The Art of Dissent

A documentary filmmaker and historian discusses his new film about Czech dissidents under the communist regime.

A MEMBER OF the “Duck and Cover Generation” of the 1960s and ’70s, I have always been fascinated by Eastern and Central European dissidents. The stories of brave rebels on the other side of the Iron Curtain not only beguiled my young mind but also stood in stark contrast to my own feelings of helplessness as my classmates and I scrambled under our desks, in practice for the impending nuclear Armageddon.

As glimmers of humanity and courage peeked out at us from beneath the Iron Curtain, through the work of writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and artists like Mikhail Baryshnikov, it was not always clear on which side of the Curtain the sun shone. An anxious gloom pervaded the West, which had been rocked by the Vietnam War, the massacre at the Munich Olympics, the Watergate Scandal, and the Iran Hostage Crisis, not to mention a string of political assassinations. To be sure, we didn’t have Soviet tanks parked on our soil, but we did have the military on our campuses, which led to tragedies like the 1970 Kent State Massacre, and there were riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. It’s impossible for me to watch Miloš Forman’s many feature films, especially his Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), without viewing them as a Czech exile’s double critique of repression in America and “normalization” in Czechoslovakia.


But every generation gets older, and I have moved out from under my desk to the front of the lecture hall. I am now a professor of intellectual history, and I spend my days reading, writing, and teaching. By night, I have become a documentary film director. As a filmmaker, I return to the fears and idols of my Cold War childhood, especially to the men and women of Central Europe who in their darkest hours brought light, truth, and honesty to an oppressed country now known as the Czech Republic. My first feature film, completed earlier this year, is about them and is called The Art of Dissent. The power of their art and thought inspired me to pick up my camera and polish my historian’s academic prose. It should inspire all of us in today’s dark and anxious times.

After years of writing and teaching about intellectuals and literary and artistic interventions, my decision to transition to documentary filmmaking was a way of merging two different forms of seeing — through the mind of a historian and through the camera’s lens. My editor in Prague, Evženie Brabcová, told me that my director’s style reminds her of the European auteurs of the 1950s, who worked their own cameras, wrote their own scripts, and edited much of their own movies. For a historian, a solitary denizen of the archive, the collaborative effort of creating a film was a joyful revelation.

The Art of Dissent is a collective portrait of a tightly bound dissident network that defied the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Out of their subversion rose the “Parallel Polis,” a concept first articulated by the Catholic philosopher Václav Benda in an underground essay written in 1978. Benda, along with playwright Václav Havel and a number of other dissidents, had created the human rights group Charter 77 the year before. Their basic idea was that the underground network of dissidents would function as a parallel civil society with its own samizdat publishing, seminars, and domestic and foreign policy. Rather than accepting “normalization,” the process whereby the communist state rooted out and suppressed all remnants of the “Prague Spring” of 1968, the Parallel Polis operated on Western political principles, albeit underground. The communist regime resorted to all manner of repression to stamp out this utopian movement. But the more it tried to crush dissent, the more solidified and determined the opposition became. Eventually, in the fairy tale Velvet Revolution of 1989, the Parallel Polis, led by Havel and his group of dissidents, reinvented Czechoslovakia’s disappeared democratic state.


Previously, as a historian working in the archives, the only people around me were other researchers, and we rarely discussed our work. Historians are notoriously reclusive and secretive; it’s a hazard of the discipline — a deep fear that someone else will try to publish our discoveries first. But filmmaking is a creative process that begs for companionship. Once I started collaborating on a feature film with my producer-partner Mariana Čapková (one of a new generation of post-1989 Czech politicians), and especially after I began working in film archives, a different world emerged. Soon I was working with a much larger team, most prominently Martin Bouda, a brilliant television and film archivist at Czech TV in Prague. A lawyer friend, Susan Pahlke, volunteered to be my second camera for the next three years, and then our team got a boost when expat Alena Jirásek (based in Sydney, Australia) joined us, along with other executive and creative producers. I became a producer myself — the toughest job I have ever had and unquestionably the most difficult element of filmmaking.

Filmmaking is a lot like being a professional historian in that good storytelling is the goal. But the pen is not the lens. Stories are sculpted differently depending on the medium. The moving image strikes chords unattainable by the written word, and vice versa. Writing on photography, Susan Sontag gets at this difference when she says,

Determined to prove that photographs could — and when they are good always do — transcend literalness, many serious photographers have made photography a noetic paradox. Photography is advanced as a form of knowing without knowing: a way of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it.

Documentary filmmaking lives in the tension between seeing and thinking (or writing). It is a way out of Sontag’s noetic paradox because, as a form of art, it is both a visual and a literary/intellectual engagement with the past. The biggest advantage I now have as a historian-filmmaker is the ability to choose between or to marry different modes of expression, to know what should be a film and what should be a book, and to understand what books and film cannot do. Being an academic historian, a photographer, and a filmmaker, I now know that each discipline has its place and purpose, and that filmmaking has the power of synthesis, creating a new space for the historian in our increasingly visual culture.

My academic work, like my first documentary film, primarily consists of mapping intellectual and cultural networks. This interest developed when I worked in Paris during the early 1990s with Pierre Bourdieu, the eminent French social theorist. Bourdieu mentored me as I worked on what would become my first book, Uncivil War (2001), a study of French and Algerian intellectuals’ responses to Algeria’s war of national liberation. For that book, I pursued research in public and private archives, and conducted scores of oral histories, all of which I used to build a witness-based history of French and Algerian engagements with decolonization during the 1950s and ’60s. Understanding how intellectual networks work and how to access them helped me as I undertook my cinematic study of the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and ’80s.

There are many parallels between the anticolonial struggle in Algeria and the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia. Both reveal complex forms of resistance under the conditions of the Cold War and colonial occupation (Czechoslovakia was a colony of the Soviet Union, after all). Both foreground the work of intellectuals who struggled to make sense out of circumstances of brutal repression. In both movements, prominent writers and artists emerged as leaders — from Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Frantz Fanon on the one hand to Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Jan Němec, and Miloš Forman on the other. Yet, while Algeria’s war of national liberation was the most violent of all the wars of decolonization, the Czechoslovak leaders did not resist when they were deposed and overthrown.

Havel himself was keenly aware of Czechoslovakia’s place within broader debates about the end of empire. As he said in a talk at Georgetown University in April 1993, after he had become president of the Czech Republic:

The fall of the Communist empire is an event on the same scale of historical importance as the fall of the Roman Empire. And it has similar consequences, both good and extremely disturbing. It means a significant change in the countenance of today’s world. The change is painful and will take a long time. To build a new world on the ruins of communism might be as long and as complex a task as the creation of Christian Europe — after the great migrations — once was.

In Czechoslovakia, rebellious underground networks revealed civil society’s creative potential. Dissident musicians like the proscribed underground rock group The Plastic People of the Universe (key protagonists in our movie) had a large role in determining the kind of society that would arise after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Dissidents built their new political order around the civil society networks of the 1970s and ’80s, with the burden falling upon creative writers and cultural actors to pull the idea of democracy back together again. The dissident movement had not only the moral credibility but also the organizational structure to take on this gargantuan task.


The Art of Dissent was made possible by the unprecedented access we were granted to the archives of Czech TV in Prague and to an important group of dissidents who agreed to be interviewed over the course of three years. Among those interviewed in the film are Ivan Havel, Václav Havel’s brother; Marta Kubišová, an iconic singer who was banned from the country in 1969; members of The Plastic People of the Universe (Paul Wilson, Josef Janíček, and Vratislav Brabenec); Michael Žantovský, former ambassador to the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel; Eda Kriseová, a banned journalist and writer; the remarkable Kamila Bendová, activist and spouse of Václav Benda, who was imprisoned with Havel in 1979; and the renowned British historian Timothy Garton Ash, author of numerous books about Eastern Europe during and after the Cold War. Our team also drew from American, British, Czech, Dutch, German, and Swedish TV and film archives, as well as a dozen or so private holdings.


The Art of Dissent chronicles the long history of antidemocratic repression in communist Czechoslovakia, following the overthrow of the vibrant democratic government of the First Republic, founded at the end of the World War I by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. It shows how the glimmerings of freedom offered by the 1968 reforms of Alexander Dubček were systematically stamped out by the Czechoslovakian government, which sought to purge troublesome cosmopolitan artists from the public arena. And it depicts the dramatic turn in November 1989, when the “Velvet Revolution” improvised a future without Soviet interference and negotiated the country’s transition to democracy and capitalism.

The Velvet Revolution left behind a complex set of questions, as well as stark class differences, political scandals, and deep corruption. It never really came to terms with the legacy of the communist past; there was no reconciliation program, as in South Africa. Even so, 1989 was a time of great optimism, a time when the West celebrated those Eastern and Central European dissidents who gave us tremendous reason to hope — and who referred to themselves humorously, in their Czechoslovak samizdat lingo, as “Islands of Positive Deviation.” These brave leaders led with civil love, not vengeance. Havel took as his symbol a bright red heart he placed on the windshield of the presidential car during the early months of his presidency. Imagine any world leader doing that today.


What made the dissidents of 1989 so endearing was that they entered the political arena as outsiders, wearing ill-fitting suits, still preferring to write plays and hang out in pubs. They hated politicians yet found themselves, surreally, to be politicians. This was a time when a true intellectual could be president and could make fun of himself, with Havel writing a play, Leaving, about his awkwardness in office. The new leaders were serious when they had to be, but they always tried to maintain the subversive sense of humor that had gotten them through the experience of being “slave laborers” (in Havel’s words) during the long years of persecution by communist thugs.

In the age of Trump, the humor of dissidents seems to have disappeared along with America’s core values. The brutal killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey in October 2018 has clarified just how much our politics — and our view of dissidents — has changed since the days of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and François Mitterrand (who flew to Prague in December 1988 to meet the Czech dissidents in the French embassy, a gracious act that Havel never forgot).

As a professor of history, I have the good fortune of writing and teaching about people I admire — especially the men and women who took great risks to stand up against oppression during the Cold War. In making a movie about dissidents, about intellectuals and artists, about decency and kindness emerging from a time of hatred, I have finally been able to work in a medium that lends itself to the telling of the underdog’s story in its most powerful form.

The Art of Dissent will debut at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festivaland the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival


James Dean Le Sueur is the Samuel Clark Waugh Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is currently collaborating with Susan Pahlke on a new movie, Before September, about law and terrorism in the US before 9/11.

LARB Contributor

James Dean Le Sueur is the Samuel Clark Waugh Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose film about Czech dissidents during the Soviet era, The Art of Dissent, was finished this year. He is currently collaborating with Susan Pahlke on a new movie, Before September, about law and terrorism in the US before 9/11.


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