Foreign Intelligence

New Yorkers are inured to the blaring sirens that accompany dignitaries’ motorcades, and dramatists are nearly as ubiquitous in the city’s streets as taxi drivers. However, when this dignitary happens to be three-time Obie- award-winning playwright and Velvet Revolutionary Václav Havel and there’s a six-week retrospective of his complete plays in the works, it’s a perfect synthesis of art, politics, and New York history.

The Havel Festival, running from October 25 through December 2 with performances primarily at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg and the Ohio Theater in Soho, will present Havel’s 10 full-length plays and eight one-acts. In the process, five of his plays will have their English-language premieres and one its world debut—all timed to coincide with Havel’s 70th birthday. Edward Einhorn, artistic director of the festival, says he sensed that Havel was an artist whom “people know a lot about, but you don’t see much of his work in New York.” While the festival spotlights Havel’s oeuvre in performance, his work, both political and artistic, will be put in scholarly and historical context
by a series of lectures and panels held in conjunction with his fall residency at Columbia University.

Havel has been something of an honorary New Yorker since his first visit in 1968, when Joseph Papp and the Public Theater produced The Memorandum, an intricate Kafkaesque play about a bureaucracy charged with creating a new language for all “official” communications. Havel biographer Carol Rocamora points out that he arrived for this first visit just weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “It was both an exciting and turbulent time, and he relished every moment of that exhilarating visit,” she says. “He returned to Czechoslovakia—to Prague Spring and all the promises of freedom—only to have the invading Russian tanks roll into the Old Town Square in Prague on August 21, 1968.” Seeing the promise of Prague Spring quashed immediately after this trip to New York only magnified its significance to Havel. Gail Papp recalls that when she and her husband, Joe, visited Havel in Prague in 1984, “the psychedelic posters that he’d gotten on his trip here were hanging in the guest room.”

While New York seems a singularly appropriate place to host this retrospective, the timing of the festival is equally apt. Havel’s work resonates strongly in the current era of overzealous White House intelligence gathering. Henry Akona, assistant artistic director of the festival, says, “Havel was himself a victim of intense surveillance and invasions of privacy to a ludicrous degree,” and theatergoers will find that Havel’s fascination with government harassment surfaces repeatedly in his work. His 1971 play The Conspirators (receiving its English-language premiere here on November 13) could be ripped from the headlines. It features a fictional country in which a dictator has been overthrown in order to install a democratic government. However, when the new regime is itself threatened, it resorts to censorship and torture to preserve its democratic ideals. “Many of Havel’s works seem to be about the attempt to remain true to oneself and one’s ideals in the midst of an increasingly corrupt world,” says Ian W. Hill, who’s directing the new production of the Faust-themed drama Temptation.

Michael Gardner, co-founder of the Brick Theater, stresses that while the plays are political, he finds himself attracted to the “vivid rush of tightly constructed absurdist theater” in Havel’s work, particularly the early pieces. This is true of Audience, the first of Havel’s plays to feature the seemingly autobiographical character Vanek. In Audience, Vanek, a dissident writer, is forced to work in a brewery. The play centers around an uncomfortable meeting with the brewmaster; it’s never clear if he’s been called in for a friendly chat or an interrogation.

Havel won his third Obie for the Public’s production of the triptych of Vanek plays, which also includes Unveiling (translated as Private View) and Protest. Like Audience, these plays place Vanek in sad situations where morality is compromised by the state’s demands and by a desire for personal gain. Beyond political commentary, Havel’s plays display an immense humanity and, in many instances, hope: qualities that allowed Havel to emerge from the dark days of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia as a leader who symbolizes the power of art in the political arena.

The Havel Festival runs until December 2. Information is available at


Prague Sprung

The almost ubiquitous Prague surrealist Jan Svankmajer, well into his seventies now, may be the season’s secret man of the hour, with his new feature Lunacy having just opened in August and the appearance of this DVD omnibus, arranged to complement Kino’s “Collected Shorts” package. He was and remains a peerless provocateur, his signature experience being smashups of cultural re-exploration, sociosexual commentary, Czech puppet traditions, food used in ways it shouldn’t be, things that shouldn’t be food but are, dream frustration, and a crystalline faith in the obscure desire of objects. These nine heretofore ungathered shorts range from his aboriginal puppet-theater debut The Last Trick (1964) to 1989’s anatomical Claymation nightmare Darkness, Light, Darkness. Prime among the others are Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in G Minor (1965), a Fantasia realignment that examines the decay of Prague’s architectural surfaces; The Garden (1968), an animation-free parable on collaborationism and one of the key films that got Svankmajer banned from filmmaking by the Czech authorities through most of the ’70s; and Manly Games (1988), a ripping satire of spectator sport and its audience. Also in the package is the rare dance on the grave of Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1979), which Svankmajer had begun as a paper doll rendition of the classic gothic story and then resumed, after his studio parole was over, as a quasi-mock-doc taking aim at deranged bureaucratic idiocy. Released simultaneously by Kino is Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness, a collection by a fellow Czech animator who has sluttishly bounced between styles and performed virtually every kind of frame-by-frame filmmaking. Still, The Club of the Laid-Off (1989) is a darkling treatment of human routine performed by decommissioned mannequins in a collapsed slum, and Krysar is a 1985 mini-feature version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin set in a fascinating woodcut-Caligari universe, and fueled by tireless visual invention.



The great Czechoslovak writer Karel Capek died in Prague in 1938, three months shy of springtime and the Nazi occupation. In March 1939, Hitler was spending nights at Kafka’s castle, which overlooked the fresh grave of a genius no less intense. Capek’s work must have read like prophecy. Its creator was better off dead. The Absolute at Large goes beyond the religious fervor of Nazism, foreshadowing the collectivization of Communism and the emergence of a free market too wild for any known West.

Capek presents Engineer Marek, inventor of the Karburator, a generator that makes Chernobyl seem like a AA battery. In contravention of Lavoisier’s laws of conservation, the Karburator destroys matter completely, in the process producing great power. According to Marek, this power is the matter’s very “soul,” released into air as the Absolute, the pantheistic God. Inspired, people stop sinning. Church and state go into business together, and hilarity ensues.

Capek was one of the great eclectics, and his art was most at home among the seemingly foreign. He wrote about aliens and robots, about religion as industrial pollutant; his politics inveighed against the Communist threat long before Prague even knew it existed. Now the University of Nebraska Press has published this most timely novel in an edition that doesn’t see fit to name its translator. An invisible, ineffable presence—maybe, after all, God speaks Czech.


The New Republic

Up and Down is the first film by Czech director Jan Hrebejk with a contemporary setting, and it combines two modes characteristic of current festival cinema. One is the mystical ensemble drama in which all of a movie’s disparate characters are ultimately connected; the other, exemplified by the hit import Head-On, is the spectacle of the new multi-cultural Europe.

Both modes evoke, if only superficially, the experience of globalism—or, in the case of the Czech Republic, a post-Communist internationale. Appropriately, Up and Down—co-written, like several of the 37-year-old Hrebejk’s previous features, by his schoolmate Petr Jarchovsky—opens with the sounds of a Balkan brass band (and the words “Hello America”) and a couple of smugglers sitting around a Slovakian truck stop chewing over the disgusting memory of Thai deep-fried bat. Then they proceed to drive across the Czech border in a van crammed with illegal South Asian immigrants.

As with Divided We Fall (2000), the only previous Hrebejk-Jarchovsky feature to have an American release, paternity is the key to national identity—as well as domestic bliss. In that darkish comedy, set in Czechoslovakia during the German occupation, a Jewish escapee from a concentration camp is hidden by a childless gentile couple. The local Nazi collaborationist has designs on the spare room in the couple’s apartment and so, in a deeply ironic evocation of national rebirth, the fugitive secures everyone’s position by getting the woman pregnant.

Less optimistic in its view of cultural identity and not so generous in its sense of human relations, Up and Down features two families of disparate classes, with new or returned children. An abandoned Indian baby is sold on the black market to the quasi-reformed soccer hooligan Franta (Czech rock star Jiri Machacek) and his desperately childless wife, Mila (Natasa Burger). Elsewhere in Prague, the bourgeois professor Otto collapses (while delivering a class lecture on immigration) and, facing a risky medical operation, stage-manages a reunion with his long-abandoned wife, Vera, her redundancy emphasized by her job as a Russian translator, and their son Martin, the proprietor of a Brisbane surf shop, who has not communicated with his father in 20 years.

A movie of bilious light and cramped, cluttered spaces, Up and Down is broader than the classic Czech comedies that are referenced both in its tone and casting. (The parts of Otto and Vera are taken by actors, Jan Triska and Emilia Vasaryova, associated with the ’60s new wave; Petr Forman, the son of Milos Forman, plays Martin.) The narrative is a matter of spiraling complications and absurd misunderstandings, many of them staged around the dinner table. Meanwhile, the two utterly different but equally unstable families head toward each other like ships in the night—the inevitable convergence occurring at the KFC where Franta works as a security guard.

American fast-food franchises are only one aspect of the new Czech social order. From Otto’s excruciating riff on an African student whose Christian name is Lenin to the fellow hooligan who visits Franta and freaks when he sees the complexion of his friend’s new baby, every other conversation in the movie obsessively returns to the subject of the country’s newcomers. The professor’s new companion works in a refugee center. To bait her, Vera complains that she’s the ethnic minority in her building—the other apartments are inhabited by “nothing but immigrants from Slovakia, Romania, and other armpits.” (“Mom, I’m an immigrant too,” Martin mildly points out.) Late in the movie former president Václav Havel appears as himself, escorting a pair of visiting Burmese dissidents. And of course, most of the lowlife thieves are Gypsies.

Up and Down is not exactly the toughest movie on the block, but especially compared to most American comedies, it conveys a sense of scrofulous rue. As the Czech Republic struggles to find its place in the European free market, those who can escape to happier lands do so. The closest thing to a Czech national rebirth the film provides is the sterile idiot nationalism of the soccer hooligans. The only justice is the beating that Franta administers, unknowing, to the agent of his misery. Life goes on, as embodied by the collection of mechanical toys that Vera keeps on her shelf.



It takes a (Czech) village: When Prague resistance fighter Eliska (Anna Geislerová) learns that the SS is after her, she flees to the mountain hamlet of Zelary to become the wife of a farmer whose life she once saved. Director Ondrej Trojan tells her journey with little sense of narrative pacing (certain events seem to happen twice) and even less of character (Eliska accepts her hausfrau destiny with inexplicable passivity). Only the ensemble cast of yokels is rendered with any consistency, their lives portrayed as a cycle of drinking, copulation, and more drinking. Zelary strands its protagonists in a hermetically sealed world where time runs in place. It’s a feeling that viewers of this two-and-a-half-hour epic will come to know all too well.


Velvet Overground

After more than a decade, Václav Havel’s Velvet Revolution is finally bearing fruit in a New New Wave of vibrant Czech cinema. The most exuberant among the five features in this series of recent films by youngish auteurs (all under 50) is The Rebels, director Filip Renc’s candy-colored, semi-camp musical cartoonishly evoking the heady days of the 1968 Prague Spring through the experiences of a group of six teenagers. Oblivious to both the brief stirrings of democracy and to the impending Soviet crackdown, giddy girls meet boys—yet the state has shocks in store. Renc’s style is wannabe Jacques Demy; but don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming along to stirring Czech renditions of period standards like Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” or if you’re strangely moved by this fluffy film’s bittersweet conclusion.

Anomie afflicts the current generation in Parallel Worlds (2001), Petr Václav’s anatomy of a failing relationship. Krystof, a Prague architect, lives with Tereza, a translator. While he labors constantly, she wonders if they’ll ever be able to build something substantial between them. Václav, who also wrote the script, has a keen sense of the ways in which work and consumption contaminate private affairs. Wildly surreal dream sequences punctuate scenes of muted daytime conversation between characters who appear to be sleepwalking through an alienated existence.

Life in the countryside fares a bit better in Wild Bees (2001). Loosely directed by Bohdan Sláma, this lusty and poetically absurdist comedy is set in the hinterlands of rural Northern Moravia, where the day begins with a bit of schnapps and a pickle, and ends with a roll in the hay. A gentle woodcutter from a family filled with boozing women has a crush on a local beauty, a grocery store clerk. Yet she’s already involved with the town’s Michael Jackson impersonator, a figure meant to embody creeping Americanization. Sláma likes to set up scenes where so much is going on that you can’t possibly follow them. But the film’s lush atmosphere finally carries the day. —


Spring Forward

“We’ll have hamburgers, but not morals or art,” a man on the street laments, captured by Czech documentarian Karel Vachek’s roving camera on the eve of his country’s Velvet Revolution. A longtime dissident, Vachek attended the Prague Film Academy in the early ’60s and got into trouble with his very first film: Moravia Hellas (1964), a satire of Communist-sanctioned folk culture. During the 1968 Prague Spring, when Soviet controls were loosened, he made Elective Affinities (1969), about behind-the-scenes politics, but the film was banned in the ensuing crackdown and its maker exiled to New Jersey.

This series presents the three documentaries he’s made since the revolution of 1989, which allowed him to return to filmmaking in Czechoslovakia after years of working as a driver and traveling salesman. New Hyperion (1994) focuses on the enormous social upheavals surrounding the elections of 1990—the first free vote in decades, which put Vaclav Havel in office. Over three hours long, it’s both enervating and fascinating, like an all-night discussion with disgruntled intellectuals over beer and cigarettes in a Prague café. “It’s still like some script, a puppet show,” an actress comments about the political circus, where the Communists and the Friends of Beer are among the 27 parties competing for national attention. Twenty years of corrupt government, she says, have left her with an immense hangover. Vachek presents events unfolding verité-style, with little or no explanation. The pope visits and enormous masses seek absolution, in a country rife with former secret agents; one gives an interview from his hospital bed, having been forced out of government. “Who here hasn’t paid a bribe to get a car?” someone asks while standing in the halls of the new parliament. Vachek’s contrarian intellect revels in the ironies, even as he seeks the revolution’s elusive moral center. And he also includes a bit of nostalgia. “Those were the days,” a former apparatchik reminisces, “when we were told what to say, and we could go shopping.”



Since Seattle, economic conferences have never been the same. Following the Washington, D.C., demo against the IMF and World Bank, Europeans mobilized 12,000 activists on September 26. The anticipation of conflict sparked international surveillance and numerous protesters were stopped at the border of the Czech Republic. Most confrontations were nonviolent, but riots erupted in isolated pockets of the demonstration. More than 800 protesters were detained in prison, and 100 people were injured, among them police and bankers. The finance ministers cut short their meetings. — Lenora Todaro


The Promise of Prague

PRAGUE—The Prague Castle, seat of power in the Czech Republic for the last one thousand or so years, hovers over this medieval city, aloof and dominant in the skyline. Closed to the public during the communist era, when party leaders met behind steel doors, the castle was opened to the public by President Vaclav Havel when he took office after leading the 1989 Velvet Revolution, a mass nonviolent ejection of communism in favor of social democracy and, ultimately, Western-style capitalism—epitomized, perhaps, by the McDonald’s and KFCs scattered among the towers and steeples throughout the city.

As the 55th annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings unfolded in his city at the end of September, the former playwright and dissident found himself in the strange position of hosting both some 14,000 global financiers and 12,000 protesters. To keep the peace, he called in 11,000 police and 5000 soldiers.

“Havel used to say, before the revolution, that the new struggle was not between capitalism and communism,” says John Keene, author of the biography Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, “it was between the integrity of an individual living as a citizen in the truth, and on the other side, the use of power.” Now, as the leader of a privatized economy, Havel believes that “if there’s going to be a global economy, it has got to be embedded in civil society,” Keene explains. “This is one of his more appealing moral ideas.”

Between Friday, September 22, when delegates and demonstrators began arriving, and Wednesday, September 27 when, after mass protest, the official meetings were closed one day early, questions of power and civility were of grave concern to protesters and finance ministers alike. Should activists try to shut down meetings with a show of force? Should the World Bank and IMF make on-the-spot concessions to protesters to maintain their public image?

It is perhaps the irony of globalization itself that what offends—the economic dominance of a few nations over many—also allows global-scale criticism. When protesters chant “The whole world is watching,” it often is. It did in 1989, when hundreds of thousands of Czechs shook their keys in Wenceslas Square, unlocking themselves from communism. And it did again in Seattle, as tens of thousands protested against the ravages of capitalism.

This annual meeting of the World Bank and the IMF was planned long before the backlash against them (and the WTO) made itself heard, at a time when convening in this Eastern Bloc country was ripe with the symbolism of Western triumph. Delegates arrived from the 182 member nations, prepared to work and peruse the winding streets of Prague, a city remarkably preserved, having escaped the bombs of World War II. But in the days leading up to this meeting activists flowed in—mostly from Europe, although from as far as Tanzania and Japan as well—to make it known that they see these institutions as undemocratic, escalating poverty rather than alleviating it through their draconian loan programs. The anticipation of confrontation sparked a surge of international surveillance, and readied spin machines on both sides.

On Saturday morning, three days before the opening of the official meetings, the streets are deserted, except for the 11,000 police. Many are themselves disoriented, having been imported from the hinterlands of the Czech Republic. Residents have obeyed the call to go to the country, schools have been shut down, shop windows boarded up. Hardly a scenario for engaging in populist dialogue.

Nevertheless, later that day, Havel sets the stage for an unprecedented debate between the global bankers and a handpicked selection of their critics. The critics—from Jubilee 2000, Focus on the Global South, and Neshenuti (a Czech human rights group)—have never had the opportunity to talk face to face with World Bank president James Wolfensohn and IMF managing director Horst Kohler. In the Ball Game Hall, Wolfensohn implores them not to consider the bank evil. “Our self-image is that we’re actually doing good,” says Wolfensohn. “Our goal is to fight poverty. . . . Our objectives are similar to those of the people in the streets.”

At a press conference later, Ann Pettifor, U.K. director of Jubilee 2000, says, “They had to admit quietly under their breaths that they’d made mistakes, but they didn’t want to take the responsibility. We don’t want better PR, we want fewer children to die each year.”

The way they want this to happen is through debt relief. All week long, critics will recite a single, chilling statistic, released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP): 19,000 children die each day as a result of unpayable debt. If any message of these protests rises through the conflicting rhetoric, it is this: at the dawn of the new millennium, wealthy nations should make history by releasing poor nations from unpayable debts, so that another generation will not be lost to poverty, malnutrition, and preventable disease. This means both that the stingiest—among them the United States—need to funnel more money into the World Bank and the IMF, and that the World Bank and the IMF need to loosen the loan conditions that strangle poor countries.


The World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative promises to provide debt relief to poor countries that are able to comply with tight economic controls. In the last two years Wolfensohn has promised that the program would be made “deeper…faster… stronger.” He predicted that 20 countries would be approved by year’s end. Ten countries have entered the program thus far.

But Oxfam International charges that unrealistic conditions and weak management have kept this program from being as successful as the World Bank claims. Last year in Zambia, after three years of HIPC debt relief, $222 million went to debt payment; only half that went to health care. In Uganda, held up as a success story, $55 million pays debts and $102 million goes to health care. Still, the life expectancy is only 40.5 years, down from 46 years in 1970, according to the UNDP’s 1998 development report.

It is with these numbers in mind that on Sunday morning Jubilee and Oxfam’s pilgrims climb the steep steps toward Letna park, a green plateau that overlooks the city from the north. They carry 19 large white crosses, each representing a thousand of the children who die each day. A giant granite sculpture of Josef Stalin once stood on this spot, but it has been replaced by public artwork—a giant red metronome. Taking a microphone, the South African representative from the World Council of Churches gestures toward it and says, “Each swing reminds us that with every stroke another one of us has died.”

Beneath the metronome, a thousand activists gather for a Czech-style street funeral, some bearing humble foot-long wooden crosses, others black velvet poles crowned with masks sculpted by a Danish artist to represent “messengers from the global south”—those who cannot be there in person to protest, the powerless who are waiting to hear if the bank and the fund can be moved.

“Because of international solidarity we were able to bring down apartheid,” says the WCC spokesperson. “Globalized economics is nothing but global apartheid.” He cites the World Bank’s own annual report, released in Prague, which showed that “the gap between rich and poor countries is 10 times wider than it was 30 years ago, that 100 million more people are living in poverty than a decade ago.” Nearby, Nagase, a Japanese Buddhist monk, his robe wrapping around him with the wind, says that by coming to Prague to join the demonstrations he is “practicing compassion,” which he hopes the IMF and World Bank will do as well.

Sunday night, a welcoming reception for finance ministers is held inside the Prague Congress Centre, a gloomy late-socialist-era structure that has been freshly redecorated to host these 14,000 promoters of capitalism. Though there are symposia galore, it’s at informal meetings, where the captains of industry eat, drink, and deal, that the real work is supposedly done. Wine and beer flow freely. Ham legs are picked to the bone. Boiled potatoes and beef goulash slither together on small plates. A minister from Ethiopia remarks that things are slow to change in his country; the war with Eritrea has only recently concluded. Asked about the World Bank and IMF’s treatment of developing nations, he says, “No comment.” The same words are echoed by a minister from Barbados, cheesing it up for a photo, and a representative of Mali, reaching for a dry Swedish meatball.

The goodie bags provided to conference goers alone could probably service debt for any of their nations: two CDs of Czech music, a calendar with moody black-and-white photos of Prague eerily absent of people, a boxed set of maps, annual reports, guide books, train schedules, and a warning to the ministers not to wear the plastic conference tag in public, lest they become targets for activists.

A 20-minute metro ride away, in CKD Elektrotechnika, an abandoned hangarlike factory, activists throw their own party, one that had to be moved from venue to venue five times as club owners grew fearful of violence. The party is all festivity, no violence. Hechos Contra el Decor, a band from Madrid, is Euro-dancing and Euro-hip-hopping the sweaty crowd into a mosh pit frenzy. White Europeans sport dreads, German cyclists display anarchy stickers, French accordion musicians entertain. There are no hors d’ouevres, only orange soda, beer, and Bartlett pears for sale. When Hechos covers the ’60s classic “Freedom,” the lingua franca is English and the words send fists and bodies triumphantly into the air.


Freedom is a complicated word in this country. Iva Pekarkova, author of Truck Stop Rainbows, a novel about a Czech woman under communism who prostitutes herself to truckers to cross the Czech border into Germany, says the arrival of the free market has been a mixed blessing. “Literature has been replaced by pop culture. More people can travel, but more people are addicted to drugs.” On one point she is unequivocal. “What’s different now? We have our freedom.”

Havel, apparently, has not forgotten that the ultimate freedom is protest. Heeding concerns about where the anticipated 20,000 activists might lay their heads, he has helped arrange for Strahov Stadium, a monstrous cement structure that has held communist rallies and hosted the Rolling Stones, to morph into a tent city complete with showers, food vendors, and, for those interested, Native American teepees made by a local Czech company. Many activists avoid it, fearing the government will slam down the gates and trap them inside.

Monday afternoon, standing in the windy stadium, which can hold 250,000, Mariani Federico and Andrea Paganani of Rome explain why they missed last night’s party. The demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank have a lot to do with borders—who decides how much money and which goods move across which nations’ borders and under what conditions. With the rise of global surveillance to combat global activism, entering the Czech Republic became an ordeal for many activists.

Federico explains that 865 members of the Italian and Spanish group Ya Basta! (“enough already”) were detained on the railways near the Austrian border for 17 hours. After negotiations with officials, four members were expelled and sent to Austria. According to Federico, who wore a red Zapatista shirt and denim jacket, the four had been in Prague in August to plan protests and had been stopped by police, and their passport numbers registered. Armed police stopped the Ya Basta! train twice after it was permitted to cross the border.

“When we first arrived the city looked prepared for a civil war,” says Stefan Bienfeld from Germany, a spokesperson for INPEG (the Czech acronym for Initiative Against Economic Globalization), which helped organize the disparate groups arriving to Prague. “Then you get used to it. We know the police are here watching our every move.”

Looking around the stadium, the intimidation appears to have succeeded, although Bienfeld insists that thousands will be arriving during the night. There are only the 800 or so purple, yellow, red tents of Ya Basta! pitched, a few trumpet players. There are no lines for the porto-johnnys. Promised thousands of hungry folk, food vendors were enraged as their pastries went stale, their beer flat. One man whose rotisserie chickens spun for hours—until the meat started falling off—hadn’t anticipated that many of those who did come would be vegetarians. By week’s end the vendors contemplated suing camp organizers to recoup their losses.

That same afternoon, at the congress Centre, security is tight. At James Wolfensohn’s invite, U2’s Bono is speaking on behalf of Jubilee 2000’s campaign for debt relief and access is restricted as if Bono is Havel himself—while finance potentates like Robert Rubin of Citigroup take their seats unnoticed. Clearly Wolfensohn sees his new friend the rock star as his best chance to improve the World Bank’s image. Before dashing off, he opens the proceedings with an attempt at a joke: “Bono called me and said he didn’t think much of me or what I was doing and I started to worry about my reputation with my children.”

Wearing thick black wrap-around glasses, black shirt, and black pants, Bono says, “There are people upset with me as well for hanging out with Jim Wolfensohn.” Making it clear that he considers himself “a spoiled rock star” and not an economist, Bono explains that he became involved in this cause after taking part in Live Aid, during which that “awful song, ‘We Are the World’ ” was sung, and he helped raise $200 million for famine relief. “We felt great, and then we found out that this was what the continent of Africa pays weekly in debt,” he says. “That makes you angry. Today, 19,000 children will die while we’re meeting here today. If this happened in New York or London or Prague it would be called genocide. But because it’s in Tanzania or Mozambique it’s not. This is an obscenity.”

S26. Tuesday morning. The occasion activists have planned for all year. The reason for all the press conferences, border crossings, Web pages, e-mail exchanges. On this day the official meetings open, and poverty reduction and the AIDS crisis are high on the agenda. Activists intend to stage a dozen separate rallies, then converge around the Congress Centre and lock the delegates inside.


At 8 a.m. the city is eerily quiet. No one knows how many demonstrators have arrived during the night, how close they will get to the meetings, or what protest plans smaller groups may have. At Stavovske divadlo, a neoclassical opera house where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and Milos Forman filmed Amadeus concert scenes, a motley crew of 60 French activists gather. They hope to rouse French businessmen at their hotels with their trumpet tooting and accordion wake-up calls. Actions like this happen throughout the city, in a most decentralized fashion, something more like a roving swarm than an organized march.

Meanwhile, across town, Ya Basta! turn a corner and come upon thousands and thousands who’ve heard of their plight at the border. They arrive at Namesti Miru (“Peace Square”) triumphant from having just occupied a McDonald’s on Wenceslas Square. Techno music blares from their van. They wear sheer white overalls to “symbolize all the people that the IMF and World Bank don’t see,” says Mario. “We are ghosts. We are not actually here. We are just a manifestation to them.”

The square fills with some 12,000 people. As the march to the Congress Centre begins, activists divide loosely into three groups: yellow (committed to nonviolence), blue (prepared for violence), pink (could go either way). Ya Basta! lead the yellows to the Nuselsky bridge, a half-mile cement structure that crosses the Vltava river and leads to the Congress Centre where delegates are meeting. The police are there to meet them, wearing high-tech riot gear.

Ya Basta! is prepared for combat, having raided their kitchens and garages: plastic collanders tied to their heads, foamcore bound around their shoulders and shins with duct tape, plastic garbage can tops for shields. Looking both comical and fierce, Ya Basta! pass inner tubes from their rear guard to their front lines, which use them to repel the blows of police batons. Occasionally, a baton bounces off the tube into the air. When it is snatched by a Ya Basta!, exuberant cheers: “Assassininos!” A battalion of Ya Basta! bearing water pistols squirt the police. When tear gas is fired in return, indignation and jeers. “We are undesirable but we are here,” says Federico slipping out from the melee. “We are here to represent all the displaced people, all the refugees, all the poor without homes.” A naked man with a dollar bill impaled on his privates raises a victory sign.

Down in the valley, beneath the bridge, the blue group has amassed and the confrontation is fiercer. Water and smoke can be seen from the bridge. Delegates have wandered onto the balcony of the Congress Centre with their Instamatics. Vysehrad, a quiet, residential neighborhood near the Vltava River, home to Czech cubist architecture and the burial place of composer Antonín Dvorák, has become a combat zone. Several hundred anarchists pry apart the medieval cobblestone sidewalks with crowbars and fingers. Cristophe Devriendt, a Belgian volunteer with Wereldwinkels, a fair-trade organization, looks up at a McDonald’s billboard and says, “When you say ‘capitalism,’ you say ‘America.’ ” He watches his fellow protesters hurl the palm-size square stones at Czech police blocking the streets leading up a long hill to the Congress Centre.

Injuries are mounting; ambulances wail. Seattle’s Infernal Noise Brigade drowns the sound of concussion grenades with their drums. Anarchists have lobbed homemade gasoline bombs, setting a police officer on fire. Ric Jensson, a student from Copenhagen, remarks with dismay, “We are here to make war on the IMF and the World Bank, not the police.” But there is nothing revolutionary here. Nothing that makes a statement about poverty or the World Bank or the IMF. A man is being burned alive. Water cannons douse the fire and the crowd, and round after round of tear gas is fired. Anarchists and cops alike stagger from the fumes.

As the anarchists disperse, they erect fire hurdles—burning wicker chairs, cardboard boxes, tree branches, and recycling bins—to stop the line of police from advancing. The smoke is billowing with the black belches of plastic. Potted plants are upended. Car windows smashed. A resident looks down from his apartment as the smoke lurches toward a 3-D Aquafresh advertisement, three toothbrushes jutting out of the wall. The neighborhood is wrecked. Cobblestones litter tram tracks, preventing service; billboards lie stomped on the sidewalks; and spray-painted messages mar the old buildings: fukk the police, smash the IMF, no justice, no peace, punks for freedom, and in homage to the East Village, perhaps, a Missing Foundation symbol.

IMF and World Bank officials are shuttled out of the Congress Centre on a metro closed to the public. Some delegates are sent to the Industrial Palace, where as of midnight no dinner has been served. There are about 100 injured, including 63 police and two delegates. More than 800 protesters are detained in prison. There will be reports of torture inside the prisons—sexual harassment, a broken spine. These eruptions will nudge the meetings to an early close.


The majority of the thousands of nonviolent protesters distance themselves from these riots. Chelsea Mosen, a spokesperson for INPEG, says “We were hoping for a nonviolent protest on the basic issues of the IMF and World Bank, but instead now the focus has shifted to the streets.”

Prague could never have been Seattle, not without the element of surprise, not without the tremendous force of labor to ratchet up the numbers. But the attention to the negative impact of globalization continues to escalate. This time it appears that alternatives have been offered and debated on both sides: more grants rather than loans, faster debt relief, greater access to the markets of rich nations for poor ones. Perhaps it was Bono who captured the essence of what has been happening in the streets of Seattle, Washington, and now Prague: “This is the largest movement around a single idea since the 1980s’ anti-apartheid movement.”


The Double Life of Vera Bila

There have been few less likely singing sensations than Vera Bila, the Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn of gypsy music. The subject of this intimate documentary about an artist trapped between her Romany roots and artistic potential, Bila is a golden-voiced and fascinatingly unhealthy-looking Slovakian Gypsy. She shares a modest flat in the Bohemian village of Rokycany with her beloved yet cranky invalid husband (“I trim his toenails with my teeth,” she admits adoringly) and an adopted son jailed for robbery. The film’s title works on two levels: Bila is Czech for “white,” while her band’s name, Kale, means “black”; a repeated song bemoans the “black-haired woman” rejected by the white world.

Contradictions abound. Celebrated in Paris and Prague, where we see her perform, Bila complains constantly about press that makes it appear as though she’s rich when she clearly is not—not if scenes of her haggling over secondhand clothes or pawning her stereo for what she claims is the 18th time are any indication. (The end of the film finds her indicted for illegally receiving state support, a charge that was eventually dropped.) Likewise, Bila wants to remain true to her Slovakian heritage but is appalled by the poverty she encounters upon returning to her native village to purchase a wife for her son. Her associates lead double lives, too: Her exasperated manager sells sausage on the side, and her drummer appears white but takes pride in being “100 percent Romany.”

“I just sing about the troubles I have,” states Bila, whose utterly blues-worthy life is remarkable to behold. And the same goes for the wildly kinetic Bulgarian Gypsy wedding band seen in Ziganska Musica. Where Black and White depicts one poignant scene after another, the short film accompanying it captures a single highly emotional wedding and the feverish music that drives it.