WHEN THE WAR COMES – Far-right paramilitary groups in Slovakia

Over the recent years Europe is coming up with a disturbing tendency of increasing the support of populist right-wing politics. Currently it is showing the highest level of approval of the parties using the corresponding rhetoric. Eastern Europe becomes one of the regions with the highest share of presence. The most extreme outcome of the right turn takes place in the governments of Poland or Hungary, while Slovakia based right between these two countries still shows average approval rates. But what becomes a reason for concern is the fact that the country experiences a high level of political gains for similar parties, most of which share the interest in nationalist / nativist rhetorics, restrictive immigrant politics and conservative politics of social lifestyle.

All this becomes the crucial setting for Czech director Jan Gebert‘s second documentary feature WHEN THE WAR COMES. Gebert, who has a background in journalism, has already shown his interest to regional political questions in his first documentary STONE GAMES (2012). The director’s new work has premiered in Panorama section of 68th Berlinale. It gives a take on the inner world of Slovak teenagers who are members of a group, ‘Slovenskí Branci’ (‘Slovak recruits’), that is gradually gaining more popularity and recognition through smart tactics, at the same time almost openly promoting the far-right ideology.

Young and ambitious Peter Švrček is first seen taking a literature exam, where he speaks about the concept of a protagonist in literature, a character, whom he presents to be dominant and independent.

«Are you independent or dominant?» a teacher asks him.

«I guess I am dominant.»

While this might seem a straightforward type of introduction, Švrček’s ambitions grow so quickly, that it soon becomes clear, these qualities were only the beginning. He enjoys being a protagonist, wearing a uniform and giving orders – and he is also one of the founders and the main visible ideologist of a group calling themselves ‘Slovak recruits’. This group appears to be a paramilitary sport organisation for young men (women are not seen among the recruits), spending free time patrolling refugees and looking a way to get the opportunity to hold a real gun (deactivated) and participate in a combat training, starting from almost comical gun waggling.

However, as the story unfolds, new structures and connections begin to fill in the blank spaces: Švrček admits having been trained in a Russian Cossack camp, his talks about protecting democracy soon turn into dropping the fake democracy in the group itself, a claim of Slavic supremacy makes its way into a secondary school and posing for a portrait that will be used for some political action comes along with playful comments on Stalin’s grandeur. These triggers get dissolved in a persuading propagandist action and skillful image manipulation. This eventually attracts new members like wide-eyed Adam, who takes his new hobby in a very serious way and seeks self-affirmation in climbing the hierarchical ladder.

Film director approaches to making a portrait of the community by focusing on its coming-of age period, accompanied by typical teenage ambiguities, insecurities and even clumsiness. The central plot line is the observation of Švrček developing his community as a charismatic leader.

Gerbert persuasively shows his core dynamics in various situations: resolving the conflicts, participating in discussions, delivering speeches (notably at the rally of Pan Slavic Movement.

«We fight the vice in our society […] my generation has been left alone without any guidance. I am twenty, we do not promote war, we try to protect peace, democracy. Just to be clear we don’t want war […].»

«We are able to cover all regions, we have a leadership structure, a place for  training […]»

The rest of the group, presented through the image of an average Švrček’s follower Adam, looks much more immature, even sloppy as the film highlights by showing plush toys and gun posters, combined with childhood photos and scenes of training, that at times look like an awkward role-play.

The second half of the film starts to reveal more troubling issues: while the awkwardness doesn’t disappear at once, turns out that personal ambitions from the first part do not just appear at a blank spot because of not having any place to direct the energy. Švrček is planning to enter politics and his cheery and almost innocent image of activist still appearing in media plays along with a further plan that exists in his mind, alongside with practical connections to an obviously politically engaged group, well-known at the global scene.

The local division of Night Wolves – a motorcycle club of Russian origins involved in the war in eastern Ukraine – pays a friendly visit to the camp, and Gebert immediately proceeds with adding more volume to the image of Švrček, including his speech on Slavic pride and behind-the-scenes revelations of political ambitions.

«The authorities don’t approve of their activities, yet legally they can’t dissolve the movement», says the TV report, that Švrček watches with a smile.

The government has said it is monitoring the Slovak Recruits, but cannot yet act against them because they have committed no crime. Not yet.

The vibes of this episode become more clear by the end, when the action and especially the sound landscape of the film become more intense, saturated with yells, marching screams, commands and occasional shots, new rude intonations and slogans, and gnawing music during the tense episodes. The director’s position is gradually hinted throughout the film, that is nevertheless trying to stay in the neutral territory, resonating with the detached manner of the news report. While this method allows to give a deeper insight in the group’s existence, the film appears reserved in providing judgments. This results in a double-sided impression: well, this is a group promoting shady beliefs (betrayal of NATO, illegal immigrants Islamic invasion ), but what if this is just a bunch of former school kids mostly still not capable to carry out a presentation?

This in itself leaves a sense of anxiety, because a lack of a strong attitude is something that the members of ‘Branci’ seem to oppose in their campaign images, attracting new youngsters searching for opportunities to stand out. And while the puzzled observers look for the opportunities to assess their position, ‘Branci’, initially claiming securing peace, look for war action: several members of the group already took part in military actions at the side of separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

In the interviews film director Gebert admits, that he sees no real threat in a grouping of teenagers and students that roughly counts 200 members, however the trouble lies in gradual acceptance of their controversial actions and beliefs. The film’s focus shifts to the way today’s Slovakia becomes a place where ‘Slovak recruits’ are eventually moving from a marginalized phenomenon to a systematic trend, and that sets a highlight for the necessary public attention as they can present a threat through their capacity to stir up ethnic hatred and openly advocate anti-establishment and anti Europe political nationalist ideas.

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