Art On and Off

Talk with Daniel Szczechura

Many people mistake entertainment for art, and I myself am no longer interested in pure entertainment. When I watch a film I want to see behind what I see. I want to see the human being Daniel Szczechura in an interview by Adriana Prodeus

4 minutes reading left

Adriana Prodeus: How do you see your films from a time perspective?

Daniel Szczechura: I must admit that I’m not particularly anxious to watch them. I tend not to stay for the screenings of my own films as I feel no need to see them over and over again. However, when working on A Hobby two kinds of things crossed my mind. First of all, surprise. I thought, “Did I really think it all up?” I tend to have an overall impression of my films but the details escape my memory. I like some elements enough to say I wouldn’t like to change them, for instance the arrangement of stills in the acted sequences of Conflicts – I’ll put my name to that any day. But a few other things are out of date because the style of storytelling, the context and the techniques are different now.

What is your work method?

Daniel Szczechura, photo from the artist's
private archive

I don’t have one. When I set out to make a new film I bear two things in mind it should be watchable, and simply not silly. Easier said than done, though…

In your documentary Henryk Tomaszewski said that he used a 2B pencil most often. What is your favourite tool?

My language is a natural consequence of the fact that I have neither the artistic background nor the efficiency in using tools. The idea is fundamental to me. I then select a form that fits it best. You could say that I cover up my poor workmanship with being intellectual (laugh). Usually, a few months before making a film I leave myself open to inspirations which might further a particular idea and translate it into the visual. Hence my inclination toward photography. At the same time I like contact with matter. If I had to make films on a computer I would really miss the actual contact with paper and paint, which is very sensual and pleasurable.

An animator, producer, animation director or, more generally, film director - which of these terms do you like best?

As far as I remember I’ve been signing my work as the producer. A director is someone who directs Three Sisters or Hamlet in the theatre. This is true directing. This term has also been applied to animation films but, with all due respect for my colleagues, making an animated film has little to do with directing. A set design, literary text, props, crew, actors one has to come to grips with a large section of reality. It is a totally different kind of work. I would not use the word “director” in relation to animated films.

In A Hobby you watch your ten edited films during a private show in a movie theatre. Does it mean you picked them for yourself?

Daniel Szczechura
is 80 years old

Daniel Szczechura was born in 1930 in Wilczogęby. In the years 1951-1952 he studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under the supervision of Prof. Eugeniusz Arct. He subsequently graduated from Warsaw University with a degree in Art History. He is also a graduate of the Cinematography Faculty of the National Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź. From 1961, he worked in the Łódź Studio of Small Film Forms SE-MA-FOR, where he made the majority of his animated films. From 1969, Szczechura was a lecturer at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Here, at the Graphics Design Faculty, he led a studio of photography and animated film. He became a professor in 1987. He has lectured at many international universities such as the Royal Art Academy in Ghent and Emily Carr College, Vancouver. At present he is a lecturer at the Japanese-Polish School of Computer Sciences in Warsaw. A member of the Union of Polish Film Producers and of the International Association of Animated Film ASIFA, Szczechura was the Vice-President of the Association from 1984 to1987. He received awards for life achievements at the Linz Festival (1976), from the Italian Association of Animated Film in Genoa, and from the International Association of Animated Film in Zagreb (1990). Sunday, July 11th, was Daniel Szczechura's 80th birthday.

They picked themselves. They were films that had enjoyed the greatest esteem. I must account for my presence at the show, however. The initial idea was that I would say something but then we figured out it was unnecessary and… my presence on the screen started to bother us, hence the empty cinema. We decided to leave me in only at the very end. After all, the viewers might want to see what the director looks like. (laugh)

They do know you from a few earlier films: the superman with the letter D on his leotard in A Hobby, the figure of the protagonist in The Journey. The Leap is a faithful self-portrait…

I couldn’t get a proper actor for The Leap. There are no subtexts here. I also used my Łódź apartment in a block of flats as a setting. I’m not happy with many things in my films, but I do have my favourite moments. We do certain things to test ourselves and show off in front of our colleagues because there are details that only they will notice. Sometimes, you are envious of a take and wonder, “How did he do that?”

Yet they recognised the import of Conflicts, didn’t they? This movie proved important years later. What was the initial reaction, though?

Back then people laughed watching it. I was taken aback by that reaction because I’d never have thought of myself as witty. But suddenly it turned out that people found it funny, especially the acted sections. Only many years later did people begin to ponder over the essence of it not the philosophy but namely the essence. I never start off by thinking that I need to convey something via a film. All I want to do is make a decent film.

Conflicts is founded on a clear-cut opposition. There is a story which satisfies the needs of the audience but is disliked by the authorities and another one which is its mirror reflection.

This film is rooted in my experience of debates with the censors in the STS (theatre in Warsaw, which Daniel Szczechura was a co-finder of ed.). I would often hear them say, “Personally I like it, it is great, but too pessimistic”. There was no arguing with that. At the end of the day, Conflicts is a funny film. But art should be diverse it should be a bit of this and a bit of that.

What is your attitude to the opinions of international critics who often wrote that the films of the Polish animation school are unique precisely because they are sombre, murky and depressive?

The French have a term angoisse, meaning anxiety, fear or fright, which they often use in reference to our films. Actually, they liked them a lot, and perhaps for that very reason…

Daniel, can I ask you why you consistently belittle your role in the history of Polish animation?

I am a realist… (laugh)

Still, you have spent a good many years making films.

I made them… because I had to. It was the occupation that appealed to me most and once I went down that path I did not stop. I had a full-time job at a studio. As they called it then, I was “ready to work”. The director paid us pittance which I used to pay the rent, electricity, gas, and telephone bills, and all I had left was small change. And we, on our part, were ready to make films. There were the hard-workers and the dodgers… I treated it seriously, as my profession. I was assigned to that studio and I believed I had to make at least one film a year.
What our work consisted of? At each movie show there was a newsreel, a supplement and the main feature movie. We were in charge of the supplements. They were strict about time slots so we couldn’t make a half-hour animated film. I had this problem with Fata Morgana it was hard to have a film short enough to fit in a two-part supplement.

But before you were “ready to work” you were able to choose a different career…

Daniel Szczechura, photo from the artist's
private archive
When I graduated in 1960, there were limited opportunities. There was nothing interesting to do in television. Should I have got myself a job as a newsreel cameraman? The first three months would have been exciting and later there would have been the drab routine: harvest, holidays, 1st of May… Perhaps I’m being unjust. There were some interesting documentaries where I could have found work as a cameraman, but I didn’t feel like it somehow. What other options did I have? A job of an assistant at a feature movie. I worked for two weeks as a stills photographer at Passendorfer’s Return but that wasn’t a job for me. Few movies were shot at the time; I would have had to wait for an opportunity for a number of years.
Working on a feature movie today is also very hard, and that’s why I admire my colleagues, cameramen. That would be too nerve-wracking for me. I like to do what’s convenient, so, when an opportunity presented itself and I was able to work on my own in the Semafor studio, how could I refuse? At that time everybody laughed at me. My colleagues, cameramen, would say, “We’ve done 30 metres worth of screening and Szczechura’s hardly done two stills”.

Perennial jokes about animation. But the truth is that you need to be psychologically predisposed to deal with it.

There was a time when I used to assign drawing on a reel as my students’ first exercise I was fond of such practical jokes then. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned from them what a nightmare that was. Some of them dropped out after my ‘hazing’.

You were said to be an heir of Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk. Do you feel that way?

I obviously watched their first films and patterned myself on them. My generation animation artists were often devoid of any intellectual ambitions, which Mirosław Kijowicz and I found a bit annoying. In this respect we were the heirs of Lenica and Borowczyk more than the others were. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have too high ambitions, either. The ones I had stemmed from my education, that is, studies of art history. Nevertheless, if I’d had some intellectual background I would have become a theoretician, a critic.

Still, sometimes you wrote reviews of films made by your colleagues, such as Rybczyński, Norstein, Lenica.

A fee in dollars was what incited me to write about Rybczyński for The Band titre magazine. I wrote about Norstein because Film na Świecie asked me to do it, and about Janek Lenica because Gazeta Wyborcza wanted me to do the job.

So, they already knew you wrote well…

Right, ha ha…

Reading your interviews from different moments of your career, I got the impression that you have a rather light-hearted approach to your films and animation in general and that you work on an on-and-off basis. Yet, you stress the importance of “due diligence”, a professional attitude and workmanship.

It’s true, I’m an animation hobbyist…

Were you intent on preserving some kind of inner distance, on not identifying with your film on purpose? You mentioned once that Altman is one of your favourite directors. His approach is similar.

It stems also from life’s temporary nature. Some of my colleagues let their art rule their lives. This attitude is totally alien to me. I don’t understand it and don’t accept it. You’d never hear at my home, “Silence in the house! Father is creating!”. I have always done my best not to let my interests and profession stand in the way of anything. I do not have a prayerful attitude to being an artist, which doesn’t mean that I don’t treat my work seriously.

You simply do not subscribe to the Romantic myth of an artist?

Polish Animation. Daniel Szczechura, DVD
published by the National Audiovisual Institute,
December 2009
Precisely! And this is my advice to all bards and great artists. Such an approach allows you to keep a distance to what you do. Self-criticism is also of paramount importance in art.
I once spoke with a colleague about his film and pointed out that if he’d done this instead of that, the film would have been better. It turned out that I’d committed a major gaffe and I realized that artists in Poland were unable to talk critically about their own work. I was once told by Alexandre Alexeieff, “Always flatter your colleagues, never make suggestions.” In the US when a film is screened, the audience is a true partner in a debate. I know myself how easy it is to get attached to a take and lose the sense of what really matters to the principal idea of the film. In Poland this was often the approach in such studios as Kadr or Tor. Did you ever wonder why they made such good films there? Precisely thanks to the creative and critical discussion. You did not hear malicious comments at work. You worked in a team.

Did animation at that time have more freedom of expression that a documentary or a feature movie?

No doubt. It was clear that an animated film would never spark off a revolution. Documentaries were monitored the closest. With us, the final screening was attended by a censor who watched the film, and there were generally no problems.
When I was working on The Chair, I was unsure; I thought that censors would not allow it into circulation. The studio director told me that if I did it really well it would defend itself. I usually tested my ideas on trusted viewers. Here, I had an idea to show everything from above to make it more universal. In addition, I put flags of various states so that it would look like a UN or COMECON council. If the worst came to the worst we would have told the censor that it was not about us. (laugh)

And what about The Journey, your most conceptual film?

They thought in the studio that I was whiling my time away. In the meantime I was thinking, and in this emptiness I came up with a film. I thought they’d reject it but they approved the idea, which really surprised me. I was in a panic: how to do all this and not be seen as provocative. Then I remembered compositions from the Warsaw Autumn Festival, where one phrase was repeated over and over again. It was to be similar in the film. My friend, who composed the music for the film, Gienio Rudnik, told me, “You mustn’t make any concessions. The film must be clean. You mustn’t distract the viewer’s attention by anything. A total void John Cage.” It so happens at times that when you push a take beyond a certain limit it starts to act totally differently.
Satisfaction came with time, when I heard words of respect and saw the film find its audience. I knew at once when these compliments were genuine and when it was a mere pat on the shoulder.

My impression is that music and sound space in general plays a major role in all of your films.

That’s true. I have always attached great importance to it. If there is anything good in my films at all, it is the sound.
Working on A Hobby I started my collaboration with Gienio Rudnik. I showed him a nearly finished film and he asked me how I imagined the music. I told him and he was shocked, “You lead us into your Surrealist world and your musical ideas go as far as popular hits.” I let him do as he pleased and I was really hppy with the result.

A Hobby is an intriguing film. It is said to be double-coded, either as an example of the struggle of the sexes or as a metaphor for power and politics. The following year Wajda shot his Hunting Flies. Can we say that your film is also misogynous?

I don’t feel the need to lead the viewer onto this or that interpretative trail. I cherish those moments at work when something eludes me and when intuition comes into play.
The film was made because the studio director told me, “Daniel, the 8th of March is at hand. Shall we do something...?”

Surely, you are joking…

Really! I didn’t manage it for the 8th of March because I missed my deadline as usual. It was ready for Christmas, I think. I myself don’t know what it’s all about. I care whether a film arouses some emotions, whether it is a good watch and if it’s worth recommending to friends.

What are you like as a viewer? I’ve seen you in a movie theatre and I’ve noticed that you often leave before the end.

I do that when I see that the director cannot skilfully lead an actor, builds awkward takes and uses clichés.
The perennial question is: should one watch very much or very little? If you choose to do the former, you’ll have the advantage of a broader context but at the same time you will lose the sensitivity you would have if you watched little.
Many people mistake entertainment for art, and I myself am no longer interested in pure entertainment. When I watch a film I want to see behind what I see. I want to see the human being. Then, I wonder whether or not the person is interesting and whether I want to stay with them longer. I know what I’m looking for and that’s why I leave before the end. But sometimes I make mistakes.

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