The women of Charter 77

Charte 77

Thirty years ago this month a group of people decided to voice their opposition to the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia with a human rights manifesto known as Charter 77. Its signatories made the decision fully aware of the consequences. Personalities like Vaclav Havel who later became president, Petr Uhl who became human rights commissioner, and Jiri Dienstbier who served as foreign minister all served prison sentences under Communist Czechoslovakia.

Charter 77
Many of us can only guess what it must have been like to live as a Charter 77 dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia. Night-time raids, police detentions, bugged phones, and constant surveillance by the communist secret police were a norm. Now a new series of documentaries on the life stories of ten amazing women who signed the charter brings an entirely new perspective to the story behind the Charter 77 movement. We find out where they lived, how much was at stake, how secret meetings were held, what they feared the most, and what they lost - some a child, others a husband. Charter 77 signatory Vera Roubalova says the decision to sign the document was one she made with no regret:

Director Alena Hynkova and Vera Roubalova,  photo: CTK
"It was in a sense a relief to have made that decision to say out loud that I did not like what was happening here. People were afraid to even say this in front of their children, fearing that they would let it slip at school. They were scared of their neighbours and always had to be on their guard and bite their tongue. They weren't sure whether their children would be admitted to secondary school if they failed to do exactly what the regime said. The regime was very successful at spreading this fear. So, when I made the decision to oppose that control and face whatever consequences might follow, it felt easy to say what was really on my mind."

The documentaries include the testimonies of children and husbands. Under an organised campaign against Charter 77 signatories, husbands were imprisoned and wives were detained for hours, often sexually harassed and beaten. Threatened with the death of their children, they faced immense psychological pressure. When one woman was in police custody, the others looked after her family.

"Those who did not sign the charter should not all be put in one group because many of them were active supporters of our cause. They hand copied and distributed books and supported families who were being persecuted. These were people who did not sign the charter for various reasons but were still there with us and that was extremely important for us. This needs to be said as few people know about it because the people who helped us are too modest to say so."

Seven Czech female directors worked on the documentary series. Marie Sandova, for instance, profiled the life of Anna Sabatova, wife of the former dissident Petr Uhl:

Anna Sabatova
"The meeting with Anna Sabatova was entirely emotional for me because I realised that 30 years ago it was possible to live in freedom. It was just a question of making that decision, that freedom is the most important value in human life. I'm a little bit younger than she is but in comparison with her fate I feel that I was a part of a grey zone, that I was not involved or that I didn't have enough courage in the socialist time. So there is not only admiration but also a kind of fate I think."

Another female director, young filmmaker Olga Spatova, documents the story of Jana Hlavsova, the wife of Milan Hlavsa - singer of the 1970s underground rock band the Plastic People of the Universe:

"It was wonderful for me because I am only 22 and it was very educational to make this film because of the time it describes - the political situation, the freedom. I think that everyone of my age admires them and we treasure them. In this society they are absolutely special and I think if something were to happen in our society my generation would go and follow the example of the women of Charter 77."