An Evening with Vaclav Havel

On Monday, March 26, 2012, Facets Cinematheque is honored to host a documentary and a post-screening Facets Dialogue about writer and politician Vaclav Havel.  Havel was a highly respected statesman who guided his country through one of its most tumultuous periods. Yet there’s so much more to the man and his legacy. He was:

  • The last President of Czechoslovakia
  • The first President of the Czech Republic
  • An award-winning playwright
  • A dissident jailed for his efforts to improve his country
  • The voice of the Czech people
  • A thorn in the side of Communist bureaucrats
  • Admired by everyone from the Rolling Stones to George W. Bush

The documentary Citizen Havel follows him through his political career, just prior to his election as president of the newly formed Czech Republic through his defeat by arch-rival Václav Klaus in 2003. It offers a unique insight into Havel’s life, presidency and innermost thoughts during this turbulent period in history.

Havel grew up in a well known, politically charged family. Because of these ties, the Soviet-backed Communist regime denied him access to an extensive formal education in the 1950s. After completing his military service, Havel felt compelled to pursue the humanitarian values that were being suppressed by the government at the time. He began a career in theater before completing his studies in Drama at the Theater Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

As a playwright, Havel’s works encouraged civil self-awareness and sparked dissent, which led to a ban on his plays within Czechoslovakia and prevented him from leaving the country to see his shows produced. Havel’s political activity grew with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. His position as a rebel leader was cemented with his publication of the civic initiative Chapeter 77, which criticized the government for failing to include human rights initiatives in various political documents and incited silent protest against the oppression. His political activities led to multiple stays in prison, which are documented in the published letters he wrote to his wife, Letters to Olga, and surveillance by the secret police.

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when the Eastern Bloc turned its back on Soviet Communism, Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia in a unanimous vote by the Federal Assembly. As President, he encouraged political change through civil initiatives rather than through government institutions. When the Czechs and Slovaks split in 1993, Havel was elected as the President of the Czech Republic, and then re-elected in 1998.

Havel chats with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. How many politicians can claim that distinction?
Havel retired from politics in 2003 and returned to a literary career and the pursuit of human rights—the thread that runs through his entire life and career. He published him memoirs, To the Castle and Back, in 2007 as well as his first new play in nearly two decades, Leaving.
When Havel died on December 18, 2011, a major part of 20th-century history passed with him. Though the fall of communism happened over 20 years ago, and an entire generation has grown up without knowing the impact of Soviet Communism on world politics, the legacy of those individuals who fought against its tyranny should not be forgotten.
What shaped this playwright turned dissident? Join Jerome McDonnell, host of WBEZ’s Worldview, actor/theatre director Gary Houston, and Dr. Benjamin Frommer of Northwestern University’s Department of History as they discuss Havel’s life and legacy in a Facets Dialogue following the screening of Citizen Havel at Facets on Monday, March 26 at 6:30.                  –Lauren Hallford
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