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Freedom Film Festival 1997-98: A Note From Eva Zaoralová

Eva Zaoralová, Program Director
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

The term freedom is hard to define for somebody who has never met its opposite—lack of freedom—in everyday life. It is hard to imagine, for instance, what it was like to come back to one's own, unfree, country after a short stay abroad.

To the Czechs the seventies were officially known as a period of so-called normalization after the (1968) suppression of all efforts for the reform of the communist regime. The basic attitude towards the citizen, any citizen, was suspicion. As a film journalist, I belonged to that conforming group of people who neither participated in power nor fought against it. I was permitted to attend film festivals in capitalist countries only after being sternly warned to watch out for spies and provocateurs.

To leave the country I needed a formal invitation, which I would submit to my superior. If he agreed to my journey he had to recommend it to the Union of Czech Journalists. If both of these bodies approved of the trip the request then proceeded to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Only when this august body gave its consent could I ask for a visa and a foreign currency allowance. The allowance was limited to the duration of the festival, and was to be rigidly adhered to.

In any case I never traveled alone. Usually there was a Czech delegation, centered on a particular film director and the ever-present bureaucrat from the Czech Film agency. Of course, I had to keep watch over them, and they were no doubt watching me. Press conferences were absurd. Not one of us could say what we really thought; every answer was calculated to cause the least trouble on returning home.

The return trip was the worst part. As soon as the train left the border of Austria or West Germany and approached the "wired area," a fenced-in length of railway leading into the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, you had the feeling of returning to a cage which you might never leave again. The train stopped, the soldiers rushed in with their dogs, they ordered us to leave the compartment, and then they thoroughly searched it for some possible "border violator." After carefully and ruthlessly checking the passports, allowance forms, and baggage, they left the train and we journeyed on. You cannot wonder that such returns home were accompanied by mixed feelings; on one hand the joy of seeing your family again, on the other hand a sense of fear and helpless anger poisoning our whole life.