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Culture

Former Czech President Havel directs first movie

Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, has made a name for himself as a playwright. Now he's tackling the big screen - with the story of a retired politician.

Former Czech president Vaclav Havel

Film director is a new role for Havel

What do former world leaders do once they've said goodbye to their bodyguards and handed back the keys to the presidential palace? Some start working on weighty memoirs; others devote themselves to their favorite charity.

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, on the other hand, is currently directing his first feature film. Based on his most recent play, entitled "Leaving," it tells the story of a politician trying to adjust to a new life after leaving politics.

The main character, Vilem Rieger, is the former chancellor of an unnamed country and finds himself locked in a battle of wills with his successor, the unsavory Vlastik Klein. It's a "Lear"-like contemplation on a politician's frustrating impotence at finding himself slowly being forced out of his beloved government villa.

Inspired by real life

Vaclav Havel on the set of his film Leaving

Havel says directing a film is more efficient than politics

At a real villa in the town of Ceska Skalice, in the far north-east of the country, the former president is fulfilling his lifelong dream. For the next few weeks, he'll be sitting in the director's chair, filming the screen version of his play.

I've been quite surprised at how quick and smooth everything is," Havel told reporters, "I come up with an idea on the set, I tell the person standing next to me about it, and the next day we're filming it. It certainly wasn't like that when I was president!"

At first glance, there seem to be many similarities with Vaclav Havel's own life. Vilem Rieger's rival and successor is named Vlastik Klein; Havel's real-life rival and successor as president is Vaclav Klaus.

In the family

Nevertheless, Havel has denied that the story is strictly autobiographical, saying he first began toying with the idea back in the 1970's. He wrote the main female role - the chancellor's wife, Irena - for his own wife, actress Dagmar Havlova.

"It's obviously a real honor to play the part, but I have to point out that Vaclav wrote the role for me, not about me," commented Havlova. "I was there when he wrote the script, I remember reading the first draft, so I'm so happy to finally get the chance to act in it."

Vaclav Havel's resume is already impressive: world-renowned playwright, anti-communist dissident, denim-clad revolutionary, and, of course, president of his country for more than a decade. Now, at the tender age of 73, he's adding another string to his bow and, as he explained, film is very much in his blood.

Dagmar Havlova and Vaclav Havel

Havel's wife, actress Dagmar Havlova, stars in the film

"I come from a filmmaking family; my uncle basically founded the Czech cinema industry, so I grew up around film people," said Havel. "So I always wanted to be a film director, but the political atmosphere in the 50's and 60's meant I wasn't allowed to go to film school."

A daring director

Havel has been involved in theater for most of his adult life, from the 1950's onwards, and many of the roles in "Leaving" have been filled with his close friends from the business, including well-known Czech actress Eva Holubova.

"Vaclav Havel, for me, is not only president; he is Vaclav Havel," said Holubova. "He's a very clever director, a very funny director, and he isn't afraid - never."

Filming is scheduled to be completed on August 21, the anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Reviews for the stage version of "Leaving" were mixed, with some critics saying it was nowhere near as good as Havel's earlier work. But Vaclav Havel's uncle, who built Czechoslovakia's first film studios, and his grandfather, who built Prague's first cinema, would no doubt be proud.

Author: Rob Cameron, Ceska Skalice

Editor: Kate Bowen

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