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“Nationalism vs. Cinéma Vérité: Tomáš Rafa at P.S. 1”

For his solo exhibition at P.S. 1, Slovakian artist Tomáš Rafa (b. 1979) paid little attention to polish. Comprised of one installation—a video projected to fill an entire wall, complete with a few rows of theater seats—and a second room containing five videos each on a wall-mounted TV, the exhibition avoids frills, choosing to instead focus on content. Given the nature of said content—nationalist demonstrations (and anti-nationalist counter-protests) in Central Europe, namely the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Rafa’s own Slovakia; recorded between 2009 and the present, when a rise in Middle Eastern refugees seeking asylum in Europe coincided with a noted increase in xenophobia and right-wing vitriol on an international scale—the straight-forward approach to both filmmaking and display distills the works to their barest bones, conveying the urgency with which we—as viewers/citizens—must respond. The exhibition opens with “New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe,” an ongoing video project that documents nationalist demonstrations, protests, and conflicts in Central Europe. Starting in 2009, Rafa began attending these gatherings to observe nation-based divisions (Slovak-Roma, Slovak-Hungarian, Polish-Jewish, among others), in particular the ways in which they capitalize on stereotypes, prejudices, and resentments to mobilize disenfranchised working class citizens. With a cinema vérité approach—an improvisational take on documentary filmmaking in which the camera is meant to simply observe, with its subjects (and later audiences) fully aware of the camera’s presence (sometimes called ‘observational cinema’ or ‘direct cinema’)—Rafa captured the spirit of the demonstrations without adding his own voice. The camera dryly moves through scene after scene; Rafa’s hand is only seen in the title cards that appear each time the film has moved to the next protest, announcing a summary of the event, the date, and the location, and in the occasional subtitles that appear to translate the text into English.

Tomáš Rafa, “New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe,” (2009-present), Digital Video, 40 min.

Tomáš Rafa, “New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe,” (2009-present), Digital Video, 40 min.

Without saying much, Rafa manages to convey quite a bit. Filling an entire wall, “New Nationalism in the Heart of Europe” is full of sharp imagery, from nationalist protestors screaming “Slovakia to ourselves!” and ripping—and subsequently burning—the EU flag, to counter-protestors knocking over police barricades and standing defiantly before heavily-armed cops. Rafa’s camera bears witness to these moments with equal interest; he doesn’t discriminate between the opposing voices, allowing all of their messages to be included in his final video. The second room of videos—five, each on their own TV—extends this logic, representing the forced removal of families from a makeshift refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece (in “Refugees on the way to Germany”); a community project in which Romani children colorfully paint a 200-meter- long wall erected in Slovakia to segregate them from the rest of the population (“Wall of Sports and

painting workshops for Romani kids”); and members of the DSS (Worker’s Party) chanting anti-immigrant slogans on International Workers Day in Brno, Czech Republic (“Protests of far-right groups against refugees and Islam”).

Tomáš Rafa, “Protests of far-right groups against refugees and Islam,” (2012-2014), Digital

Video, 27 min. 24 sec.

Interestingly, the audio of all six artworks can be heard at once (they play aloud, rather than on headphones or in separate spaces), creating a layered collage of these voices. As a result of this, one cannot hear the protestors without also simultaneously hearing the counter-protestors (and vice versa), a subtle but effective decision that allows Rafa’s filmmaking to go beyond observation. In doing so, he highlights the complicated and increasingly tense web of dissent in contemporary political life. More information on Rafa and this ongoing project can be found at

Tomáš Rafa, “Wall of Sports and painting workshops for Romani kids,” (2010-2016), Digital

Video, 1 hr. 5 min. 30 sec.

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