Martin Mareček could no longer bear the sight of thousands of cars passing each hour, day and night, underneath the windows of his flat in Prague’s centre. And, so, he set out to find out whether he could change the world. What ensued is a movement that’s helping change the face of the Czech metropolis—as well as a documentary film, Auto*mat, which premiered yesterday.
Mareček’s Don-Quixotian uphill battle began in 2003 when he founded, together with his friends, the Auto*mat initiative. Today, it’s the largest transit-focused movement in Prague and even city officials, who have in the past only communicated with Auto*mat in the presence of video-cameras, gradually started to take it seriously. One of the movie’s protagonists is in fact Prague Mayor, Pavel Bém, who promises the world but, off-screen, remains ice-cold towards proposals to improve the city transit.
Cyclists belong in cities
Nevertheless, Mareček and his friends didn’t abandon their goals—they’re organizing events and bike rides, printing stickers, explaining to police officers why cyclists should have the right to ride the streets and to the transit councillor why he should permit their events at otherwise car-only locations, and to Mirek Topolánek what mobility is good for. And all of this is also being filmed for an eponymous documentary released yesterday, after six years of filming.
Auto*mat isn’t as much a critique of the auto sphere as an illustration of an attempt to change the status quo. Its authors confirm this, refusing to label themselves activists. “We don’t want Auto*mat to be regarded as an activist film,” the producer Vratislav Šlajer says. “The movie doesn’t just point out a given problem; it’s mainly a story of a person wanting to change something.” The director agrees: “We’re all conservative-leaning and I don’t see anything leftist about us wanting to fight against road socialism,” Mareček says.
The film suggests that it’s not always at a loss to fight. Gradually, Auto*mat pressured the city council to allow for regular and massively-attended cross-city bike rides. The organizers are interfering with the talks on road and bike road construction, having managed—though just once—to close down Smetanovo nábřeží , morphing it into a promenade. Auto*mat doesn’t just narrate a story of a naive desire to accomplish something but it’s also an account of the power of media—without video cameras rolling, activists only rarely achieve their aims when it comes to populist politicians. And not only policymakers, for whom the effort to better the environment is just another means in a political tug of war— in the film, they also confront participants of a tuning get-together and the more passive fellow citizens who call out in anger “Hope the police gets you, bastards” during one of the bike rides.
Sometimes, I drive, too
Mareček has for a number of involved documentaries to his credit: in Dust Games, he follows the street battles during the International Monetary Fund conference in Prague; in The Source, he recounts the dirty business of oil extraction in Azerbaijan. For his own interest of improving the world, Mareček walks in the foot steps of the US director Michael Moor—though, without the demagogy and frequent twisting of facts. Compared to Moore, Mareček is sober and self-ironic and, despite the engaged and personal approach to the issue, he remains above it. He documents the poor living conditions in the capital, but, at the same time, he admits to having a car.
He employs playful graphic divides and elements directly on the screen, and he doesn’t neglect to untangle the story. The result is a powerful and a touching film equipped to, at the same time, incite a public debate.
Watch the film online at www.automatfilm.cz.