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GOCRITIC! Trieste 2019

GoCritic! Personal Angle: Occupation 1968


- We introduce our new format with the essay on an omnibus documentary about the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia, written by a Slovak film critic

GoCritic! Personal Angle: Occupation 1968
Scene from Stephan Komandarev's An Unnecessary Hero

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact's violent occupation of Czechoslovakia, famous Slovak documentary filmmaker, Peter Kerekes, has produced an audacious omnibus work consisting of five short films, which tells the story from the perspective of the occupiers. Occupation 1968 [+see also:
film profile
had its Italian premiere in the Documentary Competition of the 30th Trieste Film Festival.

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In August 1968, my father was six years old and at a summer camp. One night, all the children of the camp gathered on a hilltop to watch the trains which travelled along a railway track behind the river Hornád. They saw trains carrying tanks, and this lasted for hours on end. Two days later, he and his friends were in a car returning home to Trebišov, but as the road was blocked by Russian soldiers, they ended up walking home. 

My mother, meanwhile, was 12 at this time, and she alongside others from her village, Ižkovce, woke to the thunderous sound of aeroplanes. Everyone panicked. Rumours of World War 3 began to spread. Villagers rushed to the nearest town to buy supplies. Tanks and soldiers were everywhere.

My parents don't recall any open conflict with the occupiers, but they do remember one thing very clearly: the gripping fear that would become part of their everyday life. 

Stories like these have been told repeatedly by the Slovak and Czech media, and in films and books produced over the years in the region. I myself gradually formed my own idea or “phantom memory” of how it all happened in August 1968 by way of archive documentary footage and photographs, and the same can be said for all five of the directors behind this documentary. Evdokia Moskvina (Russia), Linda Dombrovszky (Hungary), Magdalena Szymkow (Poland) and Marie Elisa Scheidt (Germany) were all born post-1968, and Stephan Komandarev (Bulgaria) just two years beforehand. This endows the film and its portrayal of these events with an approach, and an outlook, which is more relatable to younger generations and it has freed the stories from the clichés which so often mar the depiction of this and other historical events. 

The fact that the occupation is explored by this particular constellation of directors, each of them hailing from one of the five Warsaw Pact countries, allows the film to capture the bigger picture. It reaches beyond conventional frames of reference to examine history from a different angle. This temporal and geographical distance has afforded the directors a certain sense of freedom and this is especially evident in the artistic and narrative approaches they adopt. Each of them demonstrates her or his creativity by using the emotions, the atmospheres and the moods arising from the protagonists' personal recollections – which are inevitably unreliable - to create engaging stories rather than prioritising the search for historical “fact”. 

The omnibus opens with Moskvina's documentary road movie, The Last Mission of General Ermakov. It reflects the typical Russian attitude of "Sorry, but we’re not guilty", reminding us that, in politics, some things never change, even when perpetrators come face to face with their victims. This is the boldest film of the five and is also the only work to bring together the occupiers and the occupied, and to emphasise the bitterness which still endures to this day. 

The next three films are more stylized in their depiction of the relationship between the two sides, and they play more freely with form. Dombrovszky's Hungarian docufiction film, Red Rose, is a sunny re-enactment of friendships, romantic relationships and games, set on the southern border of Czechoslovakia. To an outsider, the picture may seem overly romantic, as if no military intervention were taking place at the time, but it is actually quite a fitting portrayal of life in this region at the time, which I myself know very well, both from my mother's family stories and from my own, personal experience. 

Szymkow's Polish film, I'm Writing To You, My Love, makes creative use of archive footage to tell the story of a separated couple, a divided society and a divided world. Here, the director focuses on the protests the people held against the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia, and notably the boycotting of the famous, international music festival in Sopot, which was taking place at the time and which was broadcasted worldwide. It brings to mind more modern, social media-fuelled methods of protest, like "Je suis Charlie" and other similar initiatives. 

Scheidt's German documentary essay, Voices in the Forest, shifts the focus to the search for truth at a time of darkness and lies. 16,000 East German soldiers hide themselves in a forest for a number of months, awaiting orders. During this time, one of them is accused of "inciting others to pacifism" and sentenced to 20 months imprisonment. Scheidt's approach here reminds us that the soldiers themselves were also prisoners, both of the forest and of their own minds, harking back to the old truth that in times of war, soldiers are victims too. 

The final film, Komandarev's An Unnecessary Hero, approaches the topic from a different angle. Its protagonist, Bulgarian soldier Nikolov Tsekov, is the only confirmed victim on the side of the occupiers in Czechoslovakia, August 1968. Was he a hero for his nation, brutally killed by Czechoslovaks? Or was he a deserter and therefore a hero in the eyes of the occupied? Which side of his memorial plaque should be displayed for the public? Komandarev's documentary carries a strong message about the power and the dangers inherent in the interpretation of facts – a message which is more topical today than ever before. 

Although each of these five films is markedly different, they are united by the themes which they explore: the issue of personal responsibility during times of collective culpability; the questioning of mainstream ideology and the subsequent transformation of friends into enemies; the changing winds of politics and the opportunism that follows; the slippery nature of fact in our interpretation of history… Admittedly, these topics are implied rather than fully explored or developed, partly due to the film’s prioritisation of a personal, rather than a historical approach, but more attentive viewers will easily grasp the wider implications. 

For me personally, and for those generations who weren’t around to experience August 1968, the film allows us to "meet" the occupiers and to gain greater insight into their ways of thinking. It’s an important addition to the knowledge we have already gleaned from our families, from our schoolbooks and from the media. But as an international project, this film falls down in terms of its relatability vis-à-vis foreign audiences, seeming primarily aimed at Czech and Slovak viewers. Nonetheless, Occupation 1968 is an inventive and courageous project which playfully mixes fact and fiction to challenge viewers' preconceptions, an undeniable trademark of producer Peter Kerekes.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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