Film takes humorous look at moving -- and staying -- abroad
By Kevin Drew
Editor's Note: CNN's Kevin Drew was an expatriate in Prague in 1992-93, and a rex-patriate in that city in 1997-98.
(CNN) -- Nancy Bishop's life follows the track of so many who live a life abroad. She visited Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, for the first time in 1993. She returned to the city in the following two years, and moved there in 1996.
Eight years later Bishop is still in Prague, as are many expatriates who have left and later returned, or who simply haven't found a reason to return to their homelands.
"If you had asked me if I was going to be here permanently in 1996, I wouldn't have said I would," she said. "There is a sense we're just kind of stuck here."
So Bishop, who works in the Prague acting community, decided to make a film with other expatriates in that city to show the suspended-state-of-living they're in. Their work, "Rex-patriates," was released in Prague earlier this year and is now making the rounds at U.S. festivals.
Shot on a shoestring budget, "Rex-patriates" uses a mockumentary format to take playful jabs at people's inability to move forward. The film's makers and cast know their material well; they are longtime Prague expatriates who openly say the movie is based on their lives as much as others.
The title -- "Rex-patriates" -- refers to an expatriate who keeps returning to his or her adopted city.
"I live there [in Prague], but I always think I'm leaving," said actress Ellen Savaria, one of the film's co-stars.
"Rex-patriates" follows the adventures of four Americans who move to Prague in the early 1990s. Bishop plays an aspiring theater director Ewell who befriends a woman-chasing writer, a businesswoman Lucy Loden (Savaria) and a mime.
The filmmakers divide the film into three segments: honeymoon, disillusionment and normalization. The characters initially embrace Prague, then digress into darkness when faced with obstacles. Eventually, they reach acceptance.
The scale of the film's production was comparatively minuscule. The acting cast totaled 30 actors; the crew consisted of 10 people. In all, "Rex-patriates" cost less than $40,000 to make, said producer Jeffrey Brown.
To keep costs down, the makers of "Rex-patriates" employed "guerilla shoots": Cast and crew would descend on a site, quickly shoot a scene without formal permission, and then move on.
The cast of "Rex-patriates."
"Considering what we had to work with, I'm really happy with it," Brown said. "I think we succeeded in capturing the feel of a city, and sticking to a mockumentary style."
One of the biggest surprises surrounding "Rex-patriates" may be that it has taken so long to produce a film about Prague in the 1990s, a city that has attracted throngs of expatriates since fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
To those who have lived in Prague at any time in the past 15 years, the city has symbolized great expectations.
Westerners flooded into the Czech capital soon after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution of 1989. Most who moved to Prague were young and disillusioned, claiming they were in search of adventure, inspiration or a possible career track that was closed to them back home.
Prague soon became the "it" city, the place to be. By mid-decade, the estimates of the Western expatriate population in Prague reached as high as 40,000, a figure regarded today as inflated, but which has been impossible to verify since most expats in the city live an undocumented life.
The reality of those times, however, never matched the idealized hype put forth by local columnists. Today, crowds of tourists frequently overrun the magnificently preserved medieval landscape of Old Town Prague. And despite the never-ending poetry readings, plays, and art exhibits, few expatriate works have achieved widespread success outside Prague.
A fitting example is the novel "Prague," written by American Arthur Phillips. Touted as the first great piece of fiction from the Western expatriates who migrated to post-communist Central Europe, "Prague" followed the lives of young, hip Westerners who lived in Budapest, Hungary, but who yearned to be in Prague. The book portrayed Prague as an unrealized dream.
"Rex-patriates" touches on this unrealized myth; it suggests that the characters remain in Prague because of an inability to succeed at home.
'We need to be able to laugh at ourselves'
Bishop, Brown and the others who produced "Rex-patriates" stayed away from sermonizing. The movie's sharp writing preserves a fun, irreverent tone. All-too-painful moments in the real life of an expatriate -- cultural misunderstandings, patronizing attitudes toward the locals ("Czechs love a mime") -- are depicted in a way that all who watch can laugh.
The film debuted in the Czech Republic this past spring and was unveiled in the United States at August showings in New York City and Rhode Island. It continues to show in Prague and in November it will show at the Denver Underground Festival. The film returns to New York City for a December showing at the Czech Centre.
Bishop and Brown are seeking distribution in the United States. They're aiming for art-house cinemas for possible screenings, but Bishop says DVD release and even television may provide the best prospects.
If any of those routes succeed, there will be more than a little irony involved from a film that pokes fun at mired lives.
"We tried to approach the whole thing with a bit of humor," Brown said. "We need to be able to laugh at ourselves."