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Czech Centre Showcases Gritty Iconic Underground Film 'A Bude Hůř'

Roger Aitken, BCSA Review, June/July 2018

As part of a series of ten film screenings organized by the Czech Centre under the banner title of ‘Projecting Czech History: 1918-2018’, Jan Pelc, writer of the acclaimed underground film ‘It's Gonna Get Worse’ (‘A Bude Hůř’film, and former dissident Karel Šling attended a special screening the Goethe Institute in South Kensington late this April.

Originally scheduled to be shown at the new cinema at the Czech Embassy, the film reconstructs the raw events of youth adrift in 1970s Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime.

Shot in black and white in 16mm, the work was released in around 2007 at cost said to have been estimated at around CZk 1 million (c.£30,000) at the time and usedalternative distribution - from pubs to halls where a column might partially block your view and on boats - rather than typical cinemas or multiplexes. This was the idea of producer Čestmír Kopecky and appeared to have added to the film’s aura and some way it extended the underground status via this method of distribution.

In fact just four copies were originally made we learned on the night, with the film also put out on the Internet. As Pelc said: "So the film lived a sort of underground life through that." Subsequently a CD was made and Czech TV were contacted in a move to try and get the picture broadcast. He acknowledged it was also "really difficult" to get the film done on time and to a tight budget.

Adding to the gritty style and direction that shows disenfranchised and bemused youth - caught between joining the underground movement in and all that it entailed (a cocktail of drink, drugs and music) or becoming criminals - untested or non-actors were used by Petr Nikolaev, the director. Karel Žídek plays the lead protagonist, Olin.

The film, which is based on the legendary mid-1980s cult novel by Pelc, who in 1982 fled Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime to end up in Paris via Yugoslavia and Austria, uses music by Czech underground bands - The Plastic People of the Universe and DG307. It first premiered in mainstream cinemas in a decade ago in 2008 and has long enjoyed cult status.

Pelc’s novel mapped the main character Olin and his acquaintances, who descend into booze and drugs of the ‘70s in a working class area in north Bohemia, a hard-hitting cocktail of abuse and destruction underlined by daily clashes with authority and a desire for escape. In London on the evening, Pelc described northern Bohemia as being “on the periphery of the underground”.

According to some it arguably remains one of the rawest testimonies of the “Normalisation” period that followed the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In a post-film discussion held at Exhibition Road, which was moderated by Czech TV journalist Ivan Kytka, Pelc and Šling provided additional context to the underground film and answered questions from the audience.

Šling, who left Czechoslovakia in 1984 and whoose own father was killed by the Communists, said he was fully prepared to lose his well-paid job and signed Charter 77, an informal and open association of people of various shades of opinion, faiths and professions. They were united to strive individually and collectively for the respecting of civic and human rights.

The Declaration of Charter 77 came as a result of Czech psychedelic rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, being arrested in 1976 and tried by the Czech Communist government. They were convicted for disturbing the peace, with the band members serving 8 to 18 month sentences. In response to the arrest of the band, a group of Czech artists, writers, and musicians, including Vaclav Havel, circulated a petition for their freedom, known as the Manifesto of Charter 77.

While the Czechoslovak government had in 1975 signed the Helsinki Declaration, which included guarantees of human rights and individual freedoms, they nevertheless condemned all of the signers of Charter 77.

Remarking in the wake of events around the Charter 77-period being "like a Lighthouse” moment according to Pelc, who added: “The primary reason to leave [Czechoslovakia] was fear...and fear of spending many years in prison.” In relation to the music scene of the time, Pelc noted: "It was something in the greyness and hopelessness...the underground music gave us some hope back."

In order to get to Yugoslavia he managed to source a false passport. He later told me over a drink at Ognisko, the Polish Hearth club, that before getting to France he had been arrested several times by the Yugoslavian and Italian authorities before being released - advised by Austrian officials to take a certain route. Thereafter he walked towards France,where his father was born after the Second World War.

Šling,commenting on the period under Communist rule before he left the country told an audience at the Goethe Institute: "The film is quite accurate...rebellion against the stupid regime and where people lived two lives." He remarked that when Soviet leader Brezhnev died in 1983 "we celebrated" - and twice.

He added that if there was a message for people in the UK from these time, it was: "The message for the British audience must be seen in the context of the regime was depressive...making potatoes and steel making. One had to listen to absolute idiots and so you had to escape to feel clean. If you lived with the realties in the 1970s...you would be anti-communist within a week."