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from Heresy to the Czech Dream

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The song Heresy, from the Rush album Roll The Bones (1991), was lyricist Neil Peart’s slightly ironic take on the fall of the Iron Curtain in the previous couple of years. Now all those oppressed people had the chance to become “consumers” like the rest of us:

All around this dull-grey world of ideology,
People storm the marketplace and buy up fantasy;
The counter-revolution at the counter of a store;
People buy the things they want, and borrow for a little more.
All those wasted years…

I couldn’t help thinking about these lyrics last night when I saw a documentary called Czech Dream. Short version: In the 16-or-so years since the Wall came down, the former Czechoslovakia has turned into a consumer paradise, with some of the biggest “hypermarkets” outside the USA. A couple of scruffy film students get a government grant and turn themselves into hypermarket managers, complete with makeovers, Hugo Boss suits, and a slick advertising campaign.

For weeks they build up the hype using reverse psychology – ads saying “don’t come”… “don’t spend” – and build a huge hoarding in the middle of a field outside Prague. There’s some very funny and interesting detail about the advertising industry, market research, and the psychology of shoppers. They get a cheesy jingle recorded, complete with professional singers and a schoolgirl choir, and create prime-time TV commercials. They even follow families who spend whole days inside a frighteningly huge Tesco, to try to get a feel for shopping as a leisure activity.

Then comes the Grand Opening, with thousands of people running towards a storefront with nothing behind it… I can recommend this film both for the build-up to the opening, and to see what happened next. I can say that no-one got killed, at least. The aftermath was quite interesting, with some of the “victims” spontaneously drawing parallels with the Czech Republic’s planned referendum on joining the EU, and the Prime Minister gets involved in the debate. The filmmakers also raised the EU question, asking “are we being sold a dream with nothing substantial to back it up?”

The whole thing really happened, in 2003: you can find real news reports on the “Česky Sen” hypermarket, and none of the above is a spoiler. As always, the devil is in the details. Recommended.

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Written by brian t

July 29, 2005 at 12:48 pm

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