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Synopsis: “The Art of Dissent” celebrates the resilience and power of artistic engagement in Czechoslovakia before and after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. The documentary’s main protagonists – Václav Havel, banned singer Marta Kubišová, and the underground rock group the Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) – became the most recognizable dissidents during the 1970-80s. Havel bridged the disparate clusters of individuals and fused the literary, musical, political, and philosophical nonviolent elements into a hybrid network that eventually toppled the totalitarian regime in 1989.
The film speaks to our contemporary political malaise by underscoring the resolve and courage of dissidents who strove to re-build a battered civil society with artistry, tolerance, and truth. “The Art of Dissent” team presents the film to the Black Hills Film Festival with the excitement of first-time filmmakers.
A unique co-production of NUtech Ventures at the University of Nebraska and Czech TV in Prague, “The Art of Dissent” combines rare archival footage with interviews with key dissidents filmed over three years in the Czech Republic, England, and the United States. Location interviewing began in Prague with associate producer, Mariana Čapková (a young politician), and with second camerawoman, Susan Pahlke (who is by day an attorney in South Dakota) in 2017. Thirty interviews were filmed over three years. Parallel with this, the director began to work closely with Martin Bouda (Czech TV film archivist) and Alena Jirásek (Australian-based researcher and translator whose family went into exile in 1969) to review, select, and edit the archival footage.
Finding archival film and music of banned dissidents presented real challenges. How does one make a movie about “enemies of the state” not allowed to be filmed or photographed? Our quest brought us to the BBC and dozens of other clandestinely made films found in archives throughout Europe and America, as well as to several important private holdings in the Czech Republic. It took over two years to find and negotiate the rights for the music and films used in the movie. In this process, our team discovered forgotten film in a German archive of Shirley Bassey singing James Bond’s “Goldfinger,” of all songs, and “What Now My Love” in Prague just days before the invasion. From Josef Dlouhý we learned how the police confiscated his underground documentary about the Plastic People of the Universe and threatened the young filmmaker with prison if he did not permit state TV to turn his film into a nasty documentary broadcast on TV to demonize the musicians. In assembling the archival footage, we were also given unprecedented usage of the Czech TV archives, and Martin Bouda uncovered other rare gems, such as the never-before used color film of the 1968 invasion discovered in the forgotten suitcase of a Catalonian businessman and acquired by Martin for Czech TV in October 2017. The archival materials our team uncovered are truly ex
As history professor and filmmaker, I enjoy blending the power of cinema with a professional understanding of the past. I like the freedom of alternating between writing books and making films based on the stories I want to tell and believe that cinema can do things that cannot be done in books and vice versa. And because I came to filmmaking having been first trained as a professional photojournalist (before my PhD in history), I retained a street photographer’s sense of image-making. I also enjoy following unique subjects through history and have a deep appreciation for the dialogue between the past and the present in documentary filmmaking. As a historian-filmmaker, I’m drawn to the intersections of biography and the history of ideas.
I care passionately about writers, artists, and activists who push the boundaries of power and challenge the status quo, and I have primarily focused on these kinds of individuals’ response to calls for national liberation and racial justice. It has been my life’s work to tell these stories through film and scholarship.
Having taught Václav Havel’s writings beginning as a doctoral student at University of Chicago 1992, I have long wanted to make a movie about Havel and the Czechoslovak dissidents that would bring his story to American audiences, as well as others around the world. However, in doing so, I was especially keen on foregrounding women dissidents and artists such as the marvelous Marta Kubišová and Eda Kriseová. As a historian, I’ve always used the combination of archives and oral histories, so the decision to move to film seemed organic to me.
My goal now is to make more movies and to develop docuseries bases on my historical research. I do most of my own camera, lighting, and sound work, and combining these professional skills with a career of teaching and writing about history allows me to approach cinematic story telling with agility and confidence. I also love the intellectual and artistic collaboration of working with other filmmakers and composers; I wish I had discovered this rush earlier.
James Le Sueur grew up in Missoula, Montana and lives in Nebraska where he is the Samuel Clark Waugh Distinguished Professor of International Relations and chair of the History Department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He completed his PhD in history at the University of Chicago, and was elected Senior Associate Members of St Antony’s College, Oxford in 2002. He has written extensively on the history of colonialism, decolonization, terrorism, and intellectuals and has worked with film for 15 years. And he has begun to write about the conversion from historian to filmmaker as well.
“The Art of Dissent” is his first feature documentary, and he is currently working on three new films. “The Peril of Dissent” focuses on death threats against writers, artists, athletes and activists by authoritarian regimes and religious extremists after 1989; “Before September” is a study of terrorism and law in the United States before 9/11; and, “Four Seasons of COVID” concentrates on everyday life in Nebraska during the COVID-19 pandemic. He teaches history and filmmaking, and is a producer, editor, writer, cinematographer, and professional photographer.
He is working with Susan Pahlke (JD) on next three films.