesmen in the 20th century, I think, who are equally important, for the same reason. One is Nelson Mandela and one is Václav Havel -- such rarified, beautiful, articulate creatures of peace. And that’s what we want to convey. Rationality, using your mind and rationality, not anger and despair, to get politics done. We hope that’s what viewers will take away.”