A father's homeland... In and out of the labyrinth -- a year in Prague

11 2003 Naši ve světě English
obálka čísla

How do political / historical events intersect with people's personal lives? It is a question which has no relevance for the majority of people living in western countries such as New Zealand or Australia where notions of individual freedom are enshrined (except for the indigenous population who have had to deal with invasion, forced internal migration and displacement.) We can sit and watch television wars from the comfort of our living- rooms; it doesn't affect most of us personally. However, this question, as the daughter of a political refugee, was in a sense, at the basis of my own existence in the world. Had my Czech father not been a political refugee he would not have ended up in New Zealand or met my mother, a New Zealander.

When I began to write and direct short films, I noticed that I became interested in this theme along with notions of identity, loss and memory (the need to remember versus the need to forget). Can migrants and in particular refugees leave their "cultural and emotional baggage" behind at the borders and airports of their new countries or does it get carried around and even passed onto the next generation?

And what about homelands? When can we call a place "home"? When do we truly belong to that place? What makes someone identify as a particular nationality or cultural group? For example, as a New Zealander or Czech.

As part of a Master's degree in Writing,

I decided to write a feature-length script connected with the intersection of political events and personal lives and based upon my father's experience of being a Czech political refugee. I did, however, have many reservations about "mining" my own family history and also I wondered whether his story was tragic or representative or relevant enough because it was some years since the fall of Communism. However, through the writing process, my story changed substantially and became a fictional piece of work, which was inspired perhaps by my father's origins. Furthermore, the themes which I wanted to investigate, in light of the relatively recent situations involving refugees from Kosovo, Rwanda and East Timor, and most recently the attempted arrival of asylum seekers / refugees on boats departing from Indonesia to Australia made me realise that while the particularities of refugee stories may differ, there is enough common ground to still have a relevance and universality.

The Czech Republic -- first impressions

In order to research and write the screenplay, I spent a year (1999-2000) in the Czech Republic on an International Student Exchange at FAMU (The Czech Film and Television School) . I was under the supervision of Professor Edgar Dutka, who was head of the Screenwriting and Dramaturgy Department at the time. I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to study Czech language for a semester at Charles University.

On arrival in the Czech Republic, I want to ask everyone -- Were you a member of the Communist Party? What's more, were you on THE LIST, that is, the list of agents and collaborators with the Státní Bezpečnost (StB) -- State Security Police? This list was published by a journalist, Petr Cibulka, in the early 1990s. What did you do "za Komunismus / socialismus"(under socialism) and how has your life changed "po revoluci"(after the Velvet Revolution)? But there is a strange wall of silence, a kind of collective forgetting, and I can't bring myself to ask so directly.

In any case, I get distracted by spending the first four weeks on a special Czech language and culture course in Dobruška, a small town 180 kilometres north of Prague. I'm there with forty other people from twenty-three different countries, all of Czech origin. We are all krajané! Some of them, like me, are the result of political events, which cover quite a range, including Vladimir, whose father was a Russian soldier and his mother Czech. He's the result of the invasion and crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968. I'm shocked and confronted by this information as the others continue to argue over the merits of the various Czech beers we sample in the hot August sun, while I remember my father's anguish, a distant memory of childhood, as he hears about Russian and Warsaw Pact tanks rolling into Prague. Is this a case of drinking with the enemy? But we are simply the children of people from the opposite sides of the fence. We ourselves didn't have any control over those events. I feel a heaviness, a weight of history in this country. I'm pulled back to the present by the necessities of casting a vote for best beer. So I too laugh and agree that Pilsner Urquell is indeed not only the best beer in the Czech Republic, but the best beer in the whole world! And remember the title of a Milan Kundera novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Back in Prague to do research, I am overwhelmed by it and I don't know how I will "get under the skin" of the place. This is a city of secrets, easy to be a tourist and gaze wondrously at gothic spires, charming lanes and the awe-inspiring castle, which sits majestically on the hill overlooking the city. The narratives I search for are not in history books -- it is a matter of piecing together stories, untold and told, and even after nearly a year of it, I fear I will not have the "authoritative" version of this place.


New Zealand and the Czech Republic

My initial research had actually been in New Zealand and involved researching newspaper, magazine and journal articles and also locating various cabinet papers and unpublished material in the National Library. I wanted to ascertain the "climate" towards refugees during the war, post-war years and beyond. I also looked at archival footage and documentaries that had been made around this subject and around the issue of non- Anglo-Celtic migration. This type of research was, I suppose, following fairly conventional methods.

When I went to the Czech Republic, however, I felt like I needed to know everything about everything and it was difficult to know where to start. It seemed a daunting task which I had set myself.

Cultural differences in research methodology

I discovered some differences in research methodology. I had taken the Ethics Guidelines from the University of Technology Sydney, where I was doing the Masters, plus samples of release forms. I discussed this issue with my Czech supervisor, and whether he could help me translate some sort of appropriate form into Czech. His reaction was complete bafflement -- "No, why do you need such things? If you give those to people, they won't tell you anything. It's like the papers from the StB, making you sign some paper like that." I then asked about making documentaries and whether people signed agreement forms. He again said, "No, it isn't the way, maybe you can offer them some money or take a bottle of slivovice and that's it, if they agree, they agree!" There seemed to be a strange mixture of laissez-faire on the one hand and an obsession with having pieces of paper signed and stamped by notaries on the other.

Some experiences of researching in the Czech Republic

My Czech supervisor, Edgar Dutka, encouraged me to continue with family research; that it could act as a springboard and be useful background information as well as the more formal research which included carrying out many interviews, attending lectures and screenings on Czech film history, Czech contemporary society and language. I also researched Czech music and became interested in the relationship between politics and music, particularly with regard to the role of the most prestigious orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic. I spent hours talking with the archivist, who had worked there since 1972; talking about the musicians who had defected, the special branch of the orchestra that would keep their eye on everybody, particularly when abroad - none of this was contained in the official history of the orchestra.

It didn't seem enough to just read about the music; I felt that I needed to steep myself in it, and to hear it played, preferably live, especially since my script had a musician as the main character. For this reason, one of the highlights was attending a rehearsal, sitting alone in the balcony of the opulent, nineteenth-century Rudolfinum Building, listening to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra rehearse and then interviewing one of the cellists afterwards in Czech. What was supposed to be a short fifteen-minute interview turned into a two-hour conversation as he told me his story of losing a place in the orchestra in the early 1980s for "political reasons" and discussed what music and being a musician meant for him personally. When I later asked the archivist if there were more stories like that, he said it was the only one during the period of the 1980s, so out of the one hundred or so members of the orchestra and the twelve cellists I had had the good fortune to interview the only one with the type of story which related to my script. I was elated! This seemed to be a case of what Jung refers to as synchronicity.

One story comes to mind which perhaps encapsulates my experience of the Czech Republic -- a juxtaposition of the banal and the sombre. I had gone to Mikulov, on the Czech border with Austria, in order to interview some people who had worked with my father, just before he escaped. The archivist in Mikulov had tracked down some people for me. They were all old as it was fifty years since my father had lived and worked there. The archivist drove me to a rather nondescript village not far from Mikulov to interview one of these former colleagues ... He leaves me waiting in the car while he goes inside and checks if the man is at home. I feel a bit nervous, and wonder if it will make me emotional to meet this person, part of a world which my father was forced to leave and is unknown to me. I am deep in thought contemplating this and when I look up I see a man drunkenly weaving his way along the road about fifty metres ahead. He stops and urinates into a tree on the side of the road. I can't help laughing at the absurdity of my sombre thoughts and the drunk man, oblivious to the world around him, at three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. I think of an old Neil Young song, Pissing in the Wind, and check the audio equipment for my forthcoming interview.

On being a "cizinka" (foreigner).

So I lived in Prague classified as a "cizinka" along with the approximately thirty thousand Americans living there and all the other foreigners or ex-pats and something like four million tourists who visit per year. I have some brochures for the Prague International Spring Music Festival in May 2000. In a Czech programme, the price of certain concerts is one hundred and fifty korun (Czech crowns). I pick up an English language programme -- the same concert costs five hundred crowns! There were numerous debates about this -- two sets of prices for theatre tickets, some museums, concerts and hotels etcetera, a hangover from the pre-1989 days, which many foreigners remain blissfully ignorant of. (However, in 2003 this was not the case. There was one Eng/Czech program with the same prices.) Nevertheless, this example is simply illustrative of two worlds which exist -- the foreigners' world and the Czech world and the problem of how to negotiate your way into the Czech world. I found it much more difficult than anticipated -- as well as the language barrier, there seemed to be a degree of resentment towards "foreigners" and their perceived wealth. Even Czechs who return after a long time abroad are not usually considered real Czechs, but returnees or emigrants. Or son / daughter of an "emigrant". A lot of people did, in fact, emigrate, but Czechs would very rarely differentiate between refugee and emigrant.

In any case, I became highly sick of being a "cizinka" and so when I made friends with some sympathetic Czechs, they taught me a phrase, "Vlastně, mám půl české krve." -- "Actually, I have half Czech blood."

Then there was the other side of the picture-pretty postcard version of Prague, the "magical" city. Sometimes, when I'd meet English-speaking tourists they would say it must be great to live here, it's so beautiful! I would just nod and smile and think about queueing for the fourth time at the Foreigners' Police and being pushed and shoved in sardine queues, trying to collect a visa only to be told that it was not yet available. Dealing with the Czech bureaucracy and the need for every piece of paper to have a notary's stamp. Or getting to a government office only to find it closed at 12 noon and only had public office hours two or three days a week, etcetera. Negotiating this labyrinth, Kafka's world was still alive and lurking in these endless corridors, this city of magic and murk, of streets containing centuries of conflicting histories. It is a city which doesn't reveal itself, or its underbelly, easily.

Language and access to materials

As my language ability improved, so too did my access to both the cultural side of things and to the people, as well as to archival material, both moving image and written. I also became more confident with interviewing people in Czech, for example, the head of the Political Prisoners' Federation. Language became not only a tool of communication, but also a kind of weapon against the "cizinka" (foreigner) label. It appears to be possible to live in Prague without speaking any Czech at all. In fact, if you do want to learn Czech one of the difficulties is practising it in Prague! As soon as you make a mistake in a restaurant , or a shop, the waiter or shop assistant will reply in English. However, I believe that the language is the key to a deeper level of understanding of the mentality and the culture and, furthermore, it would give my writing a greater depth and authenticity.

Authenticity issues.

At times I wondered whether I had the "right to write" about the Czech Republic. I sometimes felt like I shouldn't write about it because I am not Czech, that I do not know enough about it, that I didn't live through this Communist regime, therefore how could I ever know what it was like, what people went through, how they suffered. This was the attitude of many Czechs whom I met; that we in the west could have no idea what it was really like for those people who had lived under it. I could only justify my writing of a Czech reality by thinking that I am writing it through the eyes of a foreigner and the film story is from a foreigner's point of view.

The issue of authenticity and credibility was important to me. What might be credible and authentic for someone from the west was not necessarily going to be credible for someone from the former Eastern Bloc.

Emerging from the labyrinth... I am still left with many questions

While not wishing to diminish the refugee or dissident experience, I suppose I was also interested in the grey zones. Can someone be a collaborator and a dissident? What turns someone into a collaborator? Are they somehow morally weak or just pragmatic? What about the "refugees" -- were they really all political refugees or were many, in fact, economic opportunists? And what would I have done in that situation? Would I have remained true to my principles or given in and would I forgive my "hero" father if he were the same as this less than perfect fictional father?

The majority of my research took place in the Czech Republic where I would be literally trailing round these endless circular type corridors in search of the correct office or person. I often had the feeling of going up one path, only to arrive at a dead end, and having to retrace my footsteps. There was something labyrinthine about the whole process.

However, the year which I spent in the Czech Republic, proved to be an extremely important part of the research and writing process. It was a very enriching, and at times, demanding experience. I learnt a lot about Czech history, politics, culture and society. Not least were all the people I met and the stories told to me, which gave me some understanding of what life was like for those left behind the "Iron Curtain". Although I had visited the Czech Republic several times before, this was the first time I had actually lived there. I sometimes think of that year as The Agony and the Ecstasy of Prague: In Four Seasons!

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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