Burning Bush/Agnieszka Holland

On August 20, 1968, Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Prague to crush the liberal reforms instituted by First Secretary of the Communist Party Alexander Dubček. Shocked, the Czech people fell into a deep lethargy. Six months later, Jan Palach set himself on fire outside the National Museum to rouse his fellow Czechs to resist.  His brave act is the subject of Burning Bush, a three-part HBO miniseries directed by famed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, director of Europa Europa, The Secret Garden, and a number of TV episodes, including The Wire.  Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.


DT: Agnieszka, congratulations for winning the Gratias Agit award for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic.


AH:  The minister of foreign affairs gave me this award. Today he made the statement that Tibet was always Chinese and always will be, so I’m not sure I’m happy to get the award from his hands.


DT:  I’m very interested in people who identify with a country that’s not theirs.  You’re Polish, but you have a very, very strong identification with Czechoslovakia.  You went to film school there, so you have that, but what are the more internal reasons?


AH:  The main reason I identify with Czechoslovakia is that for a big chunk of time its destiny became my destiny. I love Czechs and at the same time despise them for how easily most of them resign, but I really love their culture.  There is something really deep and wise in the way they see the world. In some ways I find something similar in Jewish humor and Jewish philosophy—that life is the one and most important thing, that you have to have life:  l’chayim. Saving your life is more important than saving dignity or honor or whatever.  I have ambiguous feelings about that.  I admire that, and at the same time sometimes I hate it.


DT:  Issues of identity are very prevalent in your films—Europa EuropaOlivier, Olivier; and now Burning Bush, where Jan Palach is libeled in the press.  You grew up part Jewish in Europe after the war.  Do you think that your personal history affects your choice of topic in this sense?


AH:  I’m sure.  I don’t know if it’s genetic or just life experience or both.  Certainly I’m especially sensitive to those subjects, and I’m very sensitive to injustice and oppression and lies. And I was always fascinated by the mystery of good, because for me it’s natural that people are bad. It doesn’t surprise me, but when suddenly somebody is good, I think it’s worth trying to understand this mystery. In my last two films, In Darkness and Burning Bush, I was searching for the reasons for that mystery.


DT:  You’ve directed a wide range of films, from documentaries, to original screenplays, to adaptations, to TV film series, episodes, and pilots. How does your approach to directing differ according to type?


AH:  I take it as a challenge, and I’m also fascinated by craft; that I can tell a story in different settings in different ways and still pass on something that is my inner message.  It doesn’t always work, of course, but when it works, it’s good.


DT: Let’s say you dealt with the same subject on a TV episode and in a feature film.  How would you direct them differently?


AH:  TV is part of a bigger story.  With episodic television, the director comes into some kind of concept already unless you’re doing the pilot; you can set some kind of a concept then, but you can never tell all.  A miniseries like Burning Bush is no different from a feature film except that it’s longer and will be screened in parts, which means you have to think about dramaturgy in a slightly different way—you have to create enough appetite and use cliffhangers to get people to come back and watch the rest.  But with Burning Bush I didn’t use cliffhangers.  I just hoped people would be engaged enough in those characters that they would like to know how it would end.


DT:  You did something really interesting with Burning Bush.  Often actors doing Shakespeare deliver their lines under the burden of SHAKESPEARE.  Period dramas are often very similar—they seem to bear a burden of history. What I loved about Burning Bush is that even though it’s a period drama, it has a completely contemporary feel. Was that intentional?


AH:  Yeah.  I wanted it to be an evocation of the past but at the same time have contemporary meaning and energy. Even when I’m doing really period pieces, nineteenth century or so, I try to do it in a modern way.  For me, time is not so linear.  I don’t think the fact that something happened a hundred years ago makes it really different—except for exterior signs of period—from today.  Of course pace is different, and the time is maybe slower or faster, depending on what story you’re telling, but for me it’s still part of the present.  The past has the same kind of importance that the present has.


DT:  That really came across in Burning Bush.  As a director, how do you address the issue of screen size, both the difference between TV and theatrical screens, and also knowing that your audience might be watching on an iPad or something smaller?


AH:  I like watching some stuff on an iPad.  For example, tonight in bed in the hotel, I’m watching a TV series, and I feel some intimate relationship with the screen, much more than when I’m watching it on a television or computer.  There’s something quite magical from this point of view. Anyway, I can’t think about it too much.  I try to do the best possible, and I just hope that if it’s really good, it will pop through even on a small screen.


DT:  So you don’t consciously make adjustments?


AH:  No.  Today you have HD, and most people watch TV on big screens, so it’s not such a big difference from the cinema, actually.


DT:  I was very surprised to find that your producers for Burning Bush are still in film school?



AH:  I think they graduated, actually—at least they promised me they would graduate. When they contacted me they were twenty-five, now of course they’re three or four years older.


DT:  Was it fun working with such young producers?


AH: It was absolutely fun.  They’re some of the best producers I’ve had in ages.  Very smart, very strong, but very sensitive.  Very intelligent and very courageous.  Really great guys.


DT:  I also read that Czech TV initially passed on the screenplay?


AH:  This didn’t surprise me.  Polish TV passed also.  They are like dinosaurs.


DT:  Then HBO Europe picked it up.


AH: Yes.


DT:  You experienced firsthand the period portrayed in Burning Bush.  Do you remember your feelings at the time?


AH:  I remember them very well.  That’s why it was so fascinating for me to do the film, because it was still present in me.


DT:  I read you spent six months in jail?


AH:  No, only one month, but I had problems with the police for quite a long time.  It was a very painful experience but interesting as well.  I was twenty, and everything was for the first time.  I was extremely curious, not only about what this experience looked like but also if I would be strong enough to survive it in an honest way.  This was a lot of pressure, of course.  But for me the most interesting and important experience was the feeling of powerlessness of the nation, of the people.  I understood what Jan Palach understood—what he thought he could fight with his sacrifice—that people are very easily broken.  That they resign so quickly and so easily.

The explosion of freedom before the invasion [i.e., the Prague Spring of 1968] was really powerful, and the resignation came a few months after. For me that was a very big lesson about human nature.  I realized that I cannot ever rely on mass movements; that if I really believe in something, I have to fight for it by myself even if it’s totally hopeless.


DT:  As my husband and I watched the footage of the Soviet tanks invading Prague,  we just looked at each other and said, “Can you imagine watching Soviet tanks just rolling down your street?”


AH:  It was completely surreal, especially because we didn’t expect it.  We’d been in a carnival of freedom, and we thought it was so beautiful, and so light, and so interesting; then came the vision of thousands of soldiers and tanks in the streets, in Wenceslas Square, everywhere. People were watching them, and some tried to talk to the Soviets, some made Molotov cocktails, but it was more like a picnic or something.  It was really surreal.


DT:  As if people didn’t really believe it was happening?


AH: They saw that it was happening, but they didn’t believe it.  Before it happened, no one expected it.  People didn’t believe it was possible.  It’s different from how it is in Ukraine now, when everyone’s expecting the Russians to do something.  At that time, inside Czechoslovakia, people were extremely innocent and naïve.


DT:  Do you think that Dubček fostered that naivete?


AH:  Oh, yeah.  I think that Dubček was not very bright, and he really loved the Soviets.  He studied there, and he was an honest guy in some way, and he thought that if he would explain to them that he wanted only what was good, that he would not leave the Warsaw Pact, they would believe him and not do something so terrible to him.  But it was also ’68, and it was a strange year everywhere.  People had hope that the impossible was possible and that you could change the world and that the old world was dead and now something new would come, and the Communists with the human face, and the hippies’ make love not war, and May in Paris.  Now we are living some kind of counterrevolution, like hope has disappeared from people’s lives.  When you speak to young people today, they want to live like their parents, and they’re afraid that their lives will be worse, not the opposite.


DT:  How do you transform your firsthand feelings from that period into a film?


AH:  Step by step, like usual.  You have to find the locations, and of course you pick ones that awaken something in you.  You have to find the costumes, and you watch old films and photographs and talk to the characters’ friends.  The actors need to find the truth of those characters, who are not so different from contemporary characters but are slightly different, so it’s a normal process.  I’ve done so many movies from different realities, not only period movies like Secret Garden or Washington Square but also important TV series like The Wire or Treme, which was for me like going to a world that is completely not mine.  I did the pilot for Treme, and I’ve never been to New Orleans, so I needed to do much more work to enter this world than to come back to Czechoslovakia in ’69.


DT:  From your position in the film industry, you have an international perspective on filmmaking and film schools.  Briefly, what is your view of the industry today?


AH:  I think it’s not the best period of cinema, for sure.  I think that’s also why TV series became so good, because they took the place of something that critics in the ’60s and ’70s called “the cinema of the middle.”  It means intelligent, innovative cinema that speaks about complex and complicated issues but in an attractive and entertaining enough way to attract wider audiences.   Today this cinema practically doesn’t exist.  You have commercial stuff, which is childish and not very original except for special effects innovation, and you have niche cinema, which attracts the festival or arthouse audience but not as much as it used to. You have the impression that cinema is slightly tired and doesn’t really touch the deep problems of modernity. I think that it needs to be shaken up, that something needs to happen.  I’m afraid that it will be something like war.  Also filmmakers are not very interesting people.  Writers are a little more, because they need to invent something, but filmmakers, directors, no.  They’re mostly nice people—maybe too nice.  They’re not angry enough.  They’re not brave enough.  They are a little bourgeois.


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