A lighthouse towers over a deserted landscape of rubble. There is a pause and then an explosion, its sound substituted for the chime of a small bell, that brings the solitary building crashing to the ground. The camera glides to the right to reveal a man standing with his back to us, a plastic bag of explosives in his grip. This opening demolition job is but one of a series of playful and beautifully staged demonstrations of skill by three ex-prisoners of former Czechoslovakia. Stanislav Kratochvil, Frantisek Bednar and Vladimir Hucin have all endured time in prison for the infringement of article 93, which concerns the execution or plotting of acts of terrorism. Velvet Terrorists looks at how these men live in the modern day, mixing its documentary focus with light-hearted elements of fiction. The result is a compelling hybrid that’s more entertaining than it is strictly informative.
The trio of directors behind the film (namely Peter Kerekes, Ivan Ostrochovsky and Pavol Pekarcik) allegedly all had a very different vision of how they wanted to approach their subject. Pekarcik, a “weapons system technician” graduate of the military academy, wanted to make a film about those who fought against the communist regime. Kerekes’ intention was something more of a social study of how these rebels have adapted to life in contemporary times. Ostrochovsky simply wanted to make a film about love. As it happens, Velvet Terrorists’ three subjects offer a little bit of everything, their lives in the modern world a combination of a nostalgic sense of masculine rebellion, dysfunctional relationships and a general sense of inadequacy.
The segment on Kratochvil mainly focuses on his unsuccessful search for a girlfriend, depicted through a series of awkward dates, all set at the same table and framed in identical fashion. These carefully set-up encounters are just as uncomfortable an experience for the audience as they evidently are for the participants, their eyes shifting uncertainly as it becomes clear, time after time, that Kratochvil has nothing in common with the parade of women. These segments are intercut with shots of the former convict with his men’s men buddies, casually exchanging macho statements on women and further revealing the man in all his contradictions.
The second segment, on Frantisek Bednar, contemplates his reliving of a past he sees as glorious, his wistful reminiscence betraying his dissatisfaction with his current marriage. This portion of the film is inhabited by an affecting and understated suffering that’s best exploited in the shots of him unsuccessfully trying to get back in touch with a woman from his past. The constant rebuttals he faces, and the way he reacts to them with heart-broken politeness are genuinely touching moments that reminded me of some of Werner Herzog’s work.
But where Velvet Terrorists really shines in its final third, during which it focuses on Vladimir Hucin’s perpetuation of his role as a dissident (and explosive) man of action, even after his country began to assume a more democratic shape. Hucin is given the chance to audition a number of girls to go through an intense, and refreshingly diverse, training of his own creation, in order to evaluate their potential to continue his fight. In a collection of gruelling activities that would put Rambo to shame, the resourceful girl is made to shoot busts of former communist leaders with a high-power rifle, push her body to the limits through physical and mental drills, and is generally taught the tricks of the trade of how to best perturb the authority. As they spend more time together, their relationship evolves in a fascinating trajectory. If the “well-trodden territory” criticism might apply to the opening two thirds, it certainly doesn’t apply to the last.
Besides it being beautifully shot and occasionally insightful, it is the performative tension between the reality and the augmented representation of these three men that makes Velvet Terrorists stand out.