When The War Comes… to Slovakia?
In the documentary When the War Comes Czech movie director Jan Gebert follows the members of a Slovakian paramilitary group ‘Slovenskí Branci’. Their goal is to protect Slovakia from what they call illegal economic immigrants, the LGBT+ community, and American and European values. The film was screened at the Movies that Matter Festival in March, and will be screened in movie theaters across the Netherlands in May as part of Movies that Matter On Tour. Slovakian-born Katarína Gališinová offers her perspective on the documentary that gave her goosebumps.
The Slovak democracy is a youngster in her mid-twenties – born on the 1st of January 1993. Slovakia is about the size of the Netherlands, though it has only five and a half million inhabitants. Thus, it is not very common to meet a Slovak abroad, let alone to watch a Slovak film in a Dutch film theater. In the seven years that I have lived in the Netherlands, I noticed a Slovak film being programmed in a film theater in The Hague only twice. The second time was at the Movies that Matter Festival and Movies that Matter On Tour.
At the festival, Jan Gebert’s documentary film When the War Comes was screened four times, and I participated in the discussions afterwards. Interestingly, at each screening the audience asked somewhat similar questions concerning the ideology and the scope of the paramilitary movement portrayed in the documentary. In an attempt to deepen general understanding of the film, I will provide some context to this paramilitary movement in Slovakia.
For Slovak Recruits, Slovakia is not just a former Eastern European country, but the heart of Europe
When the War Comes follows a youth paramilitary organization 'Slovenskí Branci' – translated to English as 'Slovak Recruits' - and its leading founder Peter Švrček. These young men consider themselves to be patriots, worshiping and defending the Slovak people, Slovak cultural and traditional heritage, and a set of values they commonly describe as “Slavic values.” For them, Slovakia is not just a former Eastern European country, but the heart of Europe. This is a view that is also taught in Slovakian schools.
Throughout the film, Peter expresses a certain perceived void, an unsatisfied urge of wanting to have a contemporary role model or ideology to look up to. It seems as if the Slovak Recruits fill that void by looking back to the period when the Slovaks were powerful and independent – the founding fathers of The Samo’s Empire (623 – 658) and The Great Moravian Empire (833 – 907). This seeming nostalgia can also be noted in the very last scene of the documentary film , in which the young men march through the streets of Nitra, the oldest town of Slovakia, towards the statue of the Prince Pribina who once governed it. Does it make these young men nationalists, then? In most of the interviews in the Slovak media or on their official website, the Slovak Recruits emphasize that they are just ‘ordinary people’. They do not see themselves as ‘extremist’ or ‘fascist’ in any way.
However, they do feel a strong need to defend the Slovak people against the ‘illegal economic immigrants’, the LGBT+ community and against what they commonly refer to as ‘European and American values’ – whatever those may be. They believe that these people and values pose a prominent threat to Slovak society and the notion of a traditional family. Thus, could we say that they are just ordinary people with nationalist ideals? It is not that simple to find a fitting description of the Slovak Recruits. Calling them ‘extremists’ or ‘fascists’ is not accurate, as they have no public extremist or fascist agenda – just yet.
When the War Comes does not provide crystal clear answers on how to understand Slovak Recruits either. The camera observes, but never intervenes. There is neither a voice-over to guide the viewer through the narrative, nor any inter-titles explaining the context. There are only images of Slovak Recruits in conversation with one another. That is precisely the strength of this documentary: it creates room for your own interpretations and, eventually, your own understanding of the matter. Therefore, I would like to invite you to see this documentary twice, or in other words, to see it from two different perspectives: a first time to appreciate the story and then a second time to observe the way it unfolds in front of you, the way the camera frames Slovak Recruits and Peter in particular.
It is not an easy task – especially if you are from Slovakia and learn about the Slovak Recruits through Jan Gebert’s documentary film when living abroad, it might constantly give you goosebumps. The people you see are ordinary, in fact. Their leader is good-looking, smart and charismatic, he might even remind you of someone you know. And that, exactly, is my point. We all might know people in our hometowns, in our neighbourhoods, in our families whom we like, but disagree with. I am inviting you to watch the film through a prism of familiarity, I am inviting you to look at these young men as people you might know and I am inviting you to think how you could possibly engage in a conversation with one another.
Movies that Matter On Tour is a spin-off of the annual Movies that Matter Festival. From October to May, film theaters host a screening in collaboration with local Amnesty International groups. In May, Movies that Matter On Tour will bring the documentary When the War Comes to sixteen film theaters throughout the Netherlands. The screenings will be held in combination with an introduction or a Q&A. If you wish to see this film in a film theater near you, check out the locations, dates and times here: www.moviesthatmatter.nl/ontour_en\ Dutch viewers can also watch the documentary at home via Picl.