Petr Jancarek’s chronicle of the last years of Vaclav Havel’s life, “Havel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?,” screening in its world premiere at the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival, is as naturalistic and down to earth as its subject.
The director, who filmed the former Czech president for nearly a decade in various capacities, says Havel was unlike any national leader he ever knew. “I could see this modest person who is incredibly hardworking,” Jancarek recalls, “a true director of everything, standing by his beliefs, despite discomfort or loss of personal freedom.”
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In the years before Havel’s death in 2011, Jancarek filmed hundreds of hours behind the scenes as the one-time dissident playwright, who found himself leading then Czechoslovakia in the wake of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, endeavored to complete his life dream, directing a feature film.
Havel was adapting his own play, “Leaving,” a biting satire of politics and the forces of crass commercialism inspired by both “King Lear” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” for the screen just a year before losing his battle with advancing illness in 2011.
Ever the creative and intellectual, Havel was no born president, Jancarek says. “He was not a typical politician but the artist who answered the need of a historical era. And only at the end of his life, he fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a film director.”
Jancarek’s film, chosen to open the 27th Ji.hlava fest, is filled with disarming moments from Havel’s daily life, from his struggles to get the attention of his film cast and crew to his efforts to keep his villa, Hradecek, tidy and vacuumed.
The director had essentially unlimited access and his subject gave him unconditional freedom to shoot whatever he saw fit to include. (One of Havel’s few concerns, Jancarek says, was that people might think he was only vacuuming to appear to be in touch with the common man – in truth, he was after a clean floor.)
“It surprised me that he is really like that,” says Jancarek of the ex-president’s sincerity, “that he is not pretending, that he actually wants his likeness to be recorded as it represents a kind of self-control that he himself needed.”
Jancarek recalls first meeting Havel “just a few days after the Velvet Revolution,” when someone realized the soon-to-be national leader should have some kind of security team. Jancarek, then a film student, was recruited for the job, he says, at least for a few days.
“Fortunately, this role was taken over from artists by students of the physical education faculty who were good at judo and karate. It was definitely better for the future president’s security.”
The work Jancarek would do for Havel decades later was in some ways just as serious a responsibility.
“In 2009, he asked me – literally – to film the rest of his life,” Jancarek says.
“It remained unspoken between the two of us that I will process the material only after he will have left for eternity. I am grateful for the trust he put in me with this invitation. When he died, I knew that the difficult journey would start. But I did not realize that it would be so long and so complicated.”
Some time around 2013, Jancarek recalls, a “representative of one of the major European television broadcasters” saw clips from his raw material during one of the Ji.hlava fest workshops. “They were extremely interested in them, came to Prague, we spent a few days going through the footage, and came to an agreement.”
But the deal morphed into the broadcaster wanting to bring in their own editor, who was then to become co-writer, and finally co-director. Jancarek politely demurred and spent the next decade assembling the footage himself.
Having bypassed the sales deal, Jancarek and his team organized a crowdfunding plan to get “Havel Speaking” finished.
“It was incredibly successful,” he says, “for sure because of the great and well-known hero and because we were trustworthy.”
One directorial decision Jancarek made early on proved to hold up quite well throughout the years of editing, he says: “that President Havel is the only and exclusive speaker in the film. I will not try to interpret or explain or even comment on him in any way.”
In some ways, the long arc of making “Havel Speaking” has allowed it to reach an audience that’s more receptive to the portrait than it has ever been, says Jancarek.
“For many young people, Havel´s legacy represents confirmation of the values that are worth fighting for. It reminds them that freedom is not to be taken for granted and that everyone should feel responsible for what he or she is doing. They realize this and maybe our film will make a few more young people think it is worth trying to be like Havel.”
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