Really Terrorists, Even Though Velvet?

The three stories of the full-length documentary Velvet Terrorists are connected only by the thin thread of conviction pursuant to the same section 93 on terrorism but, otherwise, these three men (youngsters at the time of their conviction) and their fates could not differ more. Hence, in effect, these are three independent films linked by the topic of hatred against Bolsheviks, communists, commies, etc., as well as by the fact that these films are not about their deeds from the past but rather about the way the protagonists live today.

This oscillation between the time layers is different in every case – the first story focuses on the present day, in the second one both lines overlap and in the third they blend, as stress is laid on the protagonist’s obsession with the fight which developed from the fight against the communist establishment into a fight against today’s establishment which has grown on the imaginary ruins of the communist one. Thus, we need to take a look at each of the films individually, as they differ as much as their protagonists.

The prologue consists of shots from manifestations of the immense power of communist structures, seen innumerable times before, presented as the embodiment of the permanence of the system against which an individual can do nothing. The authors introduce those individuals, who have found the strength to make a stand against this predominance after all, against a backdrop of explosions taking place only in minds, so that materialised visions, such as trees exploding at the roots when the protagonist is passing by, give the image a touch of imaginative surrealism – the idea materialises. This is a unique technique in documentary filmmaking.

Stano presents a tragicomic story of a typical Slovak, albeit a likeable loser in human terms. He made a botch of his active step, hence an ideologically motivated deed, in a manner about as Slovak as one can imagine – with a bottle in hand, which transforms his act of revolt into a farce. Now he is living his monotonous life of a frustrated loner who perks up only during hunting trips by car when, in addition to shooting animals (reference to the penchant for weapons and violence, even though accepted by society), Slovak sexism develops fully in the drunken atmosphere of male conviviality as a mirror image of complexes smothering the real relationship potential. The staged condensed embarrassment of the stereotype of love-matching attempts through newspapers and magazines, placed repeatedly into the same framework in terms of space and colour, refers to the farcicality of similar scenes in the early works of Miloš Forman, and at the same time presents a tribute to UlrichSeidl’s method which draws a deeper human truth from the situations involved in such procedures. Even here the authors mine the psychological truth by showing a lonely soul yearning for a partner as medication against loneliness. However, by repeated shots from the interior of the moving car, they tell us in cinema direct manner why these clumsy attempts, shorn of any empathy on the one hand and equipped with the awareness of human dignity on the other, cannot end other than as a lost cause. The protagonist accepts the comic interludes aimed at him with good humour and that makes him likeable – only a few have the courage to allow themselves to be ridiculed.

The occasional peeking at attractively-formed girls meant “for eyes only” connects him with the entire male world which pursues this sport (no honour to any exceptions) with the same enthusiasm as he does. Stano is no Oblomov and he tries to get from life as much as possible, but we also see him as a leaf drifting on the river where he floats with another candidate, not without comic ingredients. He tried to do something once, and even this deed turned against him grotesquely. He is not built for deeds at all, let alone historical ones.

The profile of the main hero could be characterised in this way if he were fictitious. However, Stano is a real person driven by the stream of life, quite a passive and all-in-all likeable man placed in the creative process by the authors into metaphorised situations transcending real human fate. That is also the reason why what the film allows to be extrapolated from the character does not have to pertain in real life, which is less predictable than the laws of dramaturgy. This applies to the other two stories of the triptych too.

Fero is a tougher guy and his penchant for weapons and fighting accompanies him in various forms throughout the film. He teaches his son how to escape his pursuers at a natural motorracing circuit, even though his son will obviously never need these techniques; he teaches his wife to shoot at a private shooting range – she accepts his penchant good-heartedly, but she is by far not as enthusiastic about it as he is. In the reconstruction scenes, we see him preparing for the assassination of the President, how he imagined evading arrest or how he listened to Radio Free Europe in the boiler room of the Communist Party Committee… In short, Fero still lives his past and its goals, but at the same time he is a settled Slovak father of a family and it is no coincidence that we see him repeatedly in the feather bed. For his sons the revolt is something akin to old stories from the battle of the Piave River or, at most, a chance to play an unusual game… When their father tells them in a coastal restaurant about his vain attempt to get into contact with a foreign secret service, they look almost like two dummies in their car, which they attempt, in a different situation, to push uphill. Unlike their mother, they don’t give a damn about any anticommunist (and obviously any other) revolt. We do not learn from the film what actually occupies their lives – well, it is not about them, but about their father. However, the generation gap is striking, even though the film does not emphasise it. And so the protagonist is shown as a man who remains proud of his revolutionary past for which he has paid, but less as living in the present day, even though he is still full of strength and he surely doesn’t spend his days only in the featherbed. What a pity that the film ignored this layer. On the other hand, the fact that the protagonist stands alone with his past in today’s consumer society clearly testifies to the era we are living in. If the portrait included contemporary social contexts too, it would certainly add to its depth.

The third story, Vladimír, is, in filmmaking terms, the most refined. It presents two fascinating personalities who are able to forget the camera and as non-actors let the filmmakers have a glimpse into their intimate sphere during the reconstruction of the joint phase of their lives with unbeatable authenticity. Viewed as a whole, the film appears like a handbook, a terrorist training manual – Vladimír introduces his potential adept and adherent to his rich know-how in a thoroughly detailed and methodological manner, he drives her to the limit of her strength in his physical demands. The film demonstrates this process equally precisely and with a sense for detail through the lens of the watchfully observing camera. It is dramatised by inventive editing of the image and orchestration of the sound.

As for the facts, the film raises a lot of questions. We do not learn why a convinced anti-communist, repeatedly imprisoned during the totalitarian regime, ultimately causing his marriage to fail, remained a potential terrorist even after the fall of the regime. The final attack at the Huxleyesque billboard Your Happiness Is Our Dream promising two birds in the bush as joyfully as erstwhile Orwell-esque Communist Party notice boards promised communist paradises on Earth, could be the key, but is this motif sufficient for him to stay so obstinately in the old ruts, even under the new conditions? We do not learn why Vladimír carried out his casting only among girls. The story does come close to the thin red line of erotic sparkling in moments of intimacy but never crosses it – the two of them become close rather on father and daughter terms. We do not learn why the teenage exotic beauty undergoes terrorist training which cannot help her in the stressing conflicts evoked by her imaginated queerness – she needed rather a karate course. Hence, a lot is lacking in this film.

Despite so many legitimate questions, the story mesmerises by what is not lacking. Vladimír and Iva emanate the charisma of authentic personalities in their spontaneity and their relation-ship, growing in the course of a demanding joint training, develops in psychological terms so credibly and suggestively as if this was not a reconstruction of something already experienced in some variation, but as if we were watching a feature film with such empathic protagonists that they merge with their characters, including Vladimír’s occasional slip into bitter humour, but at the same time, we are watching an observational documentary. However, since we know that the two of them are not performers but the originals, this makes the experience of this cinema verite all the more stronger. The end makes a very precise point. We have never before seen Iva without Vladimír, but now she is doing her long-distance run at night alone – the training is over, the new adept of velvet terrorism has achieved full qualification. Of course, the question arises right away, what does she need her new qualification for, but this issue was already broached.

The triptych concludes with short returns to all three stories, underlining what these different life-trails have in common: a tragicomic but touching impulsiveness and amateurism of their approach, rather as if they were looking for a way to vent their dissatisfaction with the situation. One of them even trained a successor for this complex, which was inadequate then and even more inadequate today, so he evidently continues his quixotism. It is this quixotic element, which could be called a reversal of the well-known saying to “to crack a nut using a sledgehammer”, as the protagonists attacked the symbols of the system, not the system itself, and that is the real thread connecting the three different attempts to change the course of history and the profile of their carriers today. At a time when transpersonal objectives often invoke a sceptical grin, the comic-romantic overlapping of their fates and also the two everyday and one obsessive ending should strike a drowned down-chord in our souls. How many quixotisms ultimately changed the course of history? Only further development will show which did and which did not. It is no quixotism to devote such a challenging, manifold and riveting film to this topic.

Pavel Branko

Velvet Terrorists (Zamatoví teroristi, Slovakia/Czech Republic/Croatia, 2013) _SCRIPT AND DIRECTED BY: Pavol Pekarčík, Ivan Ostrochovský, Peter Kerekes _DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Martin Kollár _EDITED BY: Marek Šulík, Zuzana Cseplő _MUSIC: Marián Čurko _PARTICIPANTS: Stanislav Kratochvíl, František Bednár, Vladimír Hučín, Amanda Nagyová, Marcela Bednárová, Iva Škrbelová

Pavol Pekarčík
(1972, Spišská Sobota)
Graduate of the Department of Documentary Direction at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Bratislava. He made several films with Ivan Ostrochovský who made Velvet Terrorists (Zamatoví teroristi) in collaboration with him. These were Lesser Evil (Menšie zlo, 2004), Wind (Vietor, 2004), Karakorum (2005), Uli Biaho (2008); Pekarčík also worked on Ostrochovský’s film Ilja (2010) as director of photography and editor. He collaborated in various positions in the making of Gypsy (Cigán, dir. Martin Šulík, 2011) or Made in Ash (Až do mesta Aš, dir. Iveta Grófová, 2012).

Ivan Ostrochovský
(1972, Žilina)
He studied film science and documentary film at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Bratislava. He made films such as Pietro Pascalo (2000), Script for a Documentary (Scenár k dokumentárnemu filmu, 2001) and he collaborated with Pavol Pekarčík on Lesser Evil (2004), Wind (2004), Karakorum (2005), Uli Biaho (2008). He was awarded the Igric Award for the 30-minute documentary Ilja (2010) dedicated to music composer, Ilja Zeljenka. He also collaborated in the making of several TV series and he (co)produced films of his colleagues.

Peter Kerekes
(1973, Košice)
He studied film direction at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Bratislava. 66 Seasons (66 sezón, 2003) was his full-length debut. It was screened in cinemas and it won several awards, including one at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. However, Kerekes’s films reaped awards at festivals prior to him making 66 Seasons – this holds true in particular for Morytats and Legends of Ladomírová (Ladomírske morytáty a legendy, 1998). Five years ago, his full-length documentary Cooking History (Ako sa varia dejiny, 2008) was screened in cinemas. For instance, it won the Special Jury Prize at HotDocs in Toronto or the Golden Hugo at the Chicago IFF. Kerekes also collaborated in the making of several Slovak and foreign TV series.