Comments on Six Movies and an Essay on a Seventh One, Screened During the 63rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival (2022)
An article of mine in two parts. First Part: a somewhat philosophical comment on Czech director Adam Koloman Rybanský’s important as much as entertaining movie ‘Somewhere Over the Chemtrails’ [‘Kdyby Radši Hořelo’] (2022). Published at Contemporary Lynx magazine (online edition), on 22.5.2023.
Standa, a portly middle-aged man, is not exactly the kind of intelligent or skillful person, however, he is imbued with sincere feelings towards people. He lives with his adorable, pregnant wife Jana in a humble cottage in an isolated Czech village. He works at the local fire brigade office with his friend Bronya, the commander, who is suffering from depression as he has recently lost his wife. Repeatedly he tries to commit suicide, but he is always rescued by the timely interventions of Standa. At the central square of the village an Easter Fair is going on and everybody is having fun when suddenly a van rushes in with full speed and ploughs into Geiza, a friend of Standa who happens to be an immigrant. Bronya is convinced that the incident is a case of an ‘Arab’ terrorist attack against the village and together with his people he starts spreading fear and hatred among the village’s inhabitants for the danger lurking out there.
Identification as a remedy for fear. Identification as the nucleus of the ‘I,’ of everything that I am. In identifying myself with the Czech ethnic community I have certainly acquired an identity whatsoever and I think that I have expelled uncertainty and anxiety once and for all. Haven’t I excluded this way, however, any other identity out of the millions that exist out there? I think I am a Czech, and hence I am not a Slovak; I think I am a Catholic and hence I cannot be an Orthodox. Identity is not a positive entity, but a negative one: identity, i.e., ‘sameness’ means per se the exclusion of all ‘otherness,’ its elimination. Amin Maalouf had intuited it correctly: ‘… because of a narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplistic attitude that reduces identity in all its many aspects to one single affiliation, and one that is proclaimed in anger. I feel like shouting aloud that this is how murderers are made – it’s a recipe for massacres!’
Even though we cannot quite agree with Maalouf in believing that a broader, more ‘polyphonic’ identity, which would encompass more than one such ‘narrow’ and ‘exclusive’ affiliation would have more chances to bring about the much desired peace. We have to advance Maalouf’s thought at least one step further: since any identity is formed within us – be it one-dimensional or ‘polyphonic’ – hatred and war will inevitably erupt. The important Serbian anthropologist Ivan Čolović confirms it emphatically: ‘It is difficult to find a concept of culture which would be free of essentialism, of an outlook on culture as a primordial, essentially immutable national substance. Attempted multi-, inter- or trans-culturalism haven’t removed us very far from this essentialism.’
Immersed in his deep, personal depression and utter existential boredom, Bronya is desperately in need of imagining his own local, cultural, ethnic and religious poly-identity, his own nationalistic utopia that will remedy the fear which he feels oozing deep inside. It must definitely be those damn Arabs again!
The same old narrative is reconstructed at once: ‘We swear… to serve our country, the Czech Republic. We will not hesitate even to offer our own life to protect it and guarantee its freedom. We swear to love each other. To support one another with fraternal love. To defend one another to the end, with virile honour… and in full knowledge of our duties as citizens and firefighters. This is the oath we take,’ preaches a delirious Bronya; in his sermon a whole Nation has already been imagined, because what else is a nation if not an ‘imagined community’ as Benedict Anderson aptly has posed it? ‘… I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community… It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion;’ and how else can one as quickly as possible agglutinate a variegated set of still unsuspecting individuals into a coherent ‘nation’ if not by invoking some hypothetical ‘fraternal’ bonds which they supposedly share even if they don’t know it? ‘The near universality with which certain images and phrases appear – blood, family, brothers, sisters, mother, forefathers, ancestors, home – and the proven success of such invocations in eliciting massive, popular responses tell us much about the nature of national identity,’ writes Walker Connor.
And that is exactly the propitious moment when all those skinheads – so familiar to all of us by now – appear. The willing warriors of any extreme nationalistic and xenophobic delirium imaginable. The rationale for intruding innocent people’s homes has been invented again, and it pertains, as always, to a sacred order of things; it cannot be disputed by anyone: nation, religion, family…: ‘The citizens will then justify their conformism with regard to obvious infringements of human rights, disregard of fundamental democratic principles, the creation of an autocratic state, etc.,’ writes the Croatian intellectual Dubravka Ugrešić.
And that is also the exact moment when chemtrail theory literally explodes. It always flourishes on the fertile soil of fear, bigotry, and ignorance. A bizarre colleague of Standa shows him insinuatingly some weird airplanes scouring the skies, leaving behind them long chemtrails. He explains that in fact the government along with various companies go on spraying people with dangerous chemicals so that they get sick with some incurable diseases. He suggests that he uses vinegar: it has some attributes which neutralize the dangerous effects of these chemical substances. Apparently, fear, identification, ignorance, hatred and chemical spraying go together like a horse and carriage: ‘That ignorance-based knowledge, as it were, or to be more precise the clever use of the specific ignorance needed for the occurrence of miracles, is part and parcel of the perennial art of handling sacred things, mysterious signs and formulas, prophecies, holy relics, and mysteries. The power of religion, of priests and witch-doctors is based on this old know-how.’
At the end, all this ‘imaginary’ (re)constitution of the Nation, all that tedious xenophobic rhetoric, all that fake ‘fraternity’ proves to be a kind of psychological prop for a solitary and devastated old man, Bronya. Now truth has prevailed in the village again – who knows for how long? – and Bronya feels like life has lost all its meaning again. He reverts back to his old suicidal obsessions. No surprise at all, since any nationalistic narrative is in fact nothing more than a myth; and no myth can ever solve any real problem, even more so the psychological ones: ‘The concept of ‘national identity’ is a sweeping conceptual chimera that is often simply used as a description of assumed social reality or invoked as a shortcut explanation for particular forms of collective behaviour,’ asserts Siniša Malešević.
Everything then has been just a machination dictated by that same mischievous entity of our Ego, constantly inventing myths in its perennial pursuit of inner security and pleasure. Nation is nothing more than just another myth inscribed within the larger and fundamental myth – the myth of all myths – the ‘I’: ‘The idea of the nation is thus linked with the idea of my own self,’ confirms Otto Bauer.
The poor and ignorant villagers will return back to their boring daily routines, consuming the same copious quantities of beer and tobacco they used to. Something more is going to be needed though, if normality is to be established again: Bronya, for the first time in his life, will assume responsibility, and will sacrifice himself in the name of his friendship with Standa which so much he has abused so far. Hence friendship, tells us Rybanský, might be the real remedy for our maladies, especially for that apparently innate nationalistic and xenophobic hatred of ours. It would be a useful task for us to try to find several more such antidotes; to invent them in case we do not have them handy already.
1 – Maalouf, Amin (2003), In the Name of Identity. Violence and the Need to Belong, Penguin Books, p. 5.
2 – Čolović, Ivan (2022), The Balkans: The Terror of Culture. Essays in Political Anthropology, Baden-Baden: Nomos, p. 174.
3 – Anderson, Benedict (2006), Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London & New York: Verso, pp. 5-6.
4 – Connor, Walker (1994), Ethnonationalism. The Quest for Understanding, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p. 205.
5 – Ugrešić, Dubravka (1999), The Culture of Lies, London: Phoenix, p. 77.
6 – Čolović, The Terror of Culture, p. 33.
7 – Malešević, Siniša (2011), “The chimera of national identity”, Nations and nationalism, 17:2, pp. 272-290.
8 – Bauer, Otto (2000), “The Nation”, in Otto Bauer, The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, ed. Ephraim J. Nimni, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, p. 123.