Czechs fight for creative freedom

PRAGUE — Whoever wins the war for control of Czech Television — and as of this writing, that’s a wide-open question — that’s not the real story coming out of Prague these days. History will note Christmas 2000 as the date Czech culture got its balls back.

This is of no small importance to Czechs, and certainly not to this American recently transplanted to Europe.

Political courage in the, ahem, American arts community once meant standing up to Tailgunner Joe and joining Freedom Rides in the segregated South. Today, what stands in for creative resistance to oppression ranges from Woody Harrelson’s pro-hemp puffery to Hollywood moguls’ eagerness to stuff cash into the pockets of politicians, just like the big corporate boys. So much for American macho.

Which brings us back to the significance of the Czech arts and intelligentsia establishment’s willingness to put it all on the line over what Czech film producer Ondrej Trojan calls “political and commercial independence … the basic principles of existence.”

Just two weeks ago, a committee of the Czech Parliament installed its third Czech TV chief in less than two years — an appointment that was supposed to be above politics.

But this move was read by virtually everyone from the trade unions to the top creative figures in the country as a politically cynical move, and the rebellion began. One week ago, standing up to the keyholders of Czech TV was a ballsy act for anyone hoping to making a living in the media biz here.

Filmmaker Alice Nellis, one of the loudest and earliest voices of protest, explains, “Everyone, from actors to technicians to filmmakers to documentarians, everyone depends on Czech TV to make a living.”

Nellis admits she was “surprised and happy to see how brave people are. We really haven’t become too lazy!”

As Nellis nails it, the reclaiming of their collective cojones isn’t going unnoticed or unheralded. You can hear it in the voices of major filmmakers like Zdenek and Jan Sverak, whose “Kolya” is treasured here both as art and as Oscar winner.

The father-and-son creative duo debated the situation in the local papers, ultimately agreeing that the rascals in the current coalition government need turning out — one way or another.

The giddiness in the air can’t be understood without recognizing that the fury and steely determination of the arts community and students that fueled the Velvet Revolution of 1989 has been largely M.I.A. for 11 years. Freedom and prosperity had a price. As early as 1990, several prominent Czech cultural figures voiced concerns that were best summarized by one who worried “perhaps we have lost our creative purpose.”

Those concerns were justified as the creative community, just like Czech society at large, focused on Italian threads, L.A./N.Y. hip-hop, German automobiles and Hollywood blockbusters.

Even the moral conscience of the nation, President Vaclav Havel, seemed to have developed a decade-long case of laryngitis when it came to speaking out about crooked privatization, corruption, racism and even the bisection of the country — it was called Czechoslovakia — that was created out of freedom fighter Tomas Masaryk’s dreams.

But now, Havel is back on the barricades, siding with the rebels. His statement, comparing the situation to “1948, when what was done was legal, but wrong,” edged the story onto the screens of CNN, CNBC and other Euro TV outlets.

The Czechs temporarily lost two of their four TV stations last week, with only an estimated 5-10% getting the rebel Czech TV signal instead of a black-and-white card explaining why there’s no holiday programming on channels One and Two.

But they couldn’t be happier. It’s boom time for radio and newspapers, with earnest discussion programs filling the former and diagrams of renegade satellite signals festooning the latter.

If you want to know how good it feels for Czechs to speak with one voice against the petty politicians and functionaries, try to remember this is the land of Kafka, Stoppard, Kundera and, yes, Havel. Or just look in the grainy, televised face of director Jan Hrebejk, whose “Divided We Fall” is the current Czech contender for best foreign lingo picture at the Oscars.

Hrebejk’s last film, “Cosy Dens” was shown on Czech TV over the holidays and was a major deal, as it was the biggest Czech grosser in years. Via a pirated signal, Hrebejk substituted for the regular movie host before the film and read a statement of solidarity with the thousands of Czech TV workers putting their careers at risk.

Afterward, Hrebejk was absolutely beaming — and he didn’t even need a satellite transponder.

“The political powers gave us the nicest Christmas present: It’s the first time I spent all of my holiday evenings with the artists that I love and are meaningful for me,” he said.

A rally in support of the rebels at Czech TV is scheduled for Jan. 3 in historic Wencelas Square. The last big one there helped bring down the boys from Moscow. Stay tuned to see how this one plays out.

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