Documentary truth, part 1

On the set of "Citizen Havel".

What is truth in a documentary? What does it take to accurately portray a person on the screen? Does the term “accurately” relate to the way a person sees himself, the way others see him, or both? Are we who we think we are, or who we are in the eyes of others?

“Citizen Havel” by Pavel Koutecky, Miroslav Janek provides some food for thought on the subjects.

Some say this film is a “fly on the wall” documentary, or the ultimate “cinema-verite” of political films. To me it is more of a showman’s piece where the hero is most of the time “on” and fully controlling the message.

Despite statements from the filmmakers that Havel could “tune out” the camera there is always a clear indication that there is something between his very own self and the way he present himself to the public/camera. Yet even though this obvious barrier exists as a thin film over the screen we get the sense of Havel’s earnestness and his noble nature. It happens largely I think because we sense his efforts to be right.

Vaclav Havel is all about making an effort to be better, “to keep vertical” (as Kieslowski used to say, according to his friends), to improve the world around by leading, providing an example. That can’t be done without self examining and self consciousness. In this respect Havel by his very nature and his calling uses the presence of the film crew to telegraph his essence. Some say he forgets the camera, I would say he plays it as a good director or a stage play writer designing the story. His theatrical sensitivity should not be a surprise, he is a dramatist and probably,
more than many of us would be capable of, sees himself as a character in a life's play. Luckily, Havel is congruent in his message and in the way he is. That’s why, the more the director gives him screen time, the more president Havel reveals his true self - a warm, genuinely carrying guy with an surprising sense of theatrics.

Overall this documentary film is a creative effort both on Havel’s and the director’s part to present a certain class, an attitude which Havel employs in his life and makes an effort to articulate and strengthen via his public appearances, to which the film clearly belongs. There is a noticeable effort on his part to be “right” - in things small and big. He wants to be always prepared because he knows that everything he does sends a message. We “civilians” could only learn from him.

There are two scenes in the film where the camera retracts mostly to high angles and watches cars from above: during the arrival of president Clinton and at the funeral ceremony of president’s Havel wife - Olga. Both times - with different moods of course - the filmmaking eye catches the essence of events in a very cinematic way mostly via the mechanical movements of soulless machines, yet the spirit of each occurrence is
precisely telegraphed.

I’ve briefly met mr. Havel during a half hour interview for “Lawnswood Gardens”. He was exactly like the person in the documentary: thoughtful, sensitive, precise, concerned, slightly shy yet with power inside. It was a professional situation which at the same time spoke plenty about the private man. I may soon post on my youtube channel another “Lawnswood Gardens“ making of with a clip from that meeting.

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