New documentary revisits first Czech direct presidential vote

Hledá se prezident / «В поисках президента» (Фото: Negativ)

A new documentary entitled Hledá se prezident (Looking for president) offers an insight into the first ever direct Czech presidential election which brought Miloš Zeman to Prague Castle. The behind-the-scenes film, which has just premiered in Czech cinemas, follows the candidates from the summer of 2012, when the campaign was just beginning, right up to the heated run-off vote in January. I spoke to the film’s director, Tomáš Kudrna, and first asked him about his choice of material that made it to the final cut.

Vladimír Franz,  Miloš Zeman in 'Hledá se prezident',  photo: Negativ
“With this film, we are trying to bring a picture of the direct presidential vote, so that people in some three or five years’ time have an accurate idea of what was important in the vote. We thought for example that those problems with the petitions or signatures [in support of the candidates’ bids] were not that dramatically important and we dropped them from the film. The idea was to focus on what was important and what says something about the development of democracy and of the direct vote.”

The vote was closely followed by most Czech media including TV stations. What does the film show that people could not see?

“We wanted to bring a picture of what was happening behind the scenes. The media and TV crews usually captured what was happening in front of the cameras. But we were usually filming either before their cameras were on or after they were switched off, or scenes that occurred without the presence of the journalists, such as the candidates’ preparations and training, staff meetings and so on.”

How open and accessible were the presidential candidates?

“From the beginning, we had a deal with all of the candidates that we will film them but won’t show any of the footage before the vote is over. That opened the door for us because the candidates were sure that we cannot influence the voting, and that made things much easier for us.

“But of course there were some things off limits; there was a borderline that we could not cross. There some meetings and discussions that were closed and classified and we could not access them. But I think we had enough material to illustrate quite well what was happening behind the scenes.”

Tomáš Kudrna,  photo: Marián Vojtek
The film interestingly shows the different approaches of the nine candidates to the race. On the one had, there was the professional approach of Jan Fischer with media training and a professional campaign, on the other you have the informal campaign by Táňa Fischerová. Were these two people the extremes?

“I think so. It seems to me that every candidate was surrounded by a group of people that represented some sort of a sub-culture. For example, Vladimír Franz and his supporters were very, very different from Jana Bobošíková and her team. But it’s true that Jan Fischer and Táňa Fischerová were the extremes; in case of Ms Fischerová, it was a kind of amateurish campaign with people who were not paid, and the campaign was really cheap; the people in charge of organizing meetings for example did it in their free time.”

Some of the scenes in the movie are rather bizarre. For instance, when you follow the campaign trail of Jana Bobošíková and show her riding on her bus, addressing people in the street through the speakers. Was a bizarre experience for you as a filmmaker to follow the political process from so close?

“Yes, it was. The interesting thing was that sometimes, we saw the bizarreness of the scene right away on the spot and other times, we only discovered that in the editing room. For example, Táňa Fischerová and her meeting with the sort of new-age people in a theatre, was also bizarre, and we were surprised that something like that could really happen and that people could really take it seriously.”

Jan Fischer in 'Hledá se prezident',  photo: Negativ
As the vote went into the second round, you of course focused on the two candidates left in the race – Miloš Zeman, who eventually won, and Karel Schwarzenberg. How would you describe their relationship which came under a heavy strain because of all the debates, the pressure and also all the lies that came from Miloš Zeman’s camp?

“At the beginning of the second round, I had a feeling there was mutual respect between both candidates, that Karel Schwarzenberg respected Miloš Zeman and vice versa as serious competitors. But then is changed after the first Czech TV debate when Miloš Zeman brought in the issue of the Beneš decrees [on the expulsion of German-speaking population after WWII].”

Let’s talk about Miloš Zeman for a bit. In the film, he is more often that not seen either looking for an ashtray of a place to smoke, having a drink and being close with his teenage daughter. Is that what his real personality is really like?

“Well, we came under suspicion that we intentionally picked scenes with Miloš Zeman looking for an ashtray or Miloš Zeman with a glass of wine. But there was not intentional in that. The editing of the film resulted in a choice of natural scenes and we didn’t want to show him more often with alcohol and cigarettes. So things as they appear in the film really happened and we had no intention to make it worse of better.

Did you find it surprising that Miloš Zeman, a 68-year-old politician and a heavy drinker managed to run the campaign like that and eventually win? Is he really such as strong person to be able to drink from the morning and yet win?

Jiří Dienstbier,  Jan Fischer,  Miloš Zeman in 'Hledá se prezident',  photo: Negativ
“I think so, yes. He is quite experiences and he has been doing these things for a long time so his body is probably resistant to alcohol. He is also in good shape; he had a long time to rest, to prepare well for the campaign and all the debates. I also think that the state of his mind, this kind of relaxed atmosphere really helped him because he was much more convincing when he was addressing the people or speaking in front of cameras. So I would say he was a dominating personality on various occasions.”

That is well illustrated in the film; there is one scene where the candidates are waiting for one of the debates in the National Technical Library; he comes in and joins the others, and immediately dominates the space. Why do you think none of the other candidates found a way of dealing with this dominance emanating from Miloš Zeman?

“I think it’s quite difficult to compete with Miloš Zeman in this. I think this is not something that’s natural, or at least that’s my suspicion that he is acting. When he is aware that the cameras are there and something will come of the scene or the event, he puts on this dominating aspect of his personality also for the cameras. That was what I saw.”

Did your being so close to the candidates influence your own personal choice in the election?

“Definitely. I was lucky in a sense that I could see them in situations when the cameras were off, when they behaved naturally and said things they really meant. So I think I had a chance to get a much more accurate picture of the candidates and it did influence my vote, definitely.”

Miloš Zeman in 'Hledá se prezident',  photo: Negativ
At the beginning, you said you wanted to show something about the state of the Czech democracy – so what do you think it is?

“Frankly, I don’t know yet. It’s quite soon after finishing the movie and I was so immersed in all the events that I think I would need some time, a couple of weeks, to breathe and get some distance from what I did. When I see the film with fresh eyes in some two or three months, I might be able to say what it says about the Czech democracy and Czech society.”