Last night I went up to San Francisco to see a showing of The Czech Dream, a documentary about two young state-sponsored filmmakers who hired and persuaded professional advertisers to help them promote and launch a fake supermarket. The students covered the the marketing campaign from the inside, and then filmed the reaction of the thousands of people who showed up on opening day.
This stunt caused a nationwide scandal and led to a political backlash against the government and its pro-EU marketing campaign — which just so happened to be sponsored by the same ad company portrayed in the film.

The basic theme of the The Czech Dream is unremarkable. “Consumerism is bad”, “modern marketing sure is gosh darn powerful”, i.e. nothing particularly radical or interesting for any Westerner over the age of twelve. There is also a strange disconnect between the magnitude of reaction and the rather low-wattage of the stunt itself. The victims of the hoax cheerfully berated themselves for being “idiots”, but they were being awfully hard on themselves. After all, this sort of trick pales in comparison to what goes on in reality TV, where producers consistently manipulate people into doing much more embarrassing things than showing up to a fake supermarket opening.

On the plus side, the movie did have many genuinely funny bits: the composing of the marketing jingle, the crowd’s reactions, the bewildered looks of the filmmakers. It was also interesting to get an inside look at the thought processes of the marketeers, who were good at their work, proud of it, and just as young and hip and well-educated as the filmmakers themselves. (At one point, one of them argues that advertisers never lie, it’s the filmmakers who do.) The filmmakers also did something really clever in the trailer for the film, which includes a scene with an angry mob chasing and beating them up. Although that scene was completely fake, it does a fine job of raising the stakes of the film. It also hoaxes the audience a bit, which seems only fair.

But by far the most interesting aspect of The Czech Dream was not the film itself, but the reaction of the San Francisco audience. At various points in the film, Czechs from different socio-economic backgrounds would observe that shopping made them feel happy. Each statement along these lines provoked howls of laughter from the audience. Not garden-variety patronizing chuckles from We Sophisticated Western [Hyper-/Anti-/Meta-]Consumers, mind you… no, these were actual howls, the kind of noise ordinarily reserved for particularly awful pundits or politicians.

It’s hard to say whether the filmmakers intended this, but The Czech Dream manages to portray the Czech people in a fairly positive light. Some were annoyed, some were bemused, some were clever, many were funny, all were humanized. Coming away from the film, you get the feeling that the Czechs are basically all right. My fellow Americans, though, not so much.