My Prague Spring: an award-winning documentary about the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution

'My Prague Spring'

David Mrazek, is an award winning American writer and film producer. David, whose grandfather was a Czech American émigré, made an award winning documentary film in 1990 called ‘My Prague Spring’, which documented the lives of some of his Czech relatives in the heady months after the Velvet Revolution. In an interview for Radio Prague he talked about how the documentary was made and what inspired him to document this heady period of Czech modern history.

David Mrazek, photo: archive of David Mrazek
“I visited Prague for the first time in 1983 when I was studying in England, and I knew that I had relatives in Czechoslovakia on my father’s side. The visit was amazing, I went to the town where my grandfather was born, and I thought Prague was incredible. Then many years later, in 1989, I was in film school in the States, and I was looking at the newspapers and I saw from the headlines that communism in Czechoslovakia was falling. Of course, I had family there, and so I thought this was history in the making, how great it would be to make a film about what was happening there. If I didn’t have family there then it would have been less likely that I would have got on a plane to Prague.”

What about funding or support for the film, was there any available?

“The problem was that it was a spur of the moment thing and I wanted to get there as soon as possible. Raising funds takes time, it takes months and months to apply for grants. I really needed to go: it was November 1989 and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. So I was fortunate that my parents thought it was a great idea and they were willing to give me what I call a ‘family grant’ to enable me to get a camera.”

Did you have an idea for a plot before you came to Prague?

“I was exchanging letters with Vladka, my 21-year-old cousin, and the key thing was that she spoke really good English, and I knew her from my previous visit. She basically said that all the things that were happening in Prague were really amazing, and I asked her what she thought about me filming her family. So the rough idea was there, and I knew that I could stay with them, and once I got there I knew I would figure out what I was going to do.”

The film documents ordinary and everyday life in Prague at a time of extraordinary political, social and economic change. At one point in the film, while filming in a supermarket, you capture the last dwindling reserves of the soon-to-be extinct products produced under the old regime. So how conscious were you at the time of shooting the film that you were actually documenting history?

“I was very conscious this was a time capsule of communism. From mufflers to toilet paper to hair products, all at the old Kotva supermarket. I was definitely conscious that I was capturing something that was going to be gone in short order. It was pretty amazing to be there at that time knowing that everything was going to change.

When I first arrived in March 1990 I wanted to read an English newspaper, and I would go to the news stand and I would find maybe a week-old Herald Tribune. But by the time I left in July I could get a daily newspaper, so already the English newspapers were being delivered on a daily basis. Just in the short time I was there I was really starting to see things changing.”

There are many clips in the film of places around Prague, in the metro, on trams, on the streets. One of the things I was amazed at when I watched the film is how little it has changed, at least aesthetically, since 1990. Have you been back since?

“I was last there in 1997. You could say that the garishness of capitalism was present, more advertising maybe, but you can’t alter the incredible beauty of the architecture. The city is just so stunningly beautiful. I agree with you, when we were back it really wasn’t that different, I guess what was different were the real estate prices and the cost of living in Prague compared to prior.”

There’s one particular amusing scene in which you film a classroom of Czechs learning English. How difficult was it for you to survive those three or four months in Prague without speaking much Czech? Would I be right in assuming that English speakers were few and far between?

“I tried to take a Czech crash course before I left. When I was there I was learning everyday, because I was mostly with Jiřka, Vladkas mother, because Vladka was not living at home at the time, but it was not easy. I knew enough, most importantly, I knew how to order a beer in Czech! But what was really frustrating was that by the time I left, I was just starting to understand the language.”

'My Prague Spring'
The main character in the film is arguably your 21-year-old cousin Vladka. She was studying at the school of economics in Prague, which apropos was in the process of changing from a Marxist theory of teaching to free-market based. What happened to her in the last 23 years, what is she doing now?

“She’s doing very well. A couple of years after the film she got accepted to the Harvard business school and got her degree. She was working at various banks, working both in and outside of the Czech Republic. This last year she became a partner in a merger and acquisitions company. She definitely made the most of all the changes that happened in the Czech Republic.”

This is one of the things which your film highlights quite successfully. It highlights both the readiness and uncertainty with which Czechs welcomed capitalism. What are your thoughts on the Czech Republic now?

“The Czech Republic was certainly, compared to other Eastern European countries, really well positioned. In reality they were coming back to capitalism, because two decades after the First World War, they were a really successful industrialised capitalist country. I am really at a distance as to what’s going on there, I mean you have a much better feel for it, but I guess compared to a lot of other countries, the Czech Republic seems to be doing pretty well.”

I’ve been looking forward to asking you this question; Why did you call the film my Prague Spring and not My Velvet Revolution, which I think personally could have been a little more appropriate?

'My Prague Spring'
“Yeah, I guess because Prague Spring has such a resonance historically. I guess to me it evoked more of a sense of the history and because I was there in the spring I liked the multiple meanings. But it could have absolutely been called My Velvet Revolution.”

Your film won several awards in the States one of which was the Cine Eagle award in 1993. With such successes over there, why is it that the film remains virtually unknown here in Europe?

“That’s a good question. Well, I submitted the film to Karlovy Vary and a whole host of other film festivals in Europe. I was a victim of timing, since the year I finished the film was the year in which the Soviet Union fell. It took me several years to finish the film, because I was still finishing film school and I was working, so it was a long process. So by the time the film came out, I was competing with films about the fall of the Soviet Union. There was one film called ‘Bread and Salt’ by one Soviet filmmaker, and her film got into every international film festival, and I wasn’t getting into any. Part of it was that the Czech Republic was not as much in the news. The Velvet Revolution had happened and by the time my film came out what was in the news was the fall of the Soviet Union, what was happening in the new Russia. I just got eclipsed by other films, and I became really dispirited because I really thought I was going to get into some international film festivals. By the time I had finished the film it was old news.

'My Prague Spring'
But then twenty years later it would have made total sense to send it to festivals in Europe and to Czech Television for the twentieth anniversary. But by the time I realised that it was the twentieth anniversary it was too late. So, you know, maybe the 25th.”

So maybe we can look forward to a 25th anniversary edition of My Prague Spring?

“I would like that. You got me realising that I took my eye off the prize with the film. It’s a historical document and it really does capture a very vivid time.”