Burning Bush

TIFF ended today. I finished the festival with Agnieszka Holland’s HBO Europe series “Burning Bush”. A 4 hour marathon, worth every minute.

It depicts the events following the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Student protests were taking place throughout Europe in 1968, but in Czechoslovakia and Poland they were directed against the heavy-handed Russian style communist rule. Czechoslovakia was undergoing a period of liberalization and the Soviet Union was watching.

In January 1969, Jan Palach, a young university student, self-immolated, as a form of protest against the Russian occupation and to reinvigorate the public resistance to the communist regime. “Burning Bush” shows what happened after this shocking act.

For anyone who lived or left Eastern Europe around that time, “Burning Bush” is an uncanny and deeply moving record of how life was then. Real life figures like the idealistic lawyer, Dagmar Buresova, Palach’s mother and brother, are drawn with great understanding and empathy. Their determination to adhere to truth came at a great personal cost.

The twisted ways of getting people to betray colleagues and friends are also accurately reproduced. The KGB trick was to find a blind spot in an otherwise honorable person – through their attachment to their child or spouse – and use that blind spot to control the person. There is a beautiful scene of the escape of a worn-out policeman, a decent man in an indecent situation. No longer able to stomach participation in the corrupt regime, he goes on a “vacation” with his family to Austria, never to return.

Holland’s series combines a kind of documentary approach with skilled storytelling. One can feel excitement and danger of resistance, and the oppressive nature of daily life under communism.

Like Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida”, “Burning Bush” doesn’t have universal appeal. It’s incredibly powerful if you can relate to or know the historical events that took place in 1968-1969.

We were leaving the old country in August 1968, going by train to Vienna. On the way, we saw tanks in the countryside. We were in Vienna, when the landlady in the B & B we were staying at, knocked on our door one morning and brought in the newspaper, pointing to the headline that Russian tanks were in Czechoslovakia.

That was 45 years ago. It was the beginning of the end of communism.

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