A Faraway Country

“The people I interview in this film know they are taking great risks just by talking to me, but they insist on speaking out. Such is their courage and their commitment to freedom in Czechoslovakia.”

Shortly after his 1977 Daily Mirror reports on dissidents in the Soviet Union, John Pilger entered Czechoslovakia undercover to film A Faraway Country… a people of whom we know nothing, a title taking the words that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain used to describe Czechoslovakia dismissively in 1938 when it was invaded by the Nazis.

The 1968 Soviet-led invasion of the country followed President Alexander Dubcek’s attempts to relax the communism of his Eastern Bloc masters. Now, Pilger was allowing members of the newly formed Charter 77 dissident movement to speak to the outside world in interviews filmed under the light of 60-watt bulbs in table lamps.

They include teacher Julius Tomin, who was put in a psychiatric clinic for two years after refusing the military draft and could subsequently not find work, and clerk Jitka Bidlasova and electrician Jiri Pallas, both of whom lost their jobs after signing the Charter 77 document.

Author Zdener Urbanek, whose books had been banned in Czechoslovakia since 1948, tells Pilger that the newly found country enjoyed 20 years of freedom before it was ceded to Hitler. Newsreel footage shows Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with the German leader. “What the admiring crowd did not realise was that his efforts were a prelude to World War Two,” says Pilger.

In a village near the Austrian border, on their way out of Czechoslovakia at the end of their meticulously planned three-day visit, Pilger and his crew film an interview with the country’s most popular female singer, Marta Kubisova. Her song Marta’s Prayer has become an anthem for those who oppose Soviet occupation, her records are banned and she has been unable to find work. She says her young daughter will suffer an inferior education. “On account of the children, we should speak out,” she says.

A Faraway Country… a people of whom we know nothing (Pilger, ATV), ‘Personal Report’, ITV, 5 September 1977

Director: Alan Bell (credited as Bella Lang); series producer: Richard Creasey (27 mins)

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library