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Culture

Former Czech President Havel debuts as film director

Already an established playwright, former Czech President Vaclav Havel has directed his first film. "Leaving" tells the story of a politician dealing with a loss of power - but Havel says it's not autobiographical.

Vaclav Havel on the set of his first film, Leaving

Havel, 74, fulfilled a lifelong dream in making the film

Czech cinema-goers will be queuing up Thursday for an unusual new release - the first film directed by the country's former president, Vaclav Havel, who is already a recognized playwright.

"Leaving," a screen version of a play by Havel, deals with a politician struggling to come to terms with the loss of power. While Havel denies that the work is strictly autobiographical, it's hard not to ignore a number of real-life comparisons.

It tells the tale of Vilem Rieger, the recently retired chancellor of an unnamed country being slowly forced out of his beloved government villa by his unsavory successor Vlastik Klein, who wants to turn the building into a shopping complex and brothel.

It has been described as a King Lear-like contemplation on power and loss of power, and with its absurdist touches, it's instantly recognizable as the work of the world-renowned playwright turned political leader.

Czech actor Josef Abrham, pictured on the set of Leaving with director Vaclav Havel

Czech actor Josef Abrham, pictured on the set with director Havel, stars as Vilem Rieger

Undeniable resemblance

It's difficult to ignore similarities between the character Vilem Rieger and Vaclav Havel himself - and there are visual and spoken references to Havel throughout the film. The onomatopoeic similarity between Rieger's successor - Vlastik Klein - and Havel's own nemesis and successor, the free-market devotee Vaclav Klaus, is conspicuously provocative.

It's up to the viewer, however, to decide how closely they want to compare the former president with the fictional chancellor.

Actor Jaroslav Dusek, who plays Vlastik Klein, said he expected Havel to show "some degree of uncertainty" as a novice director, but that wasn't the case at all.

"He knew the whole script off by heart, which is not that usual for directors, but a bit unpleasant because he kept correcting us," Dusek told reporters. "He knew what he wanted, and he knew how to articulate it clearly. And he clearly enjoyed what he was doing."

Life-long goal

The film was a labor of love for the former president, who spent much of last year filming and editing.

Dagmar Havlova

Havel's wife, actress Dagmar Havlova, stars in "Leaving"

"Making a film has been a very strange experience, and one I've yearned after pretty much my whole life," Havel told reporters on the set during production.

"I'm from a film-making family," he explained, "My uncle founded the Czechoslovak film industry; I was surrounded by film people as a child, and that was certainly one of the reasons why I always wanted to go to film school."

Some critics wish he had attended film school, as opinions were divided after the press screening in Prague.

Gut theatrical instincts

Part of the problem, critics said, were Havel's gut instincts as a playwright; some described the film "Leaving" as simply the play "Leaving" filmed in the garden of a villa, with few concessions to the cinema genre and some clever theatrical devices that were less successful on the silver screen.

"I think the people who are going to be interested in this movie are going to be people who are interested in Havel's life anyway," said Evan Rail, who covers Czech arts and culture for the New York Times.

The storyline and structure "are all secondary to our understanding of the man who wrote it and the man who directed it," he added.

Czech actor Jaroslav Dusek plays Vlastik Klein in Vaclav Havel's Leaving

Czech actor Jaroslav Dusek plays Vlastik Klein, the successor to the chancellor in the film

Hard sell abroad

With the former president in the spotlight, "Leaving" is an intensely Czech experience. The film is packed with well-known Czech stars - including Havel's wife, actress Dagmar Havlova - as well as references to Czech society and politics that could put off a foreign audience.

"I'm sure it will get some limited screening in places like New York and other world capitals," said Theo Schwinke, Prague correspondent for the film magazine Screen International. "I think it will be a very, very hard sell for theatrical distribution any place outside this country though."

Author: Rob Cameron

Editor: Kate Bowen

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