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Agnieszka Holland • Director

"I have the impression we forget who Stalin really was"

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- Polish director Agnieszka Holland recalls Jan Palach’s tragedy in Czechoslovakia in 1969 for the mini-series Burning Bush

Agnieszka Holland • Director

The first part of the 3-episode series Burning Bush by Agnieszka Holland was screened by HBO Europe on January 27th in the Czech Republic and on March 3rd in Poland. Its subject? The story of Jan Palach, a student who set fire to himself in Prague in 1969 in protest against the invasion of his country by the Soviet Union. After a premiere held in a cinema in Wroclaw, the Polish director told us about the motives behind her work.

Cineuropa: Around the time of the immolation of Jan Palach, who embodies the struggle against communism, you were a student in Prague. To what extent is Burning Bush a personal work? 
Agnieszka Holland: I was a student in the FAMU cinema school in Prague. It was a very important time for me, fundamental even, a time for initiation at several levels: personal, professional, political... Probably the time of my best experiences. On January 16th, the day Jan Palach set fire to himself, I was back in Poland for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. But when I returned to Prague, two weeks later, people were still at the cemetery... I was very moved. At the same time, it was very painful to see that after such a burst of solidarity, all the enthusiasm for the struggle faded away very quickly. I saw the agony of the Prague Spring: it lasted more than a year. We had to wait 20 years, until January 1989 and the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, for the spirit of revolt to rise again and foreshadow the political upheaval. The story is therefore very close to me: I was in it.

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This film is a Czech initiative.
Yes, for me, the screenplay by the young Czech cinema student Stefan Hulik was like an unexpected gift from fate. And after the first screenings in the Czech Republic, I realize that we have accomplished something important. This is the first feature film dedicated to Jan Palach and the reactions of Czech spectators are very intense: they watch, and they cry... They then tell me that they have waited for this film for 20 years. They love my cinema, especially the movies filmed in Poland at the time of what we called “moral anxiety” (the 1970's). They trust my personal experience of their country and my commitment to the opposition. 

The film is funded and produced by HBO Europe. This is not your first film for television, but do you work differently for the big and small screens?
No, never. This difference is of no importance to me. But I have to say that HBO is a very special producer. Their programming is ambitious and I felt very free: I was able to direct the film exactly as I saw it.

What about your next project, based on the novel Drive Your Plough Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, one of Poland’s most famous contemporary writers?
We have nearly finished the screenplay. After the first reading, Olga and I had real doubts about the possibility of adapting this novel for the cinema. But after a further dose of work and discussions, we are about to succeed. Currently, we have reached the stage of looking for funding and additional actors for the cast. We need five women of my age, which is not easy... Filming should start towards the end of the year or at the beginning of 2014. 

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