Citizen Havel lifts curtain on playwright-turned-president’s decade in office

Citizen Havel, a new fly-on-the-wall documentary about the former Czech president, premiered on Wednesday night in Prague. The film draws on 45 hours of unique behind-the-scenes footage of Václav Havel shot over a period of 13 years. The result is a film that lifts the curtain on the Havel presidency, in a way that no other politician has been captured on screen before.

'Citizen Havel'
For more than a decade, from autumn 1992, when Václav Havel was deciding whether to run for the post of Czech president, to January 2003, when he left Prague Castle for the last time, director Pavel Koutecký followed the president everywhere he went. He shot hours and hours of footage, footage that reveals everything from picking his way through Machiavellian post-election negotiations to giving restaurant tips to the Rolling Stones.

Tragically Pavel Koutecký died in an accident while filming in 2006, and Citizen Havel was completed by a colleague, Miroslav Janek. The film shows Havel at times the master of his country’s destiny, at others frustrated at the reality of political life. Few world leaders would agree to having their every move recorded for posterity, and not all of Václav Havel’s colleagues were originally keen on the idea. Former spokesman Ladislav Špaček was one of the president’s closest advisers.

“We have some documentary footage of President Masaryk, six or seven minute movies – Masaryk on his horse, Masaryk with cheering crowds, and that’s all. And I realised - this is a great break in our history. This is the first democratic president in maybe 50 years. And it’s my responsibility to leave our successors something more.”

Also at the premiere was Jan Švejnar, the man who is challenging Havel’s successor Václav Klaus at next week’s presidential election.

Jan Švejnar,  photo: CTK
“I thought it was a great informal documentary on the inside, Havel’s inner circle during a very critical period, something that one otherwise would not be able to get. And it’s really spontaneous. As you could see I was in one of the shots, and I remember that day until today. I remember the conversation. I remember what we talked about. I don’t remember there being a camera.”

So you were surprised.

”Yes, actually it was amazing to see myself and everybody there.”

Citizen Havel goes on general release on Thursday, and is likely to be a big hit among Czech viewers. It’s also being entered for the Berlinale film festival. But will the film work abroad? Foreign viewers will certainly get a kick out of watching Bill Clinton play the saxophone in a Prague jazz club, but it’s less clear what they’ll make of former prime minister Miloš Zeman knocking back the Becherovka.