"Bata-ville: We are not afraid of the future", a road movie exploring the legacy of the legendary Czech entrepreneur Tomas Bata, was a big hit at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last month. The film charts a bus journey made by former workers of two defunct Bata factories in the British towns of East Tilbury and Maryport to the Moravian city of Zlin, where the vast Bata shoe-making empire was first founded in 1894
Co-director Nina Pope says her interest in Bata was awakened when she and fellow filmmaker Karen Guthrie were commissioned to do a work of art on the town of East Tilbury in England. This small community on the Thames River was home to a Bata shoe plant for most of the 20th century. Like Zlin, many of the town's facilities had been built by the footwear company in accordance with the Utopian ideals of Tomas Bata.
"As soon as we went to the town we realised that East Tilbury was in effect the Bata factory and the Bata community there. So our interest in Bata was sparked by visiting East Tilbury. And when I found out that East Tilbury was based on Zlin, I became obsessed with this idea of little mini parts of the Czech Republic on the Thames. Almost flippantly I decided to take people on a trip there to see where their village had originated. And once we had the idea of this bus trip, the whole thing snowballed from there."
By offering a free trip by coach to Zlin, Guthrie and Pope managed to persuade 30 former Bata workers to take part in the film and make the journey to Moravia. As Nina Hope explains, the trip in many ways was a timely one, as it helped revive memories of the connections between East Tilbury and Zlin, which were in danger of being eroded by the passage of time:
"When East Tilbury was first established, Czechs came over from Zlin to East Tilbury to set it up. And so until very recently there were a lot of Czechs living in East Tilbury, but we're almost at the edge of their living memory - a lot of the original Czechs who came over have died in the last five years. And in effect, the original memory of Zlin has just about died out in East Tilbury, so it was an interesting time for them to visit, because for many people they'd never had a chance to go there or to see it. And a lot of their ideas of Zlin were based on black-and-white photos from the 1920s and 30s that people had originally brought over when they first came to Britain."
While the workers of East Tilbury and Maryport were happy to finally see Zlin with their own eyes, Nina Pope says they were also delighted by the warm reception they got from the people of Tomas Bata's hometown.
"Actually, we had a really fantastically positive response. We also went to the shoe museum in Zlin and had a fantastic tour there. The woman that runs that was a great host. Generally, everybody in Zlin responded very positively and it was really delightful to see them meeting people from East Tilbury and Maryport."
Besides making regular references in Bata-ville to the progressive slogans of Tomas Bata, Pope and Guthrie also appear in the film as travel guides for the workers on the bus wearing uniforms inspired by a costume worn by a Bata hostess in the 1950s. Nina Pope says this is a meant as a light-hearted tribute to the aesthetic legacy of the Czech tycoon.
"Bata, as well as making shoes, has this amazing design legacy and in a way we wanted the film to reflect the aesthetic qualities of the fantastic designs that he originated. Hopefully the film sort of reflects that richness."
Although in many ways, Bata-ville celebrates the life and legacy of Tomas Bata, the film is also tinged with sadness. The harsh realities of a global economy have seen both of Bata's UK factories close in recent years. In visiting Zlín, the now unemployed Bata workers are reminded of what they have lost at home. Nevertheless as these excerpts from the film illustrate, many of the workers found the trip to be an uplifting experience and there was no sense of resentment among them towards Bata.
"When we were at the Tomas Bata house the other night, we met some other retired ex-Bata employees - fellow office workers from Zlin. It felt as though we already knew them. They really welcomed us and wanted us to be part of them. That was really nice."
"We all loved working at Bata, and if it was reopened now, I presume nine out of ten would go back."
"Most people in his position are just into making money. But he did care about the people and the workforce. He gave back to people for what they did for him, which is unusual."
"I didn't realise how big Mr Bata was. The trip just brought home to us how important a man he was with his philosophy of life. If everyone could take a leaf out of his book, they wouldn't lead a bad life at all."
Bata-ville has yet to find a Czech distributor, but the directors are holding talks with the European Cultural Foundation with a view to producing a subtitled version that could be released in this country. As Nina Pope says, the film might well be an eye-opener for many Czechs who may not be aware of the extent of Tomas Bata's legacy around the world:
"I think it should be very interesting for Czechs, if they've been to Zlin but don't know about Bata in other parts of the world to see what he built in the UK and how visually similar East Tilbury is to Zlin is very interesting. But also to consider that this is only one of the many countries which he in effect exported the Bata industry to, and I think that's sort of an amazing heritage that he's generated which the Czech Republic should be very proud of"
To find out more about "Bata-ville: We are not afraid of the future" go to www.bata-ville.com