The Art of Dissent

"The Art of Dissent" celebrates the resilience and power of artistic engagement in Czechoslovakia before and after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. The documentary’s main protagonists – Václav Havel, banned singer Marta Kubišová, and the underground rock group the Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) – became the most recognizable dissidents during the 1970-80s. Havel bridged the disparate clusters of individuals and fused the literary, musical, political, and philosophical nonviolent elements into a hybrid network that eventually toppled the totalitarian regime in 1989.

The film speaks to our contemporary political malaise by underscoring the resolve and courage of dissidents who strove to re-build a battered civil society with artistry, tolerance, and truth. “The Art of Dissent” team presents the film to festivals with the excitement of first-time filmmakers.

A unique co-production of NUtech Ventures at the University of Nebraska and Czech TV in Prague, "The Art of Dissent" combines rare archival footage with interviews with key dissidents filmed over three years in the Czech Republic, England, and the United States. Location interviewing began in Prague with associate producer, Mariana Čapková (a young politician), and with second camerawoman, Susan Pahlke (who is by day an attorney in South Dakota) in 2017. Thirty interviews were filmed over three years. Parallel with this, the director began to work closely with Martin Bouda (Czech TV film archivist) and Alena Jirásek (Australian-based researcher and translator whose family went into exile in 1969) to review, select, and edit the archival footage.

Finding archival film and music of banned dissidents presented real challenges. How does one make a movie about “enemies of the state” not allowed to be filmed or photographed? Our quest brought us to the BBC and dozens of other clandestinely made films found in archives throughout Europe and America, as well as to several important private holdings in the Czech Republic. It took over two years to find and negotiate the rights for the music and films used in the movie. In this process, our team discovered forgotten film in a German archive of Shirley Bassey singing James Bond’s “Goldfinger,” of all songs, and “What Now My Love” in Prague just days before the invasion. From Josef Dlouhý we learned how the police confiscated his underground documentary about the Plastic People of the Universe and threatened the young filmmaker with prison if he did not permit state TV to turn his film into a nasty documentary broadcast on TV to demonize the musicians. In assembling the archival footage, we were also given unprecedented usage of the Czech TV archives, and Martin Bouda uncovered other rare gems, such as the never-before used color film of the 1968 invasion discovered in the forgotten suitcase of a Catalonian businessman and acquired by Martin for Czech TV in October 2017. The archival materials our team uncovered are truly extraordinary, as are the friendships that evolved in making this film.

The final cut was finished in Prague with Czech editor Evženie Brabcová and producer David Hanzal at FRMOL Production. Alena Jirásek joined the director and the production team in Prague to complete the film. The voiceovers were recorded at Czech TV. Alena did the translations for both the Czech the English language version. Our American Executive Producer, Arpi Siyahian, who grew up in Bagdad, has overseen all the financial and legal aspects of the film for NUtech Ventures, which controls the rights to the film.

  • James Dean Le Sueur
    Director
  • James Le Sueur
    Writer
  • Arpi Siyahian
    Producer
  • Mariana Čapková
    Producer
  • Jakub Mahler
    Producer
  • David Hanzal
    Producer
  • James Le Sueur
    Producer
  • Evzenie Brabcová
    Editor
  • James Le Sueur
    Editor
  • Petr Sýs
    Sound
  • Ivan Dvorak
    Color
  • Tom Larson
    Music
  • Vít Poláček
    Dramaturge
  • James Le Sueur
    Director of Photography
  • Susan Pahlke
    Principal Second Camera
  • Timothy Garton Ash
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Jacques Rupnik
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Tomáš Halík
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Eda Kriseová
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Michael Žantovský
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Paul Wilson
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Josef Janíček
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Vratislav Brabenec
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Ivan Havel
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Kamila Bendová
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Marta Kubišová
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Jaroslav Hutka
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Edward Lucas
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Alan Pajer
    Key Cast
    "Interviewee"
  • Project Type:
    Documentary
  • Genres:
    Arts, Politics, History
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 44 minutes 57 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    April 14, 2020
  • Production Budget:
    380,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    Czech Republic, United Kingdom, United States
  • Language:
    Czech, English
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital
  • Film Color:
    Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
    Yes
  • Student Project:
    No
  • Flcikers' Rhode island International Film Festival
    Providence
    United States
    August 6, 2020
    Rhode Island Premiere
    2020 RIIFF SOCIAL SPOTLIGHT AWARD for bringing awareness to critical and underreported global issues
  • Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival
    Middlebury
    United States
    August 27, 2020
    Vermont premiere
    Official Selection
  • Newburyport Documentary Film Festival
    Newburyport Documentary Film Festival
    United States
    September 18, 2020
    Massachusetts premiere
    FIRST TIME FILMMAKER WINNER & Official Selection
  • AFIN International Film Festival
    Brisbane, Queensland
    Australia
    did not screen because of Covid19
    Semi-Finalist for Best Feature Documentary
  • Big Apple Film Festival
    New York
    United States
    November 13, 2020
    New York Premiere
    BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY FILM
  • KARAMA Feather Award for Best Documentary Feature Film at KARAMA Human Rights Film Festival
    Amman
    Jordan
    December 31, 2020
    Official Selection & Nominated for KARAMA Feather Award for Best Feature Documentary
Distribution Information
  • Arpi Siyahian
    Country: Worldwide
    Rights: All Rights
Director Biography - James Dean Le Sueur

James Le Sueur grew up in Missoula, Montana and lives in Nebraska where he is the Samuel Clark Waugh Distinguished Professor of International Relations and chair of the History Department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He completed his PhD in history at the University of Chicago, and was elected Senior Associate Members of St Antony’s College, Oxford in 2002. He has written extensively on the history of colonialism, decolonization, terrorism, and intellectuals and has worked with film for 15 years. And he has begun to write about the conversion from historian to filmmaker as well.

"The Art of Dissent" is his first feature documentary, and he is currently working on three new films. "The Peril of Dissent" focuses on death threats against writers, artists, athletes and activists by authoritarian regimes and religious extremists after 1989; "Before September" is a study of terrorism and law in the United States before 9/11; and, "Four Seasons of COVID" concentrates on everyday life in Nebraska during the COVID-19 pandemic. He teaches history and filmmaking, and is a producer, editor, writer, cinematographer, and professional photographer.

He is working with Susan Pahlke (JD) on next three films.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

As history professor and filmmaker, I enjoy blending the power of cinema with a professional understanding of the past. I like the freedom of alternating between writing books and making films based on the stories I want to tell and believe that cinema can do things that cannot be done in books and vice versa. And because I came to filmmaking having been first trained as a professional photojournalist (before my PhD in history), I retained a street photographer's sense of image-making. I also enjoy following unique subjects through history and have a deep appreciation for the dialogue between the past and the present in documentary filmmaking. As a historian-filmmaker, I'm drawn to the intersections of biography and the history of ideas.

I care passionately about writers, artists, and activists who push the boundaries of power and challenge the status quo, and I have primarily focused on these kinds of individuals’ response to calls for national liberation and racial justice. It has been my life’s work to tell these stories through film and scholarship.

Having taught Václav Havel's writings beginning as a doctoral student at University of Chicago 1992, I have long wanted to make a movie about Havel and the Czechoslovak dissidents that would bring his story to American audiences, as well as others around the world. However, in doing so, I was especially keen on foregrounding women dissidents and artists such as the marvelous Marta Kubišová and Eda Kriseová. As a historian, I've always used the combination of archives and oral histories, so the decision to move to film seemed organic to me.

My goal now is to make more movies and to develop docuseries bases on my historical research. I do most of my own camera, lighting, and sound work, and combining these professional skills with a career of teaching and writing about history allows me to approach cinematic story telling with agility and confidence. I also love the intellectual and artistic collaboration of working with other filmmakers and composers; I wish I had discovered this rush earlier.