Printed 30.11.2023 03:06
08-02-2016 Ian Willoughby
One of the most thought-provoking documentaries to hit local cinema screens in recent months has been Czechs Against Czechs by Tomáš Kratochvíl. In the highly personal film, the young director – a member of the majority population – goes to live in a desperately poor Romany ghetto in north Bohemia. Along the way, he also encounters far-right activists who organise anti-Roma demonstrations, as well as members of the public who don’t hide their hatred of the ethnic minority. When we spoke, I asked Kratochvíl what had first led him to set up home in a Romany community.
“I was really thinking about hitchhiking around the world or something like that.
“But then I thought, You are a filmmaker, you should make use of this situation and make a film.
“I knew that the situation of Romany people in the Czech Republic was really bad. So I decided to move to them and to do both.”
Did you ever feel that there was a danger that it could be a kind of tourism, in the ghetto? You could come in your car and leave at any time if you don’t like it or it gets unpleasant.
“Yes, it is a danger, of course. But my situation was that I didn’t have a car in the beginning. I didn’t have money. I had nothing – just a small camera and my backpack.
“I didn’t come to tell them that I was a saviour, or that I was going to tell them how to behave or what to do – which white people normally do if they are visiting the ghetto.
“I was like, Hey, help me – I need help. And gypsy people are very good at helping people.”
It’s a very personal film. You talk about the fact that in the 1990s your father supported [Miroslav] Sládek, the far-right politician who very often targeted Romanies. When you were growing up was there much anti-Romany feeling, anti-Romany prejudice around you?
“Of course there was. And the funny thing was that in my area [a village in the Vysočina] there are no Roma people.
“My brothers and I didn’t meet them, but we knew from our father that they were dangerous and they were bad. Which is crazy.”
Did you ever have a period in your life when you were small when you actually believed what your dad was saying about the Romanies?
“Yes, I think so. I had one friend who was older than me and one time he was beating me and I didn’t know how to fight back, so I said to him, You are half-gypsy!
“I knew that some people said that his mother was a gypsy. I don’t know if it was true – maybe not. But I used it as the worst swear word that I could imagine.
Before you went to stay in the ghetto in Ústí nad Labem, you must have had some expectations of what you would find there. How close was the reality to what you had expected?
“Normally people expect that those who live in the ghetto are thieves and violent people, that their behaviour is not compatible with civilisation.
“It’s not true. In the ghetto there are normal people.
“If any of us grew up in the ghetto, we would all behave like that.
“Their way of surviving is different from ours because they have a different position.
“They can’t get normal work – they have to work on the black market, for little money.
“They don’t have role models of people who studied, worked hard, made good money and had a good life – nothing like this exists.
“Everybody is poor, everybody is addicted to something, everybody has problems with money.
“That’s their reality. But they are normal people. Good people. In a different position.”
Speaking of money, your main character Jarda seems to be atypical as a Romany. He’s a landlord and a tough businessman and seems more interested in making money from his community than any kind of community spirit, at least at the beginning.
“Jarda isn’t a millionaire – he has to earn money to pay some executors who are trying to kill his business.
“It’s true that in the beginning he didn’t pay attention to these marches and neo-Nazi stuff. But when it also started to be a reality in Ústí, in his place, he got involved.”
You mention neo-Nazis. Over the years we’ve seen many demonstrations, some of them violent, against the Romany population in several Czech cities and towns. And it’s the people who organise these demonstrations that are also one of the main subjects of your film. Could you describe some of the people that you met in the making of the film?
“One of these guys is called Jindřich Svoboda. He was organising these marches and his position was, Listen people, I’ve been saying this for years, the Romanies are really bad.
“People listened, they voted for him and now he is a member of the city council. And the laws and the rules in this city are really so bad that if you are black, or if you are living in the ghetto area, you can’t sit on a bench, you can’t speak in the park, you can’t have a barbeque.
“And they have succeeded – most Romany people have emigrated.”
Are these people who demonstrate against the Romanies mainly ideologically driven? Or they just frustrated and uneducated people?
“Both. These people are frustrated because it’s 25 years since the revolution and the media and the elites from Prague are telling them, We are in Europe, we have democracy, we are rich.
“But they are not rich. Their salary is shit. They see that we don’t earn half or even a third of the salary that people earn in Germany or Austria.
“They don’t know what will be tomorrow. They can easily end up in the ghetto with the gypsies. And that’s why they are upset and scared and frustrated.
“On the other hand, xenophobia is part of the Czech mentality. We saw it in the 19th century against Jews. Now we don’t have Jews so it’s against Roma.
“We pretend that it doesn’t exist, that we are fine, nice people. But we should look at it and confess that it’s reality.
“For example in WWII there were concentration camps for gypsies and we were organising that – we Czechs, not the Germans.
“At the place where one of these concentration camps there is a huge pig farm.”
This is at Lety in South Bohemia?
“Lety, yes. And we, as the state, are not able to buy this farm from the owner and destroy it and build some statue or something instead of it.
“Czech people don’t know about this history. We don’t teach it in school. That’s the problem.
“Now we are surprising, saying, What’s this neo-Nazi stuff, what’s this [anti-Muslim campaigner] Konvička and what is [President] Zeman doing? What happened?
“But it is in us. It always was.”
This leads me to my next question. People say that Czech society has become increasingly divided and over the last year we have seen a lot of anti-refugee and anti-migrant sentiment. Do you have any sense that these people on the far-right who you documented in your film are now kind of transferring their hatred away towards refugees and migrants?
“Yes, of course, because it’s the topic number one. But it doesn’t mean that they love Romany people. Of course they hate them like before; they hate everything different.
“It’s quite funny that this is happening in the Czech Republic because there are no Muslims here, no migrants here. They don’t want to come here.
“To me it seems very strange that so many Czech people are so hysterical.”
This may seem like an odd question, but have things in a way improved for the Romanies, if there are fewer demonstrations against them, in their cities and towns, because these far-right people are focusing their energies elsewhere?
“Yes, it’s true. Right now it’s good for them. Because there are no marches to the ghetto, no marches to social housing buildings.
“But as I said, it doesn’t mean that they are OK forever.”
Do you have any optimism for the future as regards Romanies?
“I think generally we are standing at the beginning of something new and we don’t know – nobody knows – what it will look like.
“Everybody says we have about two months to solve the migrant question and we don’t know what will happen.
“But I was thinking… I don’t know if I can explain it in English, but in the 19th century there was a working class trying to get more power.
“And now it’s a non-white Western class – in global terms – trying to get their rights and economic benefits. So it hurts – but it’s necessary.”
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