Vaclav Havel’s longest stint in a Communist prison lasted about four and a half years. Nearly six years later he was elected President of Czechoslovakia in the country’s first free and fair election in over fifty years. Vojtech Jasny captured the exceptional role played by President Havel during those heady days of newly won freedom in his documentary Why Havel, screening as part of the upcoming Jasny retrospective at AFA.
How does a playwright become one of the world’s most respected statesmen? Jasny’s film literally asks why Havel, quickly answering its own question. We see candid footage of a President more comfortable laughing and joking with the kitchen staff than with the power and ceremonial trappings of office. A portrait emerges of a man of conscience, imprisoned for his activism and avant-garde writing, who earned the respect of both his dissident colleagues and his fellow citizens.
Why Havel begins with the President’s first state visit to America, attending an all-star tribute in New York at the Cathedral of St. John’s the Divine. Amongst those paying tribute are Joseph Papp, his American producer; director Milos Forman, Jasny’s celebrated colleague in the Czech New Wave; Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel; and musical guests, including Dizzy Gillespie (the rest of his band is not credited, but it looks like Mike Longo at the piano).
Jasny directs Forman as the film’s narrator and on-camera guide, who brings a great deal of charm to the role, sounding downright giddy at times. Considering the enormity of the changes under weigh, his euphoria is understandable. In one such exercise of the newly granted right to free speech, Forman mocks “the favorite pastime of the former rulers: giving each other medals—they loved it.”
Although there are some interesting transitions between scenes, Jasny seems much more interested in serving his subject than flexing his cinematic muscles. However, he clearly had remarkable access and a good amount of luck, filming Czech history as it happened.
Over the course of the film, Jasny and Forman give an unequivocal answer to the question why Havel. Only a man so uncomfortable with power could be trusted with it at such a delicate time in Czech history. Watching these events unfold through Jasny’s lens really is inspiring. While the Velvet Revolution was not so very long ago, many seem to have already forgotten its lessons, which is why Jasny’s film will always be a valuable document (that also happens to be quite entertaining). It screens at AFA this coming Saturday and Tuesday.