Czech-point drama

In August 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubcek’s government during what became known as the Prague Spring. In protest, a 21-year-old student called Jan Palach committed suicide by self-immolation on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in January 1969 – one of the most powerful acts of protest against the communist regime.

This traumatic story has been noticeably absent from popular culture in the Czech Republic and its former eastern bloc neighbours. Yet it is the story that HBO Europe, an arm of the US-based cable network serving eastern Europe and beyond, has chosen to tell in Burning Bush (Horici Ker), its first effort in Europe to make the kind of high-quality, original television drama it is known for in the US.

“Communism was one of the most traumatic events of the 20th century, but it wasn’t really dealt with psychologically or sociologically in the way that Nazism was,” says Agnieszka Holland, the Oscar-nominated Polish director of Burning Bush, who was herself imprisoned for political activism during the Prague Spring.

“Ninety-nine per cent of society was resigned, submissive or actively participated in communism. Afterwards, no one really wanted to deal with it – the best reaction was just to forget. Czech culture has a tendency for escapism. Books and movies have tend to be evasive: they have treated the experience nostalgically, or even humorously, without asking the moral questions.”

Burning Bush has been positively received by eastern Europe critics and screenings at universities there have demonstrated the series’ potential social impact. “Students were starting to ask questions about history, and to find out why their parents or grandparents behaved as they did,” says Burning Bush screenwriter Stepan Hulik.

The story is told from the point of view of Dagmar Buresova, the young female lawyer (and later, briefly, minister of justice in a free Czechoslovakia) who fought for Palach’s family after efforts by the communist propaganda machine to sully his name. Buresova’s decision to sacrifice her career ambitions and her family’s safety for her beliefs was particularly important to Hulik, who believes that the Czech Republic is dangerously close to a situation similar to that of Palach’s day.

“I think the nation has started to be apathetic again; the people have started to feel that they have no power to change things,” Hulik says. “Politicians make decisions about life here without them, which is very similar to the situation at the end of the 1960s. People are saying political scandals are much worse now than during the days of communism. At least then politicians had to hide those affairs and pretend to be one of the people, but now it’s like they are proud, or even trying to boast about what they are able to get away with.”

This political atmosphere is reflected in the TV landscape of many former communist countries. “When I compare the quality of TV drama during communism in Poland with what you have on private and public TV now, from an artistic point of view it’s worse,” says Holland, who has also worked in the US directing episodes of David Simon’s acclaimed Baltimore-based series The Wire. “In the free market you can either do high-quality TV or you can do trash. Unfortunately, most of the TV services went in the direction of trash.”

Some high-quality television does get made in eastern Europe. Last year, Polish state broadcaster TVP made a social drama, The Deep End, about the problems of recovering addicts in Poland. It won the prestigious Prix Italia. But, says Holland, “they happen more by chance. In the countries I know – Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – the political agenda, fear and constant changes of executives mean that any long-term programme strategy is impossible to build in the way that foreign companies like the BBC, PBS or Canal+ do.”

In 2007, Holland herself developed Ekipa, a political drama series for TVP. “They rejected it,” she says. “The country at the time was run by a rightwing party that considered me and my collaborators as political enemies who would not serve their propaganda aims.” Ekipa was eventually picked up by a private TV company and went on to achieve critical acclaim.

The drive for better-quality programming is fuelled by growing affluence in many former communist countries and by audiences with access to higher-quality, less politically biased TV via the internet. “When younger people compare US drama with what regular public TV has to offer, they find it pretty weak and are often embarrassed,” Holland says.

With Burning Bush and other upcoming projects, HBO Europe hopes to redefine what audiences can expect from TV drama in the region, in the same way that its parent company has done in the US with milestone series such as The Wire and The Sopranos. Previously, the cable channel offered subscribers in the 15 countries it serves access to sports events, US drama content, imported films and locally made documentaries. Recently, however, it has been taking tentative steps into locally produced TV drama with adaptations of successful HBO series such as In Treatment (itself a remake of Israeli series BeTipul) for its four key territories: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania (with local theatre and film writers making the appropriate cultural and linguistic tweaks).

“We’re in the privileged position of holding up mirrors to society,” says Antony Root, British executive producer of Burning Bush. “One of the things we will do is signpost opportunities for stories no one else is telling.”

The current goal is to develop a thriving scriptwriting community. “There’s no real tradition in these countries of top-level TV writing,” Root says. “There are auteur writer/directors in cinema who are traditionally supported by state funds of one sort or another, and there are very successful half-hour daily soaps. We hope to bring people from the film world into TV, and likewise work with someone whose career has been in a daily soap but who has ambitions for other types of work. We’re reading books, scouring for ideas, taking pitches and having scripts written.”

Scandinavia and Israel have gained a reputation for successfully exporting and/or selling the remake rights to TV drama series, such as Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Israeli series Hatufim (which became Homeland).

There is already great interest from countries outside eastern Europe to air Burning Bush and, with all this activity and the region’s rich and dramatic history to draw on, could the region become the next hotbed of high-quality original drama? “Absolutely it can, there’s no question about that,” Root comments. “Whether that will happen 12, or 36 months from now I cannot tell you.”

If HBO Europe’s new ventures are a success, it may put pressure on local TV services to deliver productions of a higher quality and become the kind of healthy cultural outlets that can be so vital for countries coming to terms with tumultuous pasts. “Good TV cannot change everything,” in Holland’s view, “but what it can do is create some kind of shared experience, a common objective language to speak about the past.”

‘Burning Bush’ and ‘The Deep End’ are at the Series Mania festival, Paris, April 22-28.
‘Burning Bush’ is also at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Czech Republic, June 28-July 26.

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