Dialogue: a collection of interviews with artists from three post-communist states about the past and present

Barbora Baronová, photo: Anna Pleslová / Czech Centres

One of the many undertakings commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the return of democracy to this country is a collection of interviews, quotes and photographs compiled by the award-winning Czech documentarist Barbora Baronová in cooperation with the Czech Centers.

Barbora Baronová, photo: Anna Pleslová / Czech Centres

Věra Roubalová Kostlánová: Society looks for enemies to blame everything on, to channel emotions into concrete aggression. Once, the enemies were the Jews, then the Roma, and now refugees. The fact that hatred recurs again and again is horrible – tomorrow, the Jews may be hated again. ‘Leaders’ and manipulators always find some enemies; sometimes, they don’t even have to be different.

The collection, named Dialogue, contains Bara’s interviews with artists and journalists of various ages and backgrounds from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland about how they engaged through art before 1989 and after and how they perceive the problems of the present day. I met up with Bara to find out what they feel strongly about and began by asking how they perceive freedom.

“Before 1989 freedom was something you had to fight for. Today it is something that we have, that we often take for granted and you can enjoy almost anything you wish, if you are rich enough. So it was quite surprising for me that the younger generation was really aware of the importance of freedom. Even if they did not experience the totalitarian regime, they had heard a lot about it from their parents and through education, so they knew about the things that happened before 1989, and they were really aware of how important freedom is and what it entails. But freedom is a broad concept and they are sensitive to the different types of freedom.

Tereza Nvotová: I always had a dialogue with my parents, asking them about the past. We didn’t learn about the forty years of communism at primary school or secondary school; the last thing we learned about was World War II. Apparently, there wasn’t enough time. But no wonder! Most teachers were former Russian teachers and it would be difficult for them to teach that communism was bad with their guilty consciences and their past in communist cadres. I realised more things while working on the film Mečiar. It’s sad that I’m the one who has to describe what actually happened to my generation and why, because adults didn’t tell us anything at that time.

“When I spoke to Saša Uhlová she spoke about the people living on the margins of society, people who work hard but still lack the money for basic necessities. When I interviewed Tereza Nvotová she spoke about immigration and the dangers and fears associated with it, irrational fears caused by populism. Another interesting topic was introduced by the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera who spoke about consumerism in the sense of something he called a “comfort zone”. He spoke about the danger of people being focused only on their small world, of people who are so satisfied with their lot that they accept almost everything, even wrong things.”

Were these issues –or matters of concern – similar in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – or did they differ?

“These issues are something that we have in common, something that we share – populism, consumerism, fear from immigrants, nationalism – not as much in the Czech Republic as in Poland and Slovakia, but I think we have a problem with it here as well, and people’s indifference, people who are satisfied with living their lives and are not really interested in what is happening around them. And there was also a certain degree of ignorance regarding the important issues of the society.”

You spoke to these artists about their engagement through art –in addressing burning issues. The older ones did that before 1989 and after. In what way is it different? Are people less receptive today –because of the comfort zone you mentioned - than during the communist years when they were ready to “read between the lines”?

Peter Kalmus: Freedom is the most beautiful and the most amazing thing in the world, but it also means being responsible for your own life. People under communism were used to living in an organised, limited world. The fact that they don’t know what to do with freedom now makes a breeding ground for politicians like Mečiar, Klaus, Zeman, Babiš, and Okamura.

“I think that the role of art is still the same and most people are still receptive. But of course the topics are different today. For instance Saša Uhlová writes books and articles about low-paid work, Tereza Nvotová is now making films about women’s rights –so the topics are different, but I believe people are still receptive, that has not changed.”

How do these artists and journalists feel about the present-day? Are they disillusioned about the state of Czech society?

“I think most of them are very angry because of what’s happening today. Their disillusionment and frustration stems from the fact that 30 years after the fall of communism they were not expecting to address issues concerning top politicians who make outrageous statements, cheat, lie and grab as much as they can for themselves. That makes them angry. I do not mean in a violent way, but they are very open and they do not mince their words. Before 1989 you had to hide the message, veil criticism and place it “between the lines” in various forms of art, but today you can be very open and get straight to the point and that’s what they are doing.

Antonina Krzysztoń: It’s essential to maintain composure and prudence, to go back to the source, which means asking wise people for advice. We must wonder, search, make considered decisions, slow down; we cannot make rushed choices, but we must think things through. I’ve always been a brave person. But I don’t go to demonstrations now, because I simply don’t know what purpose they serve.

In what way did the meetings with them enrich you? Were there any thoughts that stuck in your mind? You have compiled a selection of the best quotes from those interviews …

“I chose many quotes that were noteworthy. But I would highlight my meeting with Zbigniew Libera who spent years in prison and later worked with handicapped people. The message he put across was that if you want to give your life meaning you have to live to the full, to experience as much as you can, to step-out of your comfort zone, to help people who are in need and speak up for those who do not have a voice. You need to be brave and to fight for the things that matter. For me that was a very empowering interview.”