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Czech Director Finds 'A Kind Of Hidden Totalitarianism' In Transdniester

A strange kind of limbo exists in the breakaway region of Transdniester.
A strange kind of limbo exists in the breakaway region of Transdniester.
The Czech documentary “Fortress” by Klara Tasovska and Lukas Kokes recently won one of the top awards at this year's Jihlava international film festival. "Fortress" follows last year’s (unrecognized) presidential election in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester, which brought an end to the 20-year-reign of the territory's long-time leader Igor Smirnov. At the same time, it also offers insight into the lives of ordinary people living in this separatist territory located on a strip of land along Moldova's border with Ukraine. RFE/RL’s Coilin O’Connor spoke with Lukas Kokes about filming in this strange, isolated place that seems trapped in the past.

RFE/RL: Transdniester is often perceived as a kind of throwback to the Soviet era. I presume you had this kind of perception of the place before you went out there. Was this preconception fulfilled or did some things take you by surprise?

Lukas Kokes: At first glance, when we initially went there, it really did come across as a communist theme park. There’s a statue of Lenin on every corner, along with monuments that have a Soviet communist esthetic. There are hammers and sickles everywhere. Part of the Transdniestrian state emblem comprises a hammer and sickle as well as ears of corn, which is symbolism that is also well known to us from the time of communism in Czechoslovakia.

Nonetheless, in the background, amid the shoddy prefabricated concrete, communist apartment blocks and monuments to soldiers and Lenin, we were surprised to see that you could also find expensive Mercedes and pink Hummers -- cars that cost millions of Czech crowns. So we said to ourselves that it actually isn’t an open-air communist museum like we imagined, and that a pretty rapacious, Russian-oligarch capitalism lurks beneath the surface of this 1970s- and '80s-style socialism.

WATCH: A trailer for the Czech documentary "Fortress":

RFE/RL: "Fortress" portrays life in Transdniester through the eyes of ordinary people living there. Did you have trouble convincing your interviewees to speak with you?

Kokes: Some people, particularly young people, for example, were very open. They were actually happy that someone was interested in them and that some journalists had come from Western Europe. Tourism is not so widespread there, so they don’t have much opportunity to meet with foreigners. So they were very interested in what we were doing there and they chatted with us.

But then, for example, when we spoke to a young politician, he was more circumspect. We had to do a lot of explaining and coaxing with him in order to get him to talk to us, because some films had previously been made for the BBC and RT, I think, in which the [self-declared] Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic had been portrayed in a very bad light.

These films had described in a hysterical tone how the place was a hotbed of crime, which was concentrated in one place. Some of these people had seen those films and they were afraid that perhaps we also wanted to blacken their land’s name. They are great patriots and they take care to ensure that Transdniester is portrayed as a pleasant part of the world.

And it’s true that we actually met one woman who was afraid to talk to us openly about what she thought. She said, “I’m afraid to tell you exactly what I think of our regime because I could lose my job. My son is a student and they could kick him out of university." So it was through comments like this that we discovered how the place is not totally democratic and that there are influences that are working on people that make them control themselves. They keep themselves in check. It’s a kind of a hidden totalitarianism.

Of course, nobody there actually tells you that “you can’t do that and if you do it we’ll lock you up.” It doesn’t work like that, but they don’t know what they are permitted to do. It’s kind of like that situation from [Franz] Kafka’s “The Castle” where a doorman stands before you and says, “It’s better if you don’t go through this door. Something could happen to you.” And you ask, “What could happen there?” And he answers, “I don’t know, but you can give it a try if you’re brave enough...”

And, for the most part, a Transdniestrian person won’t go through those doors because he has a preconditioned fear that something worse might happen to him. So he prefers to leave things alone and stay in his own flat, in his own comfortable life, where he won’t push any barriers or try to go further than the places where he feels safe.

RFE/RL: In the 1990s Transdniester had a reputation as a kind of "black hole," or "little Afghanistan," in Europe. There was an impression that crime was rife and that weapons and drugs were being easily smuggled through the place. Is this reputation still justified, in your opinion?

Kokes: Now we are in the year 2012 and we’re in a different situation. I think that during the 1990s things calmed down there and that a period of so-called consolidation ensued. We had the feeling that the place always has these strange black holes because the mindset of the people we met with and talked to was limited, to a very large extent.

For them, it was as if nothing other than Transdniester existed. They often used arguments that reminded us of the time of the Cold War -- Western journalists were seen as agents or even CIA operatives who were trying to infiltrate their [territory] and damage them in some way.

On the contrary, people coming from Russia were naturally viewed in a positive light. In people’s minds [in Transdniester], the world is still divided into the evil West and the good East. For us, that’s how it was a strange bubble or black hole -- it’s like people have no insight into what’s happening beyond the [de facto] borders of their own [territory].

RFE/RL: At one point in the film a police officer who finds you filming takes you in for interrogation. Was that a pretty dicey situation for you guys?

Kokes: They took us to the local branch of the secret police for interrogation. At that moment we were actually a little afraid, because we were on the territory of a nonexistent state where no other country had any official representation and which had rules and regulations we knew nothing about and where they could possibly lock us up because of a camera. So we were very frightened about what would happen next.

We arrived at the office of the secret police. We had to surrender our passports and mobile phones. I said to myself that if they lock us up in some cell I won’t have contact with anyone; there is no one I can write to and say that we are in some trouble here.
Czech director Lukas Kokes
Czech director Lukas Kokes

The agent took us to some interrogation room with no windows and washable paint on the walls. I immediately started imagining scenarios where someone gets beaten up and the blood can be easily washed off because of the smooth gloss paint on the walls.

We immediately recalled a story a local dissident woman had told us. She was coming from work one day when a car pulled up and some secret police agents jumped out. They put her in the car, blindfolded her, and took her somewhere completely in the back of beyond where they beat her up and left her lying there.

Nonetheless, nothing terribly serious or terrible happened [to us]. The agent sat in front of us and asked us questions like: “We know you are making a film here. We have found that out. We know that you have met with these people. Who put you in touch with them? Who else have you spoken with? How did you meet them? What did you talk about?”

They tried to decipher which local people we had met, and if we by any chance had tried to contact prominent local civic organizations, and if we were perhaps aiding any revolutionary activities. Naturally we were able to refute all this, because all we wanted to do was shoot a film.

They let us go, but it was obvious that they would continue to monitor us in some way. They already knew about us so we started keeping ourselves in check more and more. That’s precisely the situation that the people there live under: If the powers that be take an interest in you, nothing specific will happen to you -- nobody will lock you up, nobody will give you a beating -- but you are already more careful as of that moment and know that an interrogation can be repeated any time. It’s a bit unpleasant psychologically and you start to keep an eye on yourself. We also started keeping an eye on ourselves while we were there.

When I was subsequently walking on a street and I saw an interesting demonstration in support of the [breakaway region's de facto] president, I thought I’d like to film it; but then I noticed the same agent who arrested and interrogated us, and I decided I didn’t want to provoke anything and that it was better for me not to take out my camera at that moment. So that was a very concrete example of the impact that this power had on us. We were starting to act like Transdniestrians at that moment. We were actually afraid of a confrontation with the regime.

RFE/RL: Did you get the impression that there is some kind of dissident movement starting to bubble up under the surface?

Kokes: One thing that demolishes the notion of Transdniester being an open-air communist museum is the fact that its [de facto] borders are not impermeably closed. The inhabitants of Transdniester can travel abroad. They can go to Moldova, to Ukraine, to Russia, and to European Union countries. That in itself considerably undermines the stereotypical notion of the place as a communist theme park.

I think, however, that this also has an impact on the so-called dissident movement, because it’s very complicated to engage in civil activity there and to attempt to change things. If someone is clever, intelligent, and they find that life in Transdniester does not accommodate them, they prefer to simply leave.

We had found on the Internet a pretty interesting young poet who lived in the capital, Tiraspol, and we wanted to meet with him. We wrote him an e-mail, but he replied and said that he had actually been living in Moscow for two years and had no intention of returning to Transdniester. I have the feeling that educated people prefer to just leave and go someplace else where life is a lot more pleasant for them.

Because the people in Transdiniester have elected a new [de facto] president who appears to have democratizing tendencies in his program, something there will probably change. For example, one of the opposition activists we spoke to now publishes critical articles on the Internet under her real name and -- as far as we know -- nothing has happened to her yet.

That means that there has been a certain relaxation there, and thanks to this loosening up there is a chance that the dissident movement, as you put it, might be strengthened. It’s actually down to the fact that people are ceasing to be afraid. They won’t be afraid to go out on the streets and say what they think openly. They won’t feel that fear that something will happen to them if they speak without censoring themselves.