Xi visit was accompanied by “Potemkin village live”, says documentarian Filip Remunda

Филип Ремунда, Фото: Яна Шустова, Чешское радио

One of the biggest events at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival was the premiere of Little Mole and Laozi by Filip Remunda. Part of Czech Television’s Czech Journal series, which Remunda runs with Vít Klusák, it centres on events surrounding the visit of China’s president, Xi Jinping, to Prague in March. At that time Chinese flags were placed all along the road from the airport to the city centre, while groups of seemingly organised Chinese loudly welcomed Xi and clashed with protesting supporters of Tibet. Speaking after the Jihlava screening, Filip Remunda described his own reaction to those scenes.

Filip Remunda, photo: Jana Šustová
“I experienced something like that for the first time in my life and I would say I was quite in shock to see Chinese people being organised by somebody.

“At that time, we had no information about who organised them, but it was very obvious that it was organised, because they had buses, they had information.

“We guys with cameras and journalists were trying to spot where the Chinese president was going to be in the next hour. But the Chinese had perfect information and were moving from place to place in an organised way.

“I saw quite a lot of violence. I disliked the fact that mostly they didn’t want to talk to journalists, and also that with their huge red flags they were hiding flags of Tibet and the Uyghur regions of China.

“I saw a Potemkin village in live transmission. I saw moments of hiding the truth from the president. That was censorship. I was in shock.”

In the film we see you speaking to a number of those Chinese people. What was their motivation in coming to Prague and being on the streets of the city?

“We had a suspicion that they were somehow forced to come to Prague – maybe that the Embassy paid them or somehow organised it in a pleasant way, with food being served to them or, I don’t know, that they had told them, If you don’t come, you will have problems with us, with the authorities.

“But I learned from the few people that I had a chance to speak to that they were partly there because they felt like welcoming their president – that that pride was stronger than the organisation.

“And not everything is included in the film. Some of them were scared to be filmed because they were aware that there is a tough system in their country – and even though they were supporting the president they had a problem with being filmed.

“When we asked people who they knew from the Czech Republic, they mentioned the Little Mole as one of the few representatives of Czech culture they knew.”

“Maybe some of them wouldn’t have a chance to visit their families back in China.

“So I learned from them that they were happy that there president was here.

“But one of them told me, for instance, that the same president he was happy was visiting the Czech Republic was a big censor, and that he was actually screwing freedom on the internet to a level that was not acceptable to him.

“He was quite a young person who liked to use the internet freely and of course that is not possible in China.

“He showed up with criticism, but he also showed up with a big red flag, welcoming the president.

“So I saw the paradoxical nature and absurdity of the situation. Of course I wanted to film it – but that was not possible on some occasions.”

You also went to China for the film. What did you discover there, or what were you looking for?

“I was asking people if they saw some images from Prague, if they knew that there president had visited the Czech Republic and if they had heard about some protests against that.

“That was my general question with anybody who I met there.

“What surprised me was that people had very shallow information and most of them never heard about any protests – that’s how Chinese censorship in the media works.

'Little Mole and Laozi', photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
“The only person who had quite good information was a professor from the university...”

Who was teaching Czech, right?

“Yes, who was teaching Czech, and obviously can browse on Czech online media.

“What shocked me was when I asked him, What’s your comment on that protests?

“And he said, Most Chinese, including me, laugh at it – we don’t understand why you are organising protests against our president.’

What role does the Little Mole, Krtek, play in the film?

“Krtek is a legendary Czech fairytale and the descendant of its creator sold the copyright to Chinese Central Television and they made a new series about Krtek.

“Now Krtek is friends with a panda, the symbol of China. Visually it looks completely different. There is different music and the story is also totally different.

“So I just wanted to use it as an example of Czech-Chinese relations.

“Also, when we asked people who they knew from the Czech Republic, they mentioned the Little Mole as one of the few representatives of Czech culture they knew.

“Organically I include the story of Krtek in the film, but only on the symbolic level.

“Mr. Filip visited about four factories and some of the images look like from the Facebook page Kim Looking at Things.”

“Because when I wanted to film at CCTV with the animators of the new series of the Little Mole I had no chance to be accepted with a camera at the station.

“The Czech Embassy were trying to help me but they are not as powerful, I learned, as the chairman of the Czech-Chinese business chamber, Mr. [Jaroslav] Tvrdík.

“He is often in China. People from the Embassy told me that he’s there, let’s say, twice a week and he is actually the key player in Czech-Chinese relations.

“If I had had the green light from Mr. Tvrdík, Chinese Television would have given me an interview and invited me to their studios.

“But Mr. Tvrdík, according to the information that I have, was against it.”

It must have been very attractive for a filmmaker being in China – you have so many very powerful images from there.

“I would say that being hosted by the Chinese Communist Party is very attractive for the camera.

“We witnessed situations such as visits to factories. The chairman of the Czech Communist Party, Mr. Filip, visited about four of those factories and some of the images look like from the Facebook page Kim Looking at Things.

“That was obviously attractive for the camera.”

A few times you briefly use images of the visit of Leonid Brezhnev to Prague in 1978. Why do you use those old images of Brezhnev?

“Because I grew up at the time of Brezhnev’s visit. I’m a kid of the 1970s and that was my daily bread.

“I remember from kindergarten that we were told to draw tanks and symbols of communism – symbols of the Communist putsch of February 1948 and the liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945, etc.

Xi Jinping, Miloš Zeman, photo: Czech Television
“That was my childhood and when I found these images in the archive of Czech Television I naturally compared it with the reality which I recognised on the streets of Prague.

“As I said, the streets were flooded with red flags and the Chinese flag is very similar to the Soviet flag.

“So I wanted to establish the comparison, because a lot of people were talking about it.

“I wanted to physically have this comparison in my film – that you can see and you can enjoy the similarity.

“But I don’t want to say that there is exactly the same regime in China and in the Soviet Union. It’s only a comparison on the level of, let’s say, poetry, not political studies.”

Many people say that Czech society has been divided in recent years. Would it be fair to say that this film comes down on one side of that divide, and the side that you’re on is the anti-Zeman side? Because President Zeman is the man who has done the most to encourage and foster and build these relations with China.

“I don’t believe in films that side with one side and would be used as a political propaganda tool against somebody.

“But frankly, one could have the feeling, which I also had while watching this film, that there is something wrong in Czech-Chinese relations.

“That is that they are from the position of force. I dislike it. I disagree with forcing somebody not to show any flag on the streets of Prague.

“So I would say that I am against any kind of censorship and that I support freedom of speech and freedom in the media.

“But I wouldn’t like to be understood as anti-Zeman. Because I don’t belong to any movement.

“I disagree with Zeman, of course. I disagree with many of his expressions and actions, politically, but also on other levels.

“But I’m not a propagandist and I hope I’m never going to be.”

But still, I’m sure that when this film is shown on Czech Television, people who are against Czech Television, perhaps including Mr. Zeman, will criticise it – and will use it as more proof that Czech Television is biased.

“I disagree with Zeman, of course. But I’m not a propagandist and I hope I’m never going to be.”

“They are already treating Czech Television like this. In the film I included a scene where we apply for accreditation for the visit of Xi Jinping to Prague and, as a representative of Czech Television, we didn’t receive this accreditation, which I consider disgusting in a way.

“From Prague Castle, Czech Television is treated like this. And I think in a country where journalists should have free expression this is not fair. I wanted to show that.

“And back to your question, of course every film has supporters and opponents and I’m ready to face the fact that there may be opponents.

“But people shouldn’t be against Czech Television over this film. Because even though it is a Czech Television film, there is a director – and all the creative personalities are people who are not employees of Czech Television, including me.

“So the responsibility for this film is on my side. Not on the side of Czech Television.”