In January 1969, a student by the name of Jan Palach set himself on fire on a crowded Prague street to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia some months before. Nervous that dissent might spread and trigger an even tougher Soviet crackdown, Czech puppet authorities moved to discredit the dead student’s reputation. Burning Bush is the story of a determined lawyer’s attempt to defend the deceased’s act and honour on behalf of his family, despite the political pressure brought to bear on the proceedings. Unfolding largely as a series of ominously secretive conversations between duplicitous state agents, divided student protesters, and conflicting legal forces, it’s a movie that transpires largely in darkened offices or beneath grey skies, and the sheer amount of conversing slows the movie’s momentum. Part of the problem is the focus on the shifting details of the case, which effectively isolates the drama from larger events transpiring across the country and around the world. It’s not often that a potent historical drama demands more archival footage or documentary elements, but this one does. Burning Bush has difficulty keeping itself lit, and the spark of real events might have kept the flames stoked.
At VIFF: Sept. 30, 1:30 pm, Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts; Oct. 6, 6:30 pm, IV