Prague Twin

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Czech Television

The Czech government sponsors two television stations. Czech Television one and Czech Television two. CT1 probably floats somewhat on advertising revenue, but CT2 is what the $10 a month every household pays in tax buys you. Rarely are there commercials, and never during a movie. (A local friend of mine once told me how angry he was the first time he experienced a movie interruption for a commercial: "so THIS is what capitalism is?") CT2 plays a lot of documentaries. Small three man teams come up with their own ideas, pitch them to the station, and the station awards very tight budgets. The quality and uniqueness of these projects are impressive, miniscule budgets notwithstanding.

They tend to run a lot of documentaries and informative programming, and the other night, I started watching a western-produced documentary that had been done in much the same manner as a typical CT2 project.

This film was a documentary about the press corps (they must have been in Qatar) attending to the official military spokespersons. The focus was clearly to show how difficult it was to extract information from the US military during the war. In one case, no one from the Press Corps could get into the official briefing because they weren't issuing passes at the location, and on one had been told. There was a state-of-the-art briefing tent set up complete with large screen televisions and a high-tech sound system. It was completely empty, with a lone Marine standing guard.

The film spent significant time on the US hostages and US military dead being covered by Al-Jazeera. They were able to get Al-Jazeera's reaction and the military spokesman reaction, and both seemed more candid then what we get on CNN. They drew the parallel that both people hated war. The difference was, the soldier was of the belief that we are not at a point in history where war is not necessary. You could see he was an honest guy who believed in what he was doing. He pointed out that they showed US soldiers, as well as Arabs, being wounded and killed. For him, more than anything else, it was a reminder of how much he hates war.

They had filmed a conversation, quite a candid one, with the spokesman, and one of the senior members of the Press Corp who had been clearly chosen as an ambassador to try and get some information. Baghdad had just fallen (or rather, there were tanks in the center) and the press wanted a confirmation that the military was either occupying Baghdad, or intended to soon. He was getting nowhere and the frustration was showing.

Q: "Please, put yourself in my position. There are tanks in the center, but you are not occupying, or trying to occupy Baghdad? What am I supposed to say? What does it mean when tanks are rolling along the river?"

A: "It means we have tanks in the center. It is a tactical maneuver and I can't tell you any more."

Eventually the reporter gave up, they shook hands, asked about each-others wives, and arranged a dinner.

At one point in the film, they had covered the missile attack on the Al-Jezzera hotel accommodations. This was vehemently denied as being intentional by the US. At the time of this accident, the US had been repeatedly calling on Al-Jazeera to cease airing American soldiers' bodies. The film documented one such request coming in by fax shortly after the accident. The Al-Jazeera reporter who read the request shrugged his shoulders a gave tight "what are ya gonna do" smile/frown. I don't think he thought it was an accident.

They finished the film with the funeral for the journalist killed in the incident. It started off formal, the church service, a few muffled cries, the look of shock and disbelief all around. Then it took to the streets and it was the typical scene you see on the television, seemingly thousands of people trying to get as close to the body as possible, screaming and going mad. What I hadn't seen (but had only heard about) was the burial itself, where once the body had been placed in the ground, they opened up the coffin and pulled the body half way out. Guys were getting in with it, getting the blood of the dead man on their hands and were spreading it to the others around who were in turn smearing the blood on the hands of those further away.

I had to wonder how many people got the blood of that man on their hands that day, and in the days that followed.


They followed up the show with a very good documentary/dramatization on Chernobyl. This incident hits home here since the radioactive dust cloud sat over this country in the days after the explosion, but before the Russians had announced it. The most dangerous of these days had been a beautiful summer day and everyone, including my wife and her family, was outside enjoying it. (It is almost a crime here to be inside on such a day, since nice days are so rare).

There was a survivor, a guy who literally walked into the blast zone immediately afterwards and started helping coworkers who were to die within the next hours or days. Even most of the guys further away, died within two weeks. But this guy survived. He reminded me of a Russian guy I worked with, a former miner, who could work with toxins that would probably kill a mere mortal man. A guy who could drink 2 liters of vodka and come to work the next day in a good mood. A guy who has never had so much as a sniffle since I met him nearly 10 years ago. Anyway, this guy from Chernobyl is still alive but has problems. He summed it up by saying "I can drive a car, but I can't fix it." There are some tough guys up there. This guy had a head that looked like a clenched fist.

But the guys who turned the switches that led to the inevitable meltdown died thinking they did the right thing. And the guy who ordered the experiment and was awoken by the blast at his house, miles away, served a portion of his ten year sentence before being released because of psychological problems.


Finally, they showed one of their own documentaries that had been done circa 1950. It was about the postal service, and the great care they took finding people. They had letters that had maps drawn on them, or the most minimal information you could imagine. My favorite was "The scruffy foreigner from Zizkov." This started an discussion amongst the managers as to who was scruffier: Italians or French. After a while someone threw in that it could be that "one American guy... he's pretty scruffy".

Well things sure have changed. I remember a Kazak friend of mine coming back from the center of Prague and saying that there were "more Americans than people" downtown. Current estimates hover around 10,000 American residents in Prague.


The moral to the evening seemed to be, the Americans will mess things up. The Russians will mess things up. But the Czechs will do their best to deliver your mail .... .. even if you are a scruffy foreigner.

I could feel the pride swelling in the hearts of millions.


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