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Avanpremiera lui Burning Bush (Rugul aprins) la Cinema Lucerna la Praga

Scuzați, vă rog, acest text avem numai în engleza. The first press screening of the three-part drama Burning Bush, directed for HBO Europe by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, took place on Friday, January 19th, in the theater of the Prague Lucerna Palace. The creators of the film introduced themselves at a press conference directly after, in the marble hall of the Lucerna Theater. The conference was hosted by Alexander Michailidis.

The representative of HBO Europe in the Czech Republic Ondřej Zach welcomed both the artists and the guests, among which were many who remembered the Prague Spring of 1968, the Soviet invasion, Palach’s self-sacrifice and the subsequent unraveling during “normalization”. He acknowledged the importance of actress Vlasta Chramostová and cameraman Stanislav Milota, who both attended the press-conference.. "We have brave people like them to thank for the fact that our project could have even come about and that HBO can broadcast in the Czech Republic,” declared Zach.

Director Agnieszka Holland welcomed other collaborators and members of the crew – producers Jan Bílek from Etamp and Pavla Kubečková from nutprodukce, the stage designer Milan Býček and casting director Mirka Hyžíková, among others. She expounded on the double-meaning of the word „pathos,“ the original Greek meaning of which was positive. "In America, this word has a slightly pejorative meaning. That is why, in Burning Bush, I tried to walk the line between the Greek and American understanding of the word pathos," the director added.


Story with a contemporary message

The Slovak actress Tatiana Pauhofová, who created the central character of attorney Dagmar Burešová in the Burning Bush, spoke of her sense of responsibility for the real people the film portrays. "I hope I don’t have to be afraid of looking you in the eye,” she said in response to a question about the historical figures behind the main characters. She added that during her preparations for the role, she became acquainted with Dagmar Burešová’s daughter, the lawyer Zuzana Špitálská.

The well-known Czech actress Vlasta Chramostová, who was not allowed to perform publicly during “normalization” because of her political opinions, commented favorably on the film. She reminded the audience that her husband – persecuted cameraman Stanislav Milota –  filmed Palach’s funeral and that the filmed material was discovered only after the fall of communism in a stored box labeled Agricultural Machines. "Czech society still suffers from a strange sickness that prevents us from respecting authorities. We lack a healthy sense of pathos, without which Palach would have never carried out his protest. I realized this again after the death of Václav Havel and during his funeral. I hope that our society will not be overcome with a similar moral depravity as after those two revolts,” stated Chramostová.

Director Agnieszka Holland described her collaboration with the screen-writer Štěpán Hulík, characterizing it as highly creative. „My personal experience with the time gave me the right to the last word,” she said, grinning. Hulík reminded the audience of the important role the dramaturges Iva Klestilová and Marcela Pittermannová played in the writing process.

Ondřej Zach shed light on the genesis of the project and made sure to emphasize its unique reach. "After just reading the screenplay, I was overcome with the timelessness and contemporary scope of the story. Burning Bush tells the story of our everyday decisions. And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a Tunisian fruit vendor, women activists in India or students from a small Czech town," said Zach, alluding to the current protests against the return of the communists to some regional assemblies in Czech cities. Zach publicized the strategy for distribution of the film, the premiere of which will take place on Wednesday, January 23rd in the Slovanský Dům. The premieres of all three films on the HBO channel will air on Sunday evenings, January 27th and February 3rd and 10th, 2013. "The international premiere will take place at the festival in Rotterdam, followed by the television premieres in all of HBO Europe´s territories. We also want to show Burning Bush at the film festivals in Karlovy Vary, in Rotterdam and at other international events," added Zach.


An Unbelievable History

Screenwriter Štěpán Hulík mentioned the creators´ contact with the real people whose stories the film tells – with Palach’s brother Jiří, with JUDr. Burešová’s daughter, and with Kamila Moučková , senator Nový´s daughter, who signed the Charter 77 and became a well-known dissident. "None of them had any serious reservations about the script,” said Hulík.

Among the other primary figures of the press conference was producer Antony Root who expressed his firm belief that Burning Bush had a reach beyond Central Europe. "HBO takes on subjects that are not common in public or commercial television,“ said Root. Director Holland supported Root’s statement by describing the difference between how HBO functions in contrast to standard TV channels. Speaking to the present journalists, she added that they could create pressure for Czech television to invest in creating more interesting shows. "The same is true about public television in Poland, " added the director.

Ondřej Zach responded to the director’s comments by saying that HBO Europe doesn’t wish to criticize Czech television. „I know that there have been a lot of positive changes in it in the last years. And we welcome any inspirational competition,” said Zach. Dramaturge Marcela Pittermannová, speaking from the audience, reminded everyone that Burning Bush was an example of collaboration between authors from various generations. The quality of the result of their efforts, she said, rests in the fact that the project quickly found a professional producer. „The film is a marriage of fiction and history, which sometimes seems absolutely unbelievable. Some things really did happen, though. For instance, there really was a radio recording of Nový’s speech in Česká Lípa. Also based in reality is the grotesque episode from the reminiscences of attorney Otakar Motejl involving the heroine’s colleague chasing cockroaches around his office. I remember a lot of things and watching most historical films, I can’t stand their inauthenticity. But with Burning Bush, I don’t have this issue,” Pittermannová concluded.

Another important figure of the press conference, historian Petr Blažek, who collaborated as an adviser on the screenplay and who wrote a detailed historical study for the film’s press kit, shed light on some interesting facts. He reminded the audience that the trial of Vilém Nový, begun by Palach’s relatives, in fact also involved five other famous individuals – writer Pavel Kohout, journalist Vladimír Škutina, athlete Emil Zátopek, student leader Lubomír Holeček and chess master Luděk Pachman. The historian emphasized the thoroughness of the screen-writer, who studied the historical sources in detail, including police files of the investigators of Palach’s case.


Wardens in Czechoslovakia and Poland

The three-part series Burning Bush was publicly praised by another icon of the anti-occupation resistance present at the conference, a former news announcer and later well-known dissident Kamila Moučková. "This is a necessary film. I often travel to conduct discussions, during which I meet with young people. They usually know a fair amount about ancient history, but often don’t know anything at all about our modern history,“ said Moučková.

Screenwriter Štěpán Hulík shed light on the reason for his non-traditional treatment of Palach’s legacy.  "We didn’t want to go down the road of a classic biography, because, in my opinion, it wouldn’t depict what was really important. When I came upon the documents about the trial of Vilém Nový, I gained an entirely new perspective. And I started thinking of attorney Dagmar Burešová as Palach’s heir,” said the screenwriter.

Director Agnieszka Holland proceeded to talk about the difference between the former totalitarian regimes in Poland and Czechoslovakia. "They have to do with the differences in the histories of our two countries during the war and after. I was studying in Prague during that time and my first adult experience with communism came to pass in Czechoslovakia. I lived through the Prague Spring and then the invasion of armies of the five states of the former Warsaw Pact. The Polish participated in it, which bothered me a lot at the time. I lived with you through the student movement, prison, trials, and expressions of both bravery and fear. What I lived through here in the Czech lands came to fundamentally shape my understanding of the world,” concluded the director.

 "I was imprisoned both in Czechoslovakia and in Poland and I have to say that Polish wardens were a bit nicer than the Czech ones. Sitting in jail in Warsaw was much easier than in Prague. added Holland. "Normalization was truly a difficult time in Czechoslovakia. Fear and conformism were much greater here than after the declaration of the martial law back home in Poland.  I think that’s why this epoch of your history was not talked about much for a long time. A new generation had to come to say the truth about it."

"I have to add, though, that ordinary people just aren’t made for heroic acts,” continued Holland. "In December 1981 the Polish movement Solidarity had ten million members. But only a couple thousand really participated in the resistance during the time of martial law. Only individuals are capable of heroism. Weakness and cowardice are part of human nature, just like ordinary grief. And I found all these themes in Hulík’s screenplay,“ said the director. 


History without the Usual Clichés

Burning Bush also had a strong impact on the lawyer Zuzana Špitálska, daughter of JUDr. Dagmar Burešová. "I was ten back then, so a few years older than my character in the film. I remember that my father sacrificed himself to support my mother in everything she did. And she definitely didn’t feel like a hero. We were guarded by the secret police, weren’t allowed to leave the country, and my sister didn’t get into school because of our mother’s political views. But my mother simply understood it as part of what she did. She and my father always emphasized decency,” reminisced Špitálská.

The actress portraying Palach’s mother, Jaroslava Pokorná, was once featured in the director Holland’s student film. "I experienced the time depicted in Burning Bush as a catastrophe. My daughters actively took part in protests at the end of that era, during Palach’s Week in 1989. I was overjoyed that Burning Bush was being produced and that it was Agnieszka who filmed it. But the closer we drew to the beginning of filming, the more I was overtaken by a sense of responsibility,” said Pokorná.

The actor Petr Stach, who portrayed Palach’s brother, had a similar experience. "I never met him [Jiří Palach] personally and I’m glad that I didn’t. If I had, I may have had an even more oppressive sense of responsibility,” admitted Stach.  The actor Igor Bareš, who created the character of StB major Dočekal, admitted that he doesn’t like auditions. "In the case of Burning Bush I made an exception which ended up being very beneficial for me. During filming I met an excellent group of colleagues, authors and producers,” said Bareš.

"I played a combination of several people and so I may have had more freedom than some of my colleagues,” added Vojtěch Kotek, who portrayed the student leader Ondřej Trávníček. "During work on my character I did think of one of the real student leaders, Lubomír Holeček, who died under mysterious circumstances. The car he was hit by was apparently driven by an officer of the StB. And I thought that that means that Ondřej’s courage may have been so great that someone may have wanted to get rid of him by force. During one of the most dramatic scenes, during which the office of the Student Union is occupied, Agnieszka acted things out for me. She wanted me to be even blunter,” said Kotek.

The Polish composer Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz, who worked with Agnieszka Holland on her previous film In Darkness, explained the genesis of the film’s music. The creation of the drama Burning Bush was also discussed by producer Tomáš Hrubý of nutprodukce. "We looked for someone who could take an outside look at our modern history and could tell it without the usual clichés. And from the very beginning we dreamed of working with someone who was part of the Polish film movement of moral unrest, which we greatly admire,“ remarked Hrubý. He reminded the audience that the representative of this movement, Agnieszka Holland, directs for American HBO as well, collaborating, for instance, on the highly acclaimed series The Wire.


Courage Against Conformism

Ondřej Zach drew attention to some of the non-profit activities which HBO is preparing as part of the promotion for Burning Bush. He mentioned the traveling exhibit in Czech centers in European cities, screenings of the film for schools as well as preparations for an event at the National Museum in collaboration with its director Michal Lukeš.

At the conclusion of the press-conference, Agnieszka Holland returned to the main themes of the film. "I’m interested in how ordinary people become heroes. The beginnings of normalization were a more formative experience to me than the few preceding months of freedom. In ordinary human personalities, there’s a tendency towards conformism always winning over bravery. But there are also those individuals who are capable of going against the grain. And in my films I ask why. Decency and goodness are less photogenic than evil, which renders the depiction of courage and altruism rather difficult. However, I consider the question of courage and conformism to be universal. Filming historical films doesn’t interest me; what interests me is to understand the hidden mechanisms of history. There have been relatively numerous depictions of Nazism and the Holocaust, whereas there are relatively few depictions of Communism, which I consider to be very dangerous. I think that society doesn’t fully realize the dangers of populism. They don’t understand that not only Fascism but also Communism can be born of it,” the director concluded, speaking on the subtext of her work. 

Holland also appreciated the part that cameraman Martin Štrba, who collaborated with her and her daughter Kasia Adamik on their historical epic The True Story of Janosik. After reading the screenplay for the Burning Bush for the first time, Holland was convinced that its author must be an older man. "And when the authors then came to meet me in Warsaw, I saw three children. At that time they were still students,” the director remembered her surprise. The title Burning Bush has, she adds, a theological scope, evoking the biblical story of Moses.  "It’s a reference to the Old Testament and the story of a bush which burned without burning down. Not all viewers will understand the reference, but that doesn’t matter. The title Burning Bush is sufficiently expressive on its own,” added screenwriter Štěpán Hulík.


Pavla Brožková
PR - HBO Europe s. r. o.