"Velvet Hangover," made by Czech-born, Illinois-based FAMU grad Robert Buchar and David Smith, a Yank who made docus for Czech TV for several years, is a long-overdue doc on that dark period and the perceived post-1989 Velvet Revolution industry doldrums.
“It was an interesting fight,” remembers irascible Vera Chytilova, ruminating on Czech helmers’ struggles during the post-1968 Soviet-enforced “Normalization” period that pulled the plug on the Czech New Wave of the mid-1960s. “Velvet Hangover,” made by Czech-born, Illinois-based FAMU grad Robert Buchar and David Smith, a Yank who made docus for Czech TV for several years, is a long-overdue doc on that dark period and the perceived post-1989 Velvet Revolution industry doldrums. Though lengthy and composed primarily of talking heads, pic is riveting across the board: Human rights advocates and fans of true-life underdog tales will be as enraptured as students of Eastern European cinema. Though unlikely to attract much theatrical attention, pic is a must for fests, tube and vid.
Speaking in relaxed Czech with his dozen subjects, Buchar, along with Smith, has assembled a veritable gold mine of behind-the-scenes info on the fates of various New Wave filmmakers in two distinct periods. First section, “The End of the Czech Film Miracle Part I: The Czech New Wave and Normalization,” covers the volatile events of 1968 and the sad fallout. Section also introduces pic’s most fascinating and heretofore unknown subject, d.p. Stanislav Milota, a confederate of Vaclav Havel and the Charter 77 group whose career was nipped in the bud shortly after the Soviets took over.
Part two, “Democracy: The Velvet Revolution and Beyond…,” sounds out the old guard on the perceived shallowness of the current, capitalist-based production system and movies. It also offers slight but articulate defenses from younger, prominent filmmakers Sasa Gedeon (“Return of the Idiot”) and Jan Sverak (“Dark Blue World”). Although pic never dwells on this, these complaints are strikingly similar to those of critics of the Reagan Administration’s gutting of U.S. government-subsidized arts programs in the 1980s.
Receiving the most face time and making the strongest impression is the eternally controversial Chytilova, at once abrasive and wise, insightful and mercurially opinionated. Saying her strategy for making films was to be as confrontational as possible in meetings with party bureaucrats, she explains that all her films had an international festival presence throughout the darkest years of Normalization because “all men have a basic fear of hysterical women” (more than one participant alludes to the legendary tale of Chytilova threatening to jump out various office windows if her projects weren’t funded).
Of the other interviewees, Jiri Menzel (1968 Oscar winner “Closely Watched Trains”) comes across as the most serenely resigned, and Jan Nemec (the long-banned 1966 drama “Report on the Party and the Guests”) the most bitter; latter sums up pic’s mood and overall Czech zeitgeist when he observes, “I am not pessimistic, I just see everything as it is.”
Drahomira Vihanova is as feisty as ever: Long marginalized during Normalization, she came roaring back with passionate yet little-seen pics “The Castle” (1994) and “The Pilgrimage of Students Peter and Jacob” (2000). On tape caught, outspoken elder statesmen Jiri Krejcik, whose films are virtually unknown in the West, is never identified.
Tech credits are functional, with occasional, almost half-hearted bursts of still photos and time-lapse shots punctuating the talking heads. But it’s what those heads have to say that makes “Velvet Hangover” essential viewing for people interested in the Czech Film Miracle.
Though never used on tape itself, Czech translation of title (“Sametova kocovina”) is featured on press material and program notes in both L.A.’s Freedom Film Festival and Pilsen fest, where work preemed in April 2001. Buchar has published a Czech-language companion book in Prague and is completing an English translation while searching for a Stateside publisher.