"Scars of Racism": CNN documentary gently shows the cost of indifference to neo-Nazism
On Friday 26 June, CNN International broadcast the documentary Scars of Racism, which tells the story of Natálka Kudriková and the neo-Nazis who almost burned her to death in the arson they committed last year in the Czech town of Vitkov. The film was shown as part of the World’s Untold Stories series. In 2008 this series also broadcast a documentary on the forced sterilization of Romani women in the Czech Republic, Trial of a Child Denied.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention my role in the making of the film. The producers contacted me because they wanted to film something about anti-Gypsyism. I suggested the story of the Vítkov arson attack to them and put them in touch with those who could help them film it. The timing was fortunate, as the crew was able to get footage from the arsonists’ trial before the judge decided to ban professional recording and broadcasting equipment from the courtroom (see the 29 June article “Arson trial: Dictaphones only from now on, broadcasting equipment not allowed”).
I expected CNN would do a good job, but my previous experiences with the media warned against getting my hopes up. In my opinion the final product is not only well-made, it even provides a little bit of the justice that so many people have been longing for in this and other cases. The film embodies a great deal of truth, the sort of truth that will eventually win out.
The documentary starts with a warning that it contains disturbing images of burn injuries. It then continues with a slow pan over the ruins from the scene of the crime and a calm, dignified interview with Mr Kudrik, Natálka’s father, who describes what happened. Before we see photographs of her injuries, the warning about the shocking content is repeated – but there is no way most of us can ever be prepared for such images. They are shocking indeed. The calm tempo of the narrative emphasizes even more strongly how much pain this exceptional little girl has had to bear so early in life. An interview follows with Dr Crkvenjas, who performed life-saving surgery on Natálka, and we then see what kind of shape she was in when they first woke her up from an artificial coma. Her personality, her presence, radiates from her eyes in those first moments, and the miracle of her revival becomes even clearer when we see what she had to recover from.
The film continues with shots of the place next to the local dog kennel where the family had to live immediately following the attack. Through an interview with psychiatrist Petr Poethe we learn that the family had to fight just to stay together immediately after the attack, because social workers wanted to institutionalize their other children. We learn how the citizens of Vitkov blamed the family itself for what happened, for neglecting their children, for “letting it happen” to Natálka – even charges that her family had set its own home on fire. We learn how locals signed a petition asking the town not to provide the family with a new home. We also learn how Mr Kudrik was subsequently arrested for driving without a license while on probation for theft, and how the Czech President eventually pardoned him.
Next there is an interview with former Czech PM Fischer and the information that his family has also received threats from the neo-Nazis. We then see the four men charged with the crime in the courtroom. The documentary continues with a general depiction of the conditions in which the majority of Roma in the Czech Republic live. Through an interview with Mr Kumar Vishwanathan of Life Together, we learn about Roma ghettos, unemployment, overcrowded apartments, the “special schools” and their impact on the Roma, and the stereotype of the Roma as petty criminals. Vishwanathan also explains something crucial: Most people in the Czech Republic for the past 20 years have more or less approved of the violence that has been committed against the Roma. The neo-Nazis are actually carrying out the larger societal demand that the Roma be forced to emigrate.
Through an interview with Klára Kalibová, a lawyer with the organization In Iustitia, we then learn of the attempted pogrom against the Roma in Litvínov in 2008 after the ultra-right Workers’ Party held a gathering there. We see footage of neo-Nazis attacking the police and learn that some of those indicted for the Vítkov arson also participated at Litvínov. Kalibová describes how civil society tried to warn the Czech Interior Ministry that it should focus on the neo-Nazis. Then Vítkov happened.
Martin Linhart of the Czech Interior Ministry explains the process of banning the Workers’ Party. We then see footage from a meeting of the party that has succeeded it, the Workers’ Social Justice Party (“Delnická strana sociální spravedlnosti – DSSS”), where party chair Vandas talks about how “unintegrated people” complain about racism while others just want them to obey the law. We then see an interview with Vandas wherein he takes the opportunity to deny that his party has anything to do with Nazism and to insist his appearance in a photo with a perpetrator of the Vítkov attack is meaningless.
Those claims are then responded to by an Anti-fascist Action activist, whose face and voice are disguised in order to protect his identity. We are shown the similarity in motifs between a Workers’ Party election poster and the motif on one of Hitler’s election posters. We also see footage of a woman distributing fliers at a DSSS meeting wearing a button with a photo of Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s deputy). The Antifa activist explains that some of those who set fire to Natálka’s house also attended Workers’ Party events and helped organize them. He also explains the meaning racism has for them, that they consider themselves soldiers fighting a “racial holy war”.
We then see an interview with Lucie Šlégrová, a militant of both parties, who explains that “Gypsies steal and the police do nothing.” We see footage of her confrontation with the Roma in Litvínov v 2008, originally broadcast on TV Nova, which launched the neo-Nazi attempt at a pogrom there. Klára Kalibová explains that that the images of this “fragile girl” being sworn at by a Romani “giant” served the neo-Nazis as a justification for attacking all Roma in Litvínov.
The last third of the film concerns the trial of those indicted for the Vítkov attack. The attorney for defendant Jaromír Lukeš – whom we have already seen in photographs of Workers’ Party meetings – takes the opportunity to claim his client is not a racist. Defendants Cojocaru and Müller tell the court they though the house was unoccupied, that it was a storehouse of stolen goods. Then we return to the victims: Natálka’s father says he hopes the perpetrators get the maximum possible sentence, because Natálka will have to suffer for the rest of her life. The final moments of the film shows us Natálka working in rehabilitation, being praised by doctors for her potential and the progress she has made. The image of this little girl crying on the ground, wiping her eyes with hands from which some fingers have already had to be removed, is one of the last the viewer takes away.
Pedants may be bothered by the fact that the narrator fights to pronounce some of the Czech names, or that the levels of English of the various people interviewed vary, but these are petty concerns. This is a complicated story told without pulling punches. Nuance is preserved: Natálka’s father was on probation at the time of the attack, the Czech Premier himself has been threatened by the fellow-travelers of the people now on trial. The filmmakers did not avoid the details of the complex events that led to the pogrom in Litvínov. What makes the documentary excellent is the equal time it gives to everyone involved, from the neo-Nazis and the perpetrators, to their longtime opponents, to the victims, to the physicians who now have to heal the victims’ wounds, both physical and psychological.
At the closing of the second section of “Scars” (available on the net in three separate sections for streaming) the filmmakers, in my opinion, have also managed to capture something which is almost indescribable. Each third of the film closes with slow-motion footage that somehow captures the spirit of what that segment has been about. The second section ends with a close-up of Lucie Šlégrová in profile. Maybe she didn’t know she was being filmed. The expression on her face is in sharp contrast to the girlish pigtails we’ve seen her wearing: It is intense, passionate, with a viciousness verging on hatred. We next see a profile shot of the dog she was cuddling earlier in the film. It might be a boxer, or maybe a pit bull, but it is obviously the kind of dog that could also serve nicely as a weapon. Even though its owner has shown what a “decent, law-abiding” citizen he or she is by putting the required muzzle on, the truth is that animal is a threat. I have yet to see a better visual metaphor for the danger neo-Nazism poses us all.
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