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Agnieszka Holland, Burning Bush

The Polish director talks to Geoffrey Macnab about her three part drama series for HBO Europe.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland has had a wildly varied career encompassing everything from European arthouse films (Europa Europa, A Lonely Woman, Angry Harvest) to episodes of The Wire, Cold Case, The Killing and Treme. Her collaborators have ranged from Krzysztof Kieslwoski and Andrzej Wajda to David Simon and Fred Roos. Last year, her 2011 feature In Darkness received an Oscar nomination.

Now, Holland has directed Burning Bush, a three part drama series for HBO Europe. This is inspired by the actions of Jan Palach, a 21-year-old student who set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1969 as a protest against the communist regime and the occupation of Prague by Soviet bloc armies. He died of his injuries four days later.

Burning Bush will be shown at International Film Festival Rotterdam later this month. There are plans afoot for the series to be screened in selected cinemas in Prague and possibly in Poland.

Speaking from New Orleans, Holland points out that the actions of Palach have a very strong personal resonance for her. Holland, now 64, was a student in Prague in the late 1960s and was heavily involved in the student protest movement at the time of the “Prague Spring” (the period in the late 60s when the Czechs tried to cast off the Soviet shackles).

“I was like 20. It was my first important life, political and historical experience,” she declares. “It was something which formed me in some way for the future. My view of society and people was very much shaped by this experience. It was, in some way, an incredible gift that I was able to come back to this.”

Burning Bush was scripted by Štěpán Hulík, a young Czech writer who finished a first draft on spec. The script ended up being sent separately to both Holland and HBO. She responded very positively. (“I was surprised that young people were able to write something so accurate and so true about this event.”) HBO was likewise enthusiastic and wanted to commission a mini-series. Holland agreed with the decision, reckoning that a three part series would enable her to give “this quiet chamber story an epic dimension.”

Holland jokes that when she makes movies, her backers always tell her they are too long. For example, the first cut of In Darkness was over four hours long. With Burning Bush, though, she had “the luxury of the format” and could take time to tell the story.

The series, she argues, will give young Czechs the chance to “look back and figure out their identity” and think about the part that the Palach incident had in shaping their national identity. She believes the drama is the first to address these issues in depth and that it offers a truthful portrait of “Post-Stalin society behind the Iron Curtain.”

“They (HBO) are on both sides of the ocean,” she reflects on working with HBO’s new arm in Prague having made so much drama for the US parent company. “They are in some ways similar. The philosophy of HBO here (in the US) and there (in Europe) is quite similar.

“They want to do ambitious fiction work based quite often on reality or history. They don’t want to be conventional in their approach to the subject and they give relatively big creative freedom to the director and writers. At the same time, they give quite a substantial amount of money. Of course, not everything HBO does speaks to me as a director but everything I have done (for them) has been very interesting and enriching.”

No, when she was a young director in Solidarity-era Poland in the late 1970s, she didn’t imagine that, 30 years later, she would be helming episodes of a cop series in Baltimore (The Wire).

“But HBO was the place - and still is - where you are able to make the films and TV series that are much more complex and innovative stylistically and in terms of the subject, in writing and casting than most other productions - including Hollywood and a lot of independent productions,” the Polish auteur enthuses. “HBO suddenly opened up the windows for many things that had been untold before.”

She describes The Wire as being like “the great American novel” and points to its ethical dimension and complexity. Not many movies (she adds) have the same ambition.

As ever, Holland has several new projects for small screen and big screen on the boil. Among the feature film projects is an adaptation of Drive Your Plough Over The Bones Of The Dead, (Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych), a novel by leading contemporary Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. This is being produced through Tor Film and she hopes to start shooting before the end of the year.

Holland claims she never set out to work in the US and that she has always simply followed the best material. “I was very happy making Polish movies. Still now, American movies are not my ambition. I am doing movies where I can find the interesting subjects, the money and the craft.” 

As for Burning Bush, which is executive produced by Antony Root for HBO Europe, she believes it is the kind of TV drama that the region desperately needs. “The radio and television in most (formerly) communist countries is very bad. It’s really weak…the level is generally very low. HBO takes it much, much higher and opens up the ambitions and the appetites of the audience as well.”

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