Leslie Woodhead - the filmmaker who specialised in portraying life behind the Iron Curtain

Leslie Woodhead, photo: http://movies.yahoo.com

British director Leslie Woodhead first made a name for himself as a reporter for the popular 1960s World in Action current affairs programme at Britain's Granada television. He has also made a number of acclaimed documentaries and is considered one of the pioneers of the docudrama genre, which comprises dramatised recreations of real events. This was a particularly popular format in the 1970s and 80s during the Cold War, as it allowed journalists and filmmakers to cover events "behind the wall" in the Soviet Bloc despite not being able to have any direct access to their subject matter.

Many of Woodhead's most famous docudramas were about things that happened in the old Eastern Bloc. These include films such as Strike about the Polish solidarity movement and Invasion about the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. I spoke with Mr Woodhead when he was in Prague recently to present the latter film about the Soviet invasion as part of the One World Festival of human rights documentaries. I asked him where his interest in the Eastern Bloc stemmed from:

"I was one of about five thousand young men who were taught Russian in the 1950s by the British military to sit in Berlin and listen to Soviet pilot's intercoms as they went in and out of East Germany. It was a bit kind of tedious and endless and I did that for about nine months in Berlin. I've come to realise since that it shaped my continuing obsession with what was going on in eastern Europe and particularly the Iron Curtain at that time. I've forgotten nearly all my Russian apart from some useless phrases like 'My fuel warning lights are aglow' or 'My undercarriage is down and locked.'' Nevertheless, the experience of colliding with that really had a big effect on me.

"I've also always wondered whether my fascination hasn't something to do with growing up in a rather grim northern England town in the 1940s, and when I started to come to eastern Europe in the 1980s for the first time, I felt very much at home because it felt just as drab and boring as the town I grew up in during the 1940s. But at least I had a return ticket, and didn't have to spend my life there."

You've made a cluster of films about what you have described as "the world behind the wall" (i.e. life in the former Soviet Union). What was your particular fascination or attraction to this topic?

"I think my growing obsession with the world behind the wall was probably driven by frustration. When I was working on weekly current affairs programmes in the 1960s, we were able to do highly critical reports about the American conduct of affairs around the world, particularly in Vietnam - usually with the assistance of the American information services. But we couldn't do even handed pieces from behind the wall, because we couldn't get in. It was at that time that time that we began to do these highly journalistic drama documentaries, simply as a way of solving problems of access.

The Man Who Wouldn't Keep Quiet,  photo: www.jedensvet.cz
"It wasn't that I'd ever met an actor and frankly I wasn't particularly interested in drama, but drama documentary as a tool or a weapon to - as it were - punch a hole in the Iron Curtain was really why I got involved with it. I first did a film about a Soviet dissident general (The Man Who Wouldn't Keep Quiet). I later did a film about a dock strike in Stetin in Poland, which led to the formation of the Solidarity movement (Strike). Then in 1980 I did Invasion, which was about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. So there was a cluster of things there about this part of the world, which all used dramatisation out of necessity as a way of getting in here."

How did you end up making Invasion, and why did you approach the project in the way you did?

"By 1980, we had already done about three or four drama documentaries, when a group of us suddenly noticed a report in the Guardian newspaper about how the highest-ranking defector from behind the Iron Curtain since Trotsky had arrived in Germany. He was a man by the name of Zdenek Mlynar, who had been a member of Alexander Dubcek's inner circle and who helped draft the programme for the Prague Spring.

"I was working with a Czech colleague called Eva Kolochova at the time and she went to Germany and started to talk to Mlynar about his record of what had happened in Prague in 1968. Of course, this had always been a subject of consuming interest for those of us outside the Eastern Bloc, partly because it was surrounded by so much confusion and mystery about exactly what had happened - how the Czech leadership had been browbeaten and bullied in Moscow, as well as the whole architecture of what had happened during the Prague Spring and during the Soviet invasion.

"So we talked to Mlynar and he turned out to have been an absolutely thrillingly good witness. He had a photographic recollection of everything that had happened in August 1968, from what the curtains in Dubcek's office looked like to the Russian leadership marched into the meeting with the Czechs in Moscow. He really was a superb witness.

"He remained a committed Marxist and had some wonderful circumlocutions. I'll never forget him saying how - when they were sitting in Dubcek's office on 22 August 1968 - 'the contradiction sharpened considerably.' I asked him what the heck that meant. He said, 'A dozen Soviet soldiers burst through the door with Kalashnikovs.' Only a theoretical Marxist could describe such an appalling event in such a cold way. But he was a marvellous witness and through his very detailed account of things we were able to build a drama documentary to try and tell the story of Prague 1968."

You actually revisited the film in 1990 when you had a meeting with Dubcek. What was it like meeting the man himself and what did he make of your film?

"After the Velvet Revolution, which of course I followed with tremendous interest, we got a call from Dubcek saying that he would like to see Invasion, which was kind of extraordinary. It then became clear that Dubcek had seen something of the film when he was in exile in Bratislava as it had spilled across the border from Austrian television. Now he wanted to meet the people who had made it. So I came to Prague with some colleagues and we sat in Dubcek's and viewed Invasion together with him, which is something I'll never forget.

"He was riveted to the screen and immensely interested in what was going on. He followed every nuance of the story with little exclamations and nods and absolute absorption. I'll never forget the moment when we showed the scene where the Soviet leadership marches into the meeting with the Czechs. Dubcek was looking at the screen and he muttered the word 'Demagogues!' under his breath, which was a thrilling moment. He kept saying 'It was just like that; that's right!' which was tremendously validating as you can imagine."

Finally, you're back in Prague now for the first time in many years. How does the city compare with how you remember it in the 1980s?

"Well sitting here on a sunny morning in 2007, it's hard to put it together with the Prague I remember when I came here in 1980. I'll never forget walking through Wenceslas Square on that first evening on a dark winter night with 15-watt light bulbs and the quiet crowds. I remember making a note of how strangely quiet the crowds were, shuffling round looking at the ground and not making eye contact. It felt literally Kafkaesque to be in this place at that time. I remember being very happy to get on that plane and go home. We gleaned a lot of things from the trip that we used for Invasion. So it was a useful albeit rather haunting first experience of Prague. The place looks a lot better today."