We Do Not Know Ourselves: How Global South Filmmakers Exposed Racism in Czechoslovakia
The documentary film Black and White (1968) begins with a scene in which a small child marvels at the skin color of an adult African. The child asks: “Are you really so dirty?”, and concludes with the words, “You’re black. What’s your name?” The little girl is curious and in her ignorance she symbolizes the protagonist of the film – Czechoslovak society confronted with the racialized other. The voiceover in the film speaks on behalf of Czechoslovak society. However, the creator of this documentary is not a Czechoslovak citizen, but Krishna Viswanath. Born in Calcutta, Viswanath studied at university in Madras, and worked in a state film company in Bombay. He came to Czechoslovakia in 1965 and studied at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), creating Black and White as his graduate project.
Despite the internationalist propaganda of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, images of international students gathering in clubs, cafés and libraries are not generally associated with life under state socialism. Yet for most Czechoslovak citizens, African, Asian or Latin American international students were the only people from other continents they met before 1989. That globalisation in Eastern Europe did not begin in 1989 and that there were prior connections between the then-called Second and Third Worlds – of which the student exchange was an important part – is a claim postulated by historians whose work informs this essay.(For example Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World, eds. James Mark, Artemy Kalinovsky, Steffi Marung (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020), Tobias Rupprecht, Ljubica Spaskovska, Bogdan C. Iacob, James E. Mark, 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World, ed. Quinn Slobodian (New York: Berghahn, 2015).) The internationalism of state socialist regimes in Eastern Europe has received renewed attention among scholars of cultural diplomacy in Eastern Bloc countries with regard to the Global South, and particular attention is now being paid to the ways that political connections between states informed citizens’ involvement with the world beyond their national borders. These investigations require paying close attention to how the connections formed across national boundaries simultaneously upheld racial and ethnic hierarchies. Examining the state socialist past and its involvement with the “Third World” offers important lessons for any kind of left-leaning political or cultural initiative in the region aiming at transnational solidarity, or seeking to engage with decolonial practices.
This essay focuses on race as a symptom of state socialist internationalism and how it was tackled by films produced by students from Africa, Asia, and Latin America at the Department of Documentary Film at the Film Academy in Prague. Focusing on student films made by filmmakers who did not rise to international prominence(There were internationally renowned filmmakers from the Third World who studied at Prague’s Film Academy, e.g., Octavio Cortazár, Nabil Maleh, Mohammad Lakhdar-Hamina.) is intended as a democratizing gesture in the field of culture, which is extremely hierarchical. This democratizing approach highlights the collaborative nature of artistic practice (as student films are openly produced under guidance), the fiction of “talent,” and a range of social and political factors that ultimately decide on one’s success or failure in the industry.
It is important to note that racism was a taboo subject during state socialism and FAMU student films were subject to censorship: before being produced all scripts had to be checked and approved by department representatives.(The films were checked by FAMU pedagogues after completion. If they were distributed in cinemas, they were controlled once again by the authorities. Tereza Czesany Dvořáková, “FAMU: History of the Prague School and How to Research It,” Les écoles de cinéma au XXe siécle, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/CNRS, November 24, 2020, conference presentation.) While very few student films tackled racism explicitly, many international students at FAMU were preoccupied with the theme of otherness. This was expressed through marginalized subjects portrayed in student films, such as people with disabilities, yoga practitioners, artists, and single mothers. I argue that students chose these outsider subjects as a way to thematize their own experience of otherness in Czechoslovak society, and did so in a language that fits within the limits of censorship while being more palatable to the broader Czechoslovak society.(This idea was suggested to me by Magda Lipska who had conducted research of the film production by students from North Africa who studied film school in Łódź during state socialism.) Out of around a hundred student films I have seen in the Czech National Film Archive, only two explicitly address the problem of racism towards international students, and it is no coincidence that they were produced during periods of increased tolerance for critique. Black and White (1968) by Krishna Viswanath and From Elsewhere (1986) by Juan Carlos Delgado (b. 1962) from Colombia use the socially engaged film survey pioneered by the Czechoslovak New Wave to focus on racism they perceived as the burning problem of the state socialist society.
In both examples the craft and tools of socially engaged film-making acquired by students are utilized to openly criticize the limits of the political regime of the host society. Students from formerly colonized countries were invited to learn the craft of film-making in Eastern Europe (e.g., in Czechoslovakia, Poland or the Soviet Union) with the expectation that after completing their studies they would help develop film industries in their home countries. This happened in the case of Delgado who—after returning to Colombia—became a respected director of documentaries, short films, clips, commercials and telenovelas. It was less expected that students would turn their newly acquired skills into tools of criticism of East European societies. Yet, this is precisely what happened in the case of these two films which center on these fundamental flaws of state socialism.
While Delgado’s film was an end-of-semester project that was most likely seen only by school students and staff, Black and White was screened during the Festival of Short Films in Karlovy Vary in 1968 and received complimentary mention by a Czech film critic in Forum, the journal published by FAMU.(K. Fiala, “FAMU,” Forum zahraničních studentů 6: 2 (1969): 3.) Regardless of their limited circulation at the time, they are important documents attesting to the complicated nature of reality that lay behind cultural diplomacy and statements about “internationalism” and the “friendship of peoples” that guided the invitation and recruitment of international students to state socialist countries.
Social Engagement of Gritty New Wave Aesthetics
Combining cinema verité images with voiceover, Viswanath’s Black and White is a 20-minute reflexive documentary essay. We follow the story of an elderly couple who “adopted” a young man from Africa, and two young Czech women married to men from Ghana, whose relationships must overcome barriers. These barriers are both on the side of the women’s parents, who are afraid of the paths their daughters are taking, and on the side of society which hurls insults at the couples and subjects them to unwanted attention. The narrator repeatedly suggests that a society that sees itself as very humane and progressive cannot come to terms with the humanity of the ‘other,’ or with sexuality/agency of the women. Shakespeare’s Othello is quoted in the documentary to highlight how transgressive desire becomes a way to challenge social norms and conventions based in racism and patriarchy. It is also used to show that the ‘problem’ of race entangled with gender as it was posed posed by Shakespeare in the social and economic context of 17th centiury colonial expansion, is also relevant for the Czechoslovak state socialism in the second half of the 20th century. The film’s message is that Czechoslovak society is not free from those racist legacies even if it likes to imagine it is. We are not who we think we are, implies the narrative voice; we do not know ourselves.
The supervisor of the film was Antonín Navrátil (1931-1998), a renowned film critic, historian of the Czechoslovak documentary film and an influential pedagogue. In his book Ways of Lies, Ways of Truth, he celebrates the tendency in Czechoslovak documentary filmmaking to understand film based on the philosophical concept of its author, a film “which thinks about reality and forces its audience to think about it, a documentary film which does not only register reality but analyzes it.”(Antonín Navrátil, Cesty k pravdě či lži. 70 let československého dokumentárního filmu (Prague: Academy of Performing Arts, 2002), 242.) With its emphasis on spontaneity and focus on complex social reality and its contradictory nature, Black and White is an example of the “film survey”, inspired by the strategies of sociological research, the main aim of which was to portray social problems as experienced by ordinary citizens. Indeed, the documentary invites its audiences to the streets of Prague, in the privacy of households, at the workplaces of its protagonists. It asks random people in the streets to document their spontaneous replies, and engages in in-depth interviews with its protagonists. The filmmaker is an engaged observer who captures the opinions of the people but also comments on them and contextualizes them by drawing on his knowledge of history or literature. In his book, Navrátil characterizes documentary filmmakers pursuing “the ways of truth” as socially engaged authors interested in critical analysis of the facts of a life in a state socialist society. Implicit in this conception is a specific understanding of culture as non-profit, state-supported and state-distributed, a field of aesthetic experimentation and interrogation of important social issues.
Black and White was not the first Czechoslovak film to focus on racism with regard to the temporary presence of foreigners. It had its predecessors among the New Wave fiction films. Influenced by Italian neo‐realism and cinéma vérité, New Wave filmmakers portrayed society in a new light, without the propagandist ethos of the previous era, or pandering to social expectations. The main characters were real people in everyday situations. Since the aim of these films was to capture quotidian reality stripped of its ideological adornment and offer a critical commentary on the genuine state of affairs, the racism and xenophobia manifest in Czechoslovak society became their theme. In The Cry (1964), directed by Jaromil Jireš (1935-2001), a man is trying to call a hospital where his wife is giving birth to find out how she is. However, the telephone kiosk is occupied by a young African, who has persuaded a young boy to call a woman with whom he would like to strike up a closer relationship. Is it because the woman might not want to speak to him or is it her guardians who might not want her to speak to him? We become witnesses to a scene in which the young boy is berated by the older man for helping the African. A fight starts in which a completely different foreigner is attacked simply because he is a foreigner. This is only an episode in a film lasting approximately one hour, but it is an important piece in the mosaic of social hypocrisy that the film depicts.
Drahomíra Vihanová (1930-2017), a Czech filmmaker, whose film Fugue on the Black Keys (1964) centered on an African student of music, suggested in an interview that she focused on the African student because to her, he was the ultimate outsider in the Czechoslovak society.(Interview with Drahomíra Vihanová, July 15, 2016.) In the film we follow Fati Farari, played by an Afro-Cuban student of physical education, as he struggles with loneliness, the selfish behavior of his landlord and the boorishness of passersby in the street. The irony underlying these interactions is that as a professional musician and expert in classical music, Fati is better versed in European culture than most of the Czechoslovaks he meets. Vihanová uses this fact to critique the stereotypical notions of ‘primitive’ Africans prevalent at the time. For Fati it represents both the opportunity for self‐realisation and a source of comfort and therapy – only through music can he express his inexpressible sadness. Modern culture, in this case classical music, is presented as a universal, democratic project accessible to anyone regardless of color, language, culture or religion. However, while we experience Fati as an expert in Western culture, his own cultural background is left unclear. At the climax of the film, he has a meeting with the ambassador, who tells him that his entire family has been massacred. However, we do not know exactly what country he is from or under what circumstances his family died (the voice of the actor is dubbed by a Swahili speaker, so we can assume that he is from East Africa). Africa is presented as a vague place where unexpected and inexplicable acts of cruelty take place. Though the film attempts to break down prejudices, it offers a stereotypical image of an Africa full of barbaric violence. It alludes to a tense, mysterious event that transcends the documentary and realist character of the film, with its emphasis on the ordinary and everyday.
Jireš and Vihanová’s films are thus ambivalent on the question of race. On the one hand they criticize racial prejudice, while on the other they are based on racialized characters without history, serving as tools of critique of the Czechoslovak society rather than complex characters speaking in their own voices.
The Czechoslovak Astonishment
The main protagonists of Viswanath’s documentary have clearly defined past lives that are contrasted with their life in Czechoslovakia. In the case of the main protagonists we learn they come from Ghana and that they plan to settle with their Czech wives. Moreover, the survey-film format allows Viswanath to include a range of voices in the film on the topic of racism in Czechoslovakia. The result is a collage of various perspectives framed by a voice-over: young Czechoslovak women reflecting about their relationships with African men, older Czech women and men, young Czech men, and African students. The only voice missing from the film is the voice of female foreign students who are only present as voiceless images or in the comments of others. It is in this plethora of perspectives on the love life between Africans and Czechoslovaks that the characteristics of racism make themselves manifest. The Africans note the overwhelming ignorance of Czechoslovak citizens of African societies and the distorted images of African people. One African young doctor says: “people look at me as if I were a ghost.”(Such comments remind one of the Afican American writer and activist James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village” about the novelist’s life in a Swiss village. Among villagers who had never encountered a Black man before, he was confronted with their astonishment and shock. Baldwin describes how tiring it was to be “a living wonder” having to continually prove his humaneness. I thank Rado Ištok for bringing my attention to this text.) This astonishment is also tainted by class differences, as many international students had access to foreign goods and were often materially better-off than most Chech citizens. “We see them on TV screens as naked men with spears, and then we see them here, so cultivated and elegant!” one woman exclaims. Another, however, insists that they cannot be as cultured as “our boys.” The culturedness of foreigners seems always in question, and in some cases, astonishment gives way to aggressive harassment.
The sexuality of the young African and Asian students is a key concern for many of the interviewees, who feel that foreign students are promiscuous and do not treat Czech women with proper respect. Thus, the students are simultaneously fascinating and threatening, surprisingly cultivated but necessarily inferior, sexually unhindered and, therefore, morally suspect. Czechoslovaks see themselves as belonging to civilized, cultured and modern space, populated by and belonging to people of white European descent in contrast to the racialized space of the foreign students, whose cultures and knowledges were understood to be inferior, sexually immoral and suspect. The film thus provides an answer to the question of why the emancipatory and internationalist rhetoric fell on flat ground in state socialist societies. It points out how Czechoslovakia, despite official statements, remained tied to racial divisions of people into categories such as civilized/uncivilized and superior/inferior. These binaries were something that the socialist regime with its ‘racism-is-elsewhere’ argument and its strategic Cold-War opposition to the Western capitalist, formerly-colonial empires could not recognize.(Filip Herza sees this schizophrenia as inherent in various discursive formations throughout Czechoslovak history and explains it via the concept of “colonial exceptionalism:” the Czechoslovaks understood themselves and positioned themselves (insecurely) as belonging to the project of Western modernity while distancing themselves from the actual colonial enterprise. Herza, Colonial Exceptionalism, 179,181.) In the film, it is only love among individuals, not only between an African man and a Czech woman but also between a young African man and an elderly Czech couple who decide to form a family, that is able to overcome this bias and prejudice.
Racist Slogans on the Elevator Door
The survey film disappeared during the “Normalization era” in Czechoslovakia,(Martin Štoll, ”Sociální témata ve filmovém dokumentu – zrcadlo nastavené normalizaci,” in Petr Kopal, ed., Film a dějiny 4 (Prague: The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, 2014), 344.) the post-1968 reversal of the 1960s liberalisation. During a period of tightened censorship and emphasis on positive images of socialist life, any attempt at spontaneous dialogue with a human being was simply too risky.(Štoll, 344.) The survey film returned during the second half of 1980s, during which time the Department of Documentary Film was headed by Antonín Navrátil who tried to maintain the space for criticality in the school. That was the atmosphere during which Juan Carlos Delgado’s film was produced, only three years before the fall of the regime and two years before his graduation. Interestingly, Delgado’s film links the problems of international students and (mainly Vietnamese) workers with biases and prejudice faced by people with disabilities or Romas, pointing out that it was not only migrant communities who were racialized in Czechoslovakia. In the very beginning of the film, after we are confronted with different students claiming different nationalities, we meet a young Roma man who recalls how he was discouraged at his elementary school from claiming Roma identity. Roma people are also recalled when a young foreign student claims that people treat him badly because they assume he is a Roma.
The most striking moment of the film is an interview with a psychiatrist working in a mental asylum. We are confronted with images of young men of color lying in hospital beds as the voiceover reports on the numerous cases of students who were committed because they could not deal with the reality of life in Czechoslovakia. The film uses montage to juxtapose images of elegant elderly Czechs dining in the only Asian restaurant in Prague with images of young Vietnamese workers eating traditional Czech meals in a cheap cantine, and images of socialist parades where Czechs marched next to Africans, Latin Americans or Asians with snapshots of discrimination faced by foreign students in their everyday lives, such as access to social security. The montages express the entanglement of everyday racism and official declarations of internationalism, the asymmetry between orientalist consumption of cuisine as a luxury experience and the lived reality of Vietnamese restaurant workers. The film ends with a student confronted by explicitly racist slogans on the door of the elevator in the building where he resides. He just opens the door and goes on with his life.
The Czech protagonists of Black and White articulate their bias in moral terms, by hinting at the other’s sexual promiscuity. Direct verbal attacks and slurs are only mentioned by the foreign students who experienced them. In From Elsewhere, strikingly, the Czech protagonists, despite the presence of the camera, speak very openly. Two young men in punk-style clothes claim that Black men are not human but half-apes. A young woman claims that Vietnamese workers are lazy, engaged in black market trading of goods in short supply, and have diseases which they spread among the Czech population. A young man who refuses to show his face confesses that he simply does not like them, he is disgusted by them, their barbaric culture. “There is some wilderness in their culture which we, as Europeans, simply cannot accept,” he says. The openness of such statements registers the increased tolerance for racializing discourses and discrimination during the 1980s, which is related to the waning of the popular support for the state socialist governments and their involvement in and support of the “Third World.”(James Mark, Bogdan C. Iacob, Tobias Rupprecht, Ljubica Spaskovska, 1989. A Global HIstory of Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 165.) These attitudes culminated in acts of violence that targeted the Roma and immigrant—mainly Vietnamese—communities in the early 1990s.(Mark et al.; David M. Crowe, A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 64-65.) The more recent problems of the Czech Republic with the systematic discrimination of Roma and Vietnamese communities, islamophobia or the recurrent refusal to accept refugees from the Global South are just reiterations of the same old problem which never went away.
A Czech monthly magazine We 1965 (My 1965) published a column where the Czech reformist Communist intellectual, writer and author of several screenplays of key New Wave films, Jan Procházka answered reader’s questions. Once he was also asked about racism by a concerned reader who had witnessed a number of “ugly scenes” in public transport. Procházka replied: “Racism in socialism is unthinkable. If it begins to appear in any socialist country, it is indicative of certain practices that take place and of the fact that something is wrong with the socialism in the country in question.”(I came across this quote in the dissertation by Marta Edith Holečková, The University of 17th November (1961-1974) and its position in Czechoslovakian educational system and society (Prague: Charles University, 2018), 156.)
Indeed, there was something fundamentally wrong. Even if it openly condemned the actual colonial and imperialist pursuits of its Western counterparts, Czechoslovakia, like other countries of the Eastern Bloc, was still implicated in the racialized logic of colonial modernity and its citizens shared the imaginaries related to the hierarchies of progress/backwardness with regard to people and places.(Baker, “Postcoloniality Without Race,” 759.) FAMU education did not escape this logic, and its education was Eurocentric like in any other European educational institution at the time. Yet, it was precisely the state-supported system of film education fostering critical thinking and socially engaged film production in a society which granted limited freedoms of expression to its citizens, which also enabled the exposure and critique of the civilizational, racial superiority inscribed into Czechoslovak socialist culture. Thus, they should be understood as quite unique attempts to highlight the key role of race and racism in the dissonant relationship between the official ideology and people’s beliefs in a culture that was (and still remains to be) reluctant to acknowledge the embeddedness of racism in the society.(Herza, “Colonial Exceptionalism,” 181.)
However, such critique can be hardly understood as rejection of state socialism per se.(This argument points to a tension between decolonial theories which, in principle, do not differentiate between capitalist and socialist modernity and revisionist historiography of state socialism in Eastern Europe. I do not have the space in this essay to elaborate on it. That decolonial theories and state socialist historians who accept state socialism’s complicity in the logic of global coloniality have much to learn from each other is the core argument of Nikolay R. Karkov and Zhivka Valiavicharska, “Rethinking East-European Socialism: Notes Toward an Anti-Capitalist Decolonial Methodology,” Interventions 20: 1 (2018): 1-29.) According to Peter Hames, the Czechoslovak New Wave most socially engaged and critical films did not question the basic tenets of socialism however critical they were towards the particular alienating aspects of the Czechoslovak system.(Peter Hames, “Marxism and the Czechoslovak New Wave,” in Marx at the Movies. Revisiting History, Theory and Practice, eds. Ewa Mazierska, Lars Kirstensen (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 155.) In general, the New Wave films, whose production and distribution was made possible thanks to the state-controlled economic structures of the film industry, reflected “the desire for justice and morality that one would expect to associate with socialism, and also the aims and objectives of reformist Marxists such as Kosík and Sviták.”(Hames, “Marxism and the Czechoslovak New Wave,” 167.) In other words, Hames considers Czechoslovak New Wave films as tied to a specific understanding of culture in the context of the Czech variety of democratic socialism. In this perspective socialist progressive culture is socially engaged and responsible, life-representing but also life-forming, never simply accepting given truths.(Hames, “Marxism and the Czechoslovak New Wave,” 151-152.) The same should be said of FAMU student films, which are products of state socialist culture and it is its language they use to expose that culture’s dark secret—its coloniality. In their content and form, the films by Viswanath and Delgado materialize this reformist Marxist understanding of socialist culture.
Black and White and From Elsewhere are important documents that capture the complicated relations between state ideology and everyday reality in socialist Czechoslovakia, between public image, personal experiences, and private lives. They are voices from the past that should be heard by anyone eager to understand and confront racism and xenophobia in the region today as well as by anybody interested in left-oriented anti-racist political alternatives to today’s political regimes.
I would like to thank the Czech National Film Archive, namely Matěj Strnad, Sylva Poláková, and Michal Klodner for opening up the archive for me, discussing the films with me and spending days with me in the screening room. I would also like to thank Rado Ištok and the editors of this special issue for useful comments.
This article is part of the Special Issue Art and Race in Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe. You can find links to the other articles in the special issue below: