Czech Embassy Cinema, 26 Kensington Palace Gardens, London.
18th January 2018, 50 years and 2 days after Jan Palach set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square,Prague.
Q & A with Director Robert Sedlacek, Chaired by Tereza Matysova.
I walk into the theatre, where do I sit ? I can see most seats are taken, there is one by the most interesting looking man in the room.
About 70 years old, the longest white beard I have even seen and even longer white hair with a Beret on his head. He looks formidable.
“Is anyone sitting there?’ I ask
Sitting in the audience waiting for the film to start, everyone is talking Czech or Slovak, it sounds so familiar but I can't understand what they are saying. It feels strangely comforting but disconnected. The people look like relatives that I haven’t met ( I can spot a Slav face a mile off!) It feels strange not being part of the conversations and being on the outside . Invisible.
If I could speak the language would I feel the same?
Im not sure because I didn’t grow up in Slovakia. I feel a bit like an imposer, like I shouldn’t be here, like I’m in a secret club for Czechs in London. No one knows I do not speak Czech or Slovak as I have not spoken or is it more than that ? is it a feeling of being different?
I’m starting to relax now and in front of me there’s a women who definitely looks Czech with a cockney accent.
I can not sit in silence anymore, I introduce myself to the man with the white beard next to me. His name is Ivan Hartel, he tells me he led the student revolution in 1969 in Prague, he was an activist and has written books(He started Palach press) He was a physicist and is a poet.
We get talking about art , I mention the photographer Josef Koudelka who took the famous photos of Prague spring and the film was smuggled out and published anonymously. Ivan says he is friends with him and tells me the story of how he took the photos in detail.
I can not believe how lucky I am to be sitting next to him about to watch the film about the times that he experienced.
The film starts.
Silence, you can only hear people breathing.
The film shows the final months of Jan Palach and the events leading up to him taking his own life as a way of protesting against the Soviet Invasion of 1968.
The film opens with him as a child getting lost in the snow and towards the end of the film you see him walking in the snow alone again. This I think is the directors attempt to show his independent spirit.
The film leads the viewer through his student involvement with the protests in Prague and ends with him setting fire to himself in Wenceslas Square. In a conversation with his Mother she says “ No one owns me’ and this is something he repeats to his girlfriend.
In the past when I asked my Mother why she didn’t return to Slovakia she gives the same reason she didn’t want to be owned by the state.
Palach leaves a letter stating that he sees himself as a human torch. In the film you see him writing the letter setting out his intentions and his actions to be seen as a form of protest to ‘awaken the national conscience.’
Half way through the lights go on and the screen rises, everyone sits in silence until they announce they are changing the film reel, phew! for a moment I thought that it was broken.
The man to the left of me asks me in perfect English about my background, he tells me his Father was Czech and his Mother English and his wife is Czech so he’s come full circle. I sense the same kind of acceptance I’m seeking here in him.
Maybe I do fit in here after all.
Ivan Hartel sitting on my right says he is emotional and can’t talk as he is taken right back to the events of 1969, he said the film is set in his old facility when he was a student. He said he left in 1969 because the other choice was either prison or exile.
The film carries on and ends in Wenceslas square. All I can hear is Ivans sighing , the tension in the air is palatable, as Ivan said a lot of the people here lived through the events on the screen and its overwhelming.
The director answers questions to a stunned audience.
No one cried, it was a silent remembrance.
( I google Ivan Hartel afterwards and he was being modest he's also a conceptual artist, political and humanitarian activist, who studied nuclear physics at the CTU in Prague and at the University of Cambridge, and is a researcher(often an experimental method of playing chaos and order), examining the occurrence, origin or disappearance of content, or his communication, and traces of changes or layering of reality.)
Ivan Hartel,( Hanzlík. J)
The Mirror, A Tarkovsky ( 1975)
This was the first film I saw of Tarkovsky's and I thought it was so beautiful I watched it twice. Tarkovskys shoots long single shot scenes full of slow camera panning and using the sounds of the landscape to punctuate the narrative.this film is told in a non linear narrative and when I watched it I thought it is similar to how I think when looking around a room or landscape.He only made 7 films but I can see how modern film makers were influenced by his work. His style of film making inspired me so much that I hired a video camera and did some filmimg of my own the following weekend