Milos Stehlik was born in Slaný, central Bohemia, in 1949 but raised in the nearby town of Plchov. His father (also called Milos) emigrated before he was born and so he was raised by his mother, Jindra, and his maternal grandparents. Milos’s mother was determined to follow legal procedures to leave Czechoslovakia with her son; she applied three times for passports, was refused three times, appealed on each occasion, and on the third appeal was granted permission to leave. The whole process took around 11 years, with Milos and his mother leaving Czechoslovakia in May 1961. Milos’s father had initially settled in Australia, but moved to Chicago, Illinois, just before Milos and his mother were granted permission to travel. This meant that it was friends of Milos’s father who paid for the pair’s boat trip to Sydney and who signed their landing permit upon arrival. Milos refers to this behavior as ‘daring and miraculous’ on the part of these complete strangers. He and his mother spent one year in Australia before securing American visas and arriving in San Francisco in 1962, where Milos met his father for the first time. The family settled in Chicago on 23rd Street and Holman Avenue, in a part of town which is today referred to as Little Village. Milos says that this was a particularly Slavic neighborhood at the time, and remembers there being a selection of old Czech books in his local public library. Growing up, Milos remembers being taken to various Czech events in Chicago, which he says were, at times, ‘embarrassingly’ bad. According to Milos, it was only later, and through film, that he became more interested in his own Czech background.
According to Milos, it was in his 20s that he became interested in film. At the time he owned a shop called Action Bookstore, where he occasionally showed films to link in with literary events. After a while, he took his film programming to a nearby theatre called The Drama Shelter, where he met his future business partner, Nicole Dreiske, with whom he founded Facets. When it began in 1975, Facets was an organization presenting alternative film and theatre. Over the years it added a rental component to its operations, and now distributes a number of world cinema titles as well. Milos says he received encouragement from a number of Czech and Slovak émigré directors when he was working on establishing Facets. He mentions in particular Ján Kadár (The Shop on Main Street) and his friendship with Jan Němec (A Report on the Party and the Guests), who lived with him for a while in Chicago. As well as directing Facets, Milos works as a film critic for WBEZ – Chicago Public Radio. He first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1991 and travels to the Czech Republic regularly to attend film festivals.
“I went to school in the 1950s, you know. So this was an era when you still had some teachers that came from the older system; the more Germanic, more authoritarian system. So, there were a number of teachers like that, including the principal. And then there was… I remember our favorite teacher – because it was only elementary school that I went to – [she] was a young teacher who had just gotten out of whatever college and become a teacher, it was her first year teaching. And it was much more in the progressive sense, so she was more open, more creative, and so that [made] a big difference. So in a way it was on the cusp, because it was still the pretty difficult Stalinist years of the mid-‘50s.”
“My grandfather always listened to Radio Free Europe and always fell asleep. So we had Radio Free Europe on all the time because he snored through it. And I would say, I do remember actually listening to Radio Free Europe when I was a kid and I always thought it would be really interesting for someone to really do an academic study of the content of the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe, because I remember the sense of hearing the same propagandistic tone in reverse. Because you’re so used to, in a way, one thing that you are so used to is listening to all of the crap – pardon me – about five year plans and all of this Marxist, Leninist whatever, which you don’t quite understand what it is, but you see the slogans, the sloganeering and all of this kind of stuff. And so hearing it inverted to the capitalist side, because you distrust the one, you kind of distrust the other. Just like I remember my geography book in which there was this line which I will always remember; in talking about North America, [it] said ‘Florida is the place where American millionaires live.’ And that was the definition of Florida. And so it’s this kind of this kitsch attitude, and that’s why I think it’s really interesting – the people who do examine Nazi propaganda for example, like Slavoj Žižek, the philosopher. It’s quite interesting, because we think about it in very overt terms and it’s really not that, it’s more about value terms and moral terms and the way that character is defined and all of these kinds of things are really in play much, much more so than just this rah, rah, rah stuff. It’s much more complicated.”
“First of all it was complicated by the fact that my father had left Australia for America. In 1961, emigrating to America was out of the question. Australia [was] not much better but a little better – at least a little bit more neutral – it was not going into the heart of the imperialist enemy. So… the issue was that there was nobody to pay for the trip, and there was nobody to sign a landing permit which you have to have on the Australian side to guarantee that you are not going to become a ward of the Australian state. So fortunately friends of my father’s, who were actually not Czech, who were Australian, came through and that was, I would say, quite daring and miraculous that they actually stepped forth and signed the landing permit and advanced the money for the journey. So we left in May of ’61 on a train to Vienna and then ultimately Genoa and then on a ship to Sydney.”
“I remember going, with my parents, to these quote unquote ‘Czech events,’ which were pretty embarrassing.”
So what were they, these events?
“You know – national singing, ethnic blah, blah, blah which was just horribly executed. And it really led… It was a part of my whole turning away from all of the Czech stuff because it was so kitsch, it was like stuff that would not pass off in the smallest village [in terms of] how badly executed kitsch it was. But not to be harsh about this, because this was obviously people who were very far removed from the culture, and the other thing is that that element of immigration or emigrants were all economic emigrants, so they were not political refugees, they were not intellectuals who had been forced out of somewhere, they were not highly-cultivated people; they all came because they were poor, they needed work and they needed to survive. So that, however, also defines the way… the culture to which they aspire.”
So was it especially the quality of these events, in terms of the quality of singing, the quality of dancing, that you didn’t like – or was it something else? And if so, what?
“Well, it would all be overweight, aging, matronly pseudo-suburbanites dressing up in national folk costume to sing some national song, not particularly well executed, semi-out of tune. So it wasn’t like pretty girls. I mean, it’s the stuff that you really find in Hrabal or Menzel films. I mean, in a way, that is really reflective of that – it shows that kind of a small-village mentality; it’s My Sweet Little Village. The well-meaning, nice people who unfortunately are unabashed and embarrass themselves without knowing it.”
“I personally think of it in terms of how you, or how people, adapt when they live – it’s the same thing as in marriage: when there’s divorce or the death of a significant somebody – how you get through situations that are really stressful. I think that instinctively you really focus on, if you’re lucky to be able to do that, you really focus your energies on whatever it is that’s going to get you through that most immediate situation. So, my most immediate situation was getting through school, learning to speak English, succeeding in school, becoming a part of that process, and to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. It wasn’t that I stood there and consciously said ‘Well, I want to be American, I don’t want to be Czech anymore.’ That was not the case at all. It was just – how much energy do you have and where does this energy go? How do you understand it, get through it, understand American music or whatever? Because the world of 1962 America and before that 1961 Czechoslovakia was quite different, the gap in culture was quite significant. So that’s how I think of why that happened. You know, ultimately, when did I go back to it? It was really much, much later, pretty much through film.”
“It was not until I was in my twenties when I first owned a bookstore with a partner where we started to show films, not on a regular basis, but kind of literary-related film events like Dostoevsky’s birthday, kind of as a promotion, so that was the first active element in it. And then I got into it in a more formal way when… The bookstore was on Halsted and Webster and down the street, two blocks down, was this very small theater company called the Drama Shelter, and they were always complaining about their audiences or whatever – finally I said ‘Why don’t we show films on your dark night? I want no money for it, we’ll just do it. I’ll program it and then whatever money comes in, just pay for the expense and then the rest you can keep.’ And that was really my first active film series on a very, very low budget on a very low scale – you know, 16mm, bed sheet, very, very old cranky projector. That was really the beginning.”
“I guess you could say the ‘intellectual collapse’ of film-making in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic and elsewhere (in pretty much all the other former communist countries) is something that I don’t think anybody was prepared for. I mean, just the way that, very quickly after reexamining [ideas] and going back and looking at all of the things that you couldn’t say about those years for so long – you could make those films and so some good films were made in a period of one or two years – but then nobody wanted to see that anymore, because that was in the past and they were not focused on all of those horrible years which they all knew about, so now the focus was on… and they were left without any ideas. That’s I think really the most shocking thing that I think nobody was really prepared for.”
“You know, yes of course, you have those memories and associations, but is it some kind of an idealized, background-music, lots of violins [experience] standing looking at your house, and immediate flashbacks? No, it’s not. It’s in a way awkward, because you really realize that time goes by and your life is someplace else – that’s only part of you, that’s only what you lived through, that’s only where you went to school or whatever. But whatever you took from there, you have. Going back is not going to change it.”
“I think [Czech children] are more free; they are given more freedom in a way. I mean, there is structure in the sense of school and all of that stuff, but there is also a lack of structure and an encouragement of letting kids be kids more. I see this with friends of mine who have kids there, and their kids seem to be much more natural and happy doing kid things instead of being shoved into this class, that class – go here, go there, you know, start thinking about your career when you are seven years old.”