Občan Havel (Citizen Havel)

The new documentary reveals a different side to the former Czech president

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

For Americans, Václav Havel looms larger than life, the voice of anti-Communism and then the spokesman for democracy, which swept through Central and Eastern Europe starting in 1989.

But I bet you didn't know that the former Czech president hates American food (not enough flavor), thinks his second wife Dagmar was a secret weapon against former French President Jacques Chirac and wants the world to know of his love for modern glass designer Bořek Šípek.

These tidbits, along with some Havelesque ruminations about the obligation to tell the truth, are revealed in the recently released documentary Občan Havel (Citizen Havel), directed by Pavel Koutecký and edited by Miroslav Janek after Koutecký's death in 2003. He fell from a building while filming.

The film follows Havel during the years of his presidency from 1993 to 2003. Koutecký was granted full access to his life, personal and political. The audience gets to see Havel in intimate moments, large and small, while mourning the loss of his first wife Olga, obsessing over dandruff and giving restaurant advice to the Rolling Stones.

Unlike documentaries that rely on narration or occasional monologues from their subjects, Koutecký allows the camera to observe Havel and his surroundings and lets the audience come to its own conclusions.

What comes across most in the film is that Havel is a human like the rest of us, albeit one who is utterly devoted to his country. We catch him agonizing over a tie to go with his suit and fiddling with a saxophone that he is about to give to then US President Bill Clinton, who will play it in a jazz club in Prague.

Havel may be the formidable champion of democracy and human rights in his public speeches, but when he is alone in a room or with close companions, he seems to exude the childlike uncertainty of someone who has been thrust into shoes too big for him.

The film is also a short course in the euphoria and disappointment that engulfed the emerging post-Communist states. As Czechoslovakia and then, as of 1993, the Czech Republic goes through the usual starts and fits of a new market economy, cynicism and anger grips the populace.

Havel realizes that his optimism, as well as his ever-present critiques of his peoples' moral shortcomings, have turned some former fans sour. "The people blame me for it," he says, referring to the sudden challenges facing a populace that was not ready for the arrival of capitalistic ailments such as inflation, unemployment and greed. "Democracy has not delivered its promise," he observes.

The absurd theatre of Czech politics is on full display in this documentary. It especially showcases the strained relationship that Havel has with then Prime Minister Václav Klaus, who ironically has become Havel's successor.

Reflecting that he did not invite Klaus to see President Clinton at the jazz club, he tells his colleagues, "I will be a third as rude to Klaus as he is to me." The Havel-Klaus rivalry in the film seems to reduce grave political matters to high-school spats. We realize that perhaps everywhere, politics comes down to the deeply personal.

But there are also moments of inspiration. Havel's critics have attacked his naiveté, but the film reveals a person of great moral conviction. In one instance, Havel refuses to spin the truth for the press just to avoid trouble, as some of his advisors would wish. In a rare flash of anger, he turns on them and says, "I will not be the president of lies!"

Upon arriving at the New York University in Prague program in January, students were required to attend a session of introductory Czech history with Czech professor Jan Urban. During the session Urban quipped, "History is about identity. The Czechs are truly special in the sense that until today, they still don't know their history." That goes double for non-Czechs, and their history is well worth learning for those who seek to understand not only Havel, but transitional democracies.

RELATED LINK: Official Občan Havel Website

Dene-Hern Chen is in her third year at New York University, studying journalism and philosophy. She is from Cupertino, California.

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