An unusual history project is running in Czech schools throughout November, organised by the NGO People in Need. For the next few weeks, around 700 secondary schools across the country will be showing documentary films about the nation’s communist past, as well as inviting former political prisoners to come and talk to children about their experiences of being persecuted by the state.
A documentary on the 1970s underground rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, being shown here at the Hotel and Catering Secondary School in a far-flung suburb of Prague. A group of some 40 young people – most of them trainee chefs and wannabe waiters – gaze at the screen on the classroom wall, as members of the group and their supporters tell their story.
Afterwards, a portly, middle aged man with the remnants of a heavy metal haircut clambers onto a desk and begins regaling the pupils with tales of hiding from the secret police and sharing prison cells with convicted murderers. He is František Stárek and he spent almost four years behind bars for the crime of promoting the Plastic People, whose persecution inspired the Charter 77 human rights declaration. František says modern Czech society is still recovering from forty years of authoritarian rule:
“Back then, whenever someone was let out of prison, they’d usually be suffering from a kind of post-release psychosis, which usually took the same length of time to recover from as the person spent behind bars. I think post-communist society is also recovering from a kind of psychosis. We had almost half a century of totalitarianism, and I think we’ll need another half a century to get over it. So we’re not even halfway through yet.”
By an odd twist of fate František himself became a secret policeman after the revolution, and now works as an academic. The Plastic People today are a rather crusty group of ageing rockers, but the teenage students in this classroom are still impressed with their defiance in the face of official brutality:
“I have a lot of respect for the fact that they stood up to the times, to the regime. That even after they were released from prison they carried on speaking their minds in public. I think they gave people an idea of how things could be different, in better times. So yeah, I definitely admire them for that.”
Stories of Injustice has not been without controversy however – the Education Ministry has in fact declined repeated requests for funding. That lack of official funding hasn’t deterred the organisation, neither does it accept claims from the present-day Communist Party that it’s feeding Czech schoolchildren with anti-communist propaganda. This year Stories of Injustice celebrates its sixth anniversary; next year’s project is already being planned.
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Screenshot: a hybrid English-friendly Prague art-house cinema where screenings are events