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2 Powerful Political Films at the New York Film Festival (Guest Blog)

From “Captain Phillips” to Agnieszka Holland’s “Burning Bush”

New Yorkers flocked to see the likes of pirates and country invasions at the New York Film Festival last week.

Opening the Festival was Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” staring Tom Hanks as the captain of the American ship hijacked by young Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. A tense, evocative drama, the movie’s resolution did not put audience members into a festive mood for the festival’s opening night party.

Those who seemed to most enjoy themselves most at the gala were the actors who played the hijackers, who were cast among the exiled Somali community in Minnesota. Mostly amateurs, the young actors showed frightening spunk creating the role of roaming pirates operating under a warlord’s thumb and terrorizing their captures. The real Captain Philips and other shipmates were also in attendance on opening night.  One can only imagine what awful memories the screening brought to their minds.

British-born Greengrass, coming off a string of harrowing action movies from “United 93” to two “Bourne” films, seems to have identified with his father’s military history in the making of “Captain Phillips.” His father was in the Navy during World War II. When asked what Greengrass was doing next, he kidded, “Looking for a drink.”

The New York Film Festival also debuted talented Agnieszka Holland’s “Burning Bush,” another powerful political film about invasion. This three-part series made by HBO Europe depicts the consequences of the Soviet take over of Czechoslovakia in 1969. Focusing on the student and citizen struggles against the stronghold of Soviet rule, the film portrays how Jan Palach, a young idealistic history student, sets himself on fire to protest the occupation.

This sacrifice sets into motion reflection among others seeking to resist the Soviet oppression and Palach’s family members who are coping to comprehend his political act.  Key to the plot is the boldness of female lawyer Dagmar Buresová who represents family members against a defamation campaign orchestrated against Palach’s character.

Not only is “Bush” based on a true story, Holland herself was living in Prague at that time studying film and knows the conditions first hand. She admitted being there then “changed my life.” So it’s not surprising that Holland was attracted to this powerful script written by a much younger Czech writer and produced by another young Czech.

Right after it was shown at the festival, the Academy Awards foreign division declined to accept this gripping film for consideration from the Czechs. Bush was shown on television and its shorter version was deemed not to be so different from the original version. Too bad, because Holland deserves to be nominated again for an Oscar for yet another bold drama.



Aviva Kempner is the co-director of "Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting" documentary. Jessie Atkin is the communications coordinator for the documentary.