For two guys who pulled off what has to be one of the biggest pranks in Prague history, Czech film students Vit Klusak and Filim Remunda don’t seem like particularly funny or fun-loving people in their documentary Czech Dream, which chronicles their elaborate punking of their own people a few years back.
In a brief intro, the pair dryly recite a sort of thesis statement, as if they were reading from cue cards. Later, at a press conference given after the big reveal, they seem surprisingly earnest about the points they were seeking to make in the process of making a lot of everyday people look like jackasses.
Which isn’t to say the stunt itself isn’t hilarious, or that the film built around it isn’t as fascinating as it is funny, just that its creators, despite their puckishness, are hardly playing clowns here.
So here’s the scam. In the Czech Republic at the dawn of the 21st century, coming off generations of communist rule and breadlines, capitalist consumerism runs rampant, with Czech versions of Wal-Mart-like stores, called “hypermarkets,” cropping up all over, and suddenly playing a disturbingly large role in the people’s life and culture (At least in Klusak and Remunda’s mind, and they present some compelling anecdotal evidence).
The pair use a national grant, a front of making a documentary about hypermarkets themselves and plenty of offers of product placement to work with industry professionals to generate a super-slick ad campaign for a brand-new hypermarket with unbelievably low prices, one not accidentally called Czech Dream.
The TV, print and radio commercials are brilliantly coy, keeping the location of the new store a secret until the last minute, while generating interest with an anti-consumer message telling people not to go there, not to shop there and not to buy anything there. The effect of which is literal honesty presented as ironic reverse psychology. On opening day, thousands gather hours early in a meadow, where there’s a gigantic façade for a store, which they don’t realize is only a façade until they stampede through the meadow to reach the door and see that there’s nothing but more meadow on the other side.
In the aftermath, the filmmakers retreat behind the safety of the campaign–”We told you not to come, we told you there would be a surprise” and so forth–while universal themes of consumerism and local politics come into play (Apparently, the Czech Dream stunt was pulled around the time the government was spending millions advertising the benefits of joining the European Union, similarly selling an abstract concept).
More interesting still is the build-up, in which we see the role hypermarkets play in people’s lives, the lengths advertisers go to sell them things (including a crazy machine that tracks the way people read fliers) and the soul-searching of the ad men themselves.
One who has no problem with the carefully-worded campaign for a store that doesn’t exist draws a line at outright lying (“We don’t like in advertising,” he says, “It’s surprising, but we don’t”), while another sadly waxes philosophical about the power he wields as an advertiser. The filmmakers push two other marketing researchers into a tense conversation about selling things they don’t agree with, with one ultimately saying it’s just business–like a doctor can’t refuse to treat a criminal, marketing professionals must serve their customers, whether they agree with them or not.
Which sets up a rather elegant visual punch line to the film, in which we see the Czech Dream posters coming down, only to be replaced with ads for cigarettes and credit cards.
Czech Dreams screens Friday and Saturday, July 27-28, at the Wexner Center for the Arts’ film/video theater. It will play with short film He Who Laughs Last Laughs Longest. For more info, click to wexarts.org. For the trailer in a language you probably don’t understand, see below.