A documentary spanning 15 years, 45 hours of film and 25 hours of video tapes offers an intimate look at the presidency of Václav Havel. It is unparalleled that a head of state would allow to be captured to this extent behind the scenes arriving at key political decisions with his staff.
Originally an idea of the director Pavel Koutecký, the 2-hour film Občan Havel (Citizen Havel) was edited under the supervision of Miroslav Janek after the tragic death of Koutecký in 2006. The directors succeeded in bringing together an unbiased look at the first Czech president, avoiding the tone of a tribute or a criticism.
It is easy to see why some members of the staff of Prague’s castle opposed the idea of filming the political dealings. The material, if leaked out at that time, would have the explosiveness to sour international relations and jeopardize the presidency. You get to see the preparations of presidential visits (including Yeltsin, Clinton and Bush) or political dealings after elections. The film also shows a lot of humor, and explores the contradiction of the gravity that people expect from the country’s representative, and the human nature that resurfaces after the ceremonies end. When the Rolling Stones ask Havel (a fan of the group) about the quality of a certain Prague restaurant during an audience, he says: “Yes, it’s very good actually, I went there last week with the Spanish king.”
Being a playwright and a humanist, Havel brought into politics thoughtfulness, decency and idealism. His independence from speechwriters and adherence to his ideals without flip-flopping defined a concrete character that makes for an interesting comparison with the US presidential candidates in 2008.
So what does one find behind the façade of presidency? In case of Havel, his public message concentrated on values rather than policies, and applying such high standards to himself in private has caused him some pains when self-reflecting on or justifying the sporadic shortcomings.
The documentary is available on DVD with English subtitles. The flow is uninterrupted by explanations of who is who or explicitly stating what the events are, so getting some background (from a booklet) to individual scenes is recommended if you are not familiar with the prominent figures and events of the Czech Republic of those years.