Guerrilla Filmmaker

Talk with Przemysław Wojcieszek

If Polish cinema wasn’t infantile, films would have to pose questions that would stir the masses of consumers out of their lethargy

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ADAM KRUK: There’s an ad for Jan T. Gross’s Golden Harvest in front of the bookstore where we met today. They say his book Neighbors inspired you to write the screenplay for the film you’re currently working on, Heritage.

PRZEMYSŁAW WOJCIESZEK: It’s funny how Gross keeps coming up everywhere. We consulted our project with Alina Cała, a historian from the Jewish Historical Institute, and it turned out that the topics Gross writes about have been regarded by historians as completely uncontroversial for quite some time now.

Przemysław Wojcieszek,
distributor materials
But the general public in Poland treats him like a boogie-man that is used to scare fair-haired Polish children. It’s good to have a writer like him, someone who will publish a book once in a while and remind us about a topic that the Polish consciousness keeps trying to repress. It’s good that he can spark a public debate in a country practically devoid of such debates. For several hundred years, we lived alongside a separate nation that is now gone, due in no insignificant part to our own actions. To this day, there are very few people who try to remind us of this fact — but it’s important that they do, because this conscious amnesia is crucial to understanding contemporary Poland.

In Heritage, Maciej Stuhr plays a character who discovers his grandfather’s dark past.

We’ve assumed the role of guerrilla filmmakers in this project. In one interview following last year’s Gdynia Film Festival, I said that if you want to make unorthodox films in Poland, you have to buy a camera on eBay and shoot the movie out of pocket. I was hoping that that wasn’t actually the case — I just wanted to provoke some reaction. But as it turns out, my words were spot on. Polish cinema has to be just as infantile as the country’s administration. Otherwise, films would have to pose questions that would stir the masses of consumers out of their lethargy. They might start asking questions such as “Who am I?”, and “What makes up my identity?”. So now that I’ve won a prize at the Era New Horizons festival and earned some money here and there, we’ve decided to launch this project with our own money. This, of course, is a very difficult thing to do. So we’re making the film one small step at a time. The story will feature a mosaic structure, and will include comedy performances by the main character, along with a bit of psychological drama in a tiny pre-war house. You’ll see some minor realism set in a major city and quite a few interviews with historians. I hope that by patching on piece after piece we’ll finally succeed in making a whole film. On the one hand, it’s a bit depressing, but on the other, I’m glad to see that cinema as a medium still has this Leninesque power in Poland and can reach every household.

Przemysław Wojcieszek

Przemysław Wojcieszek is a film and theatre director and screenplay writer. He debuted in 1999 with the film Kill Them All. Over the next six years, he made Louder than Bombs, Down the Colorful Hill, and The Perfect Afternoon. The last title won him a “Polityka” Passport, after which he disappeared from screens for five years to work intensively with Poland’s leading theatres (TR Warsawa, Dramatyczny Theatre in Wałbrzych, and Polski Theatre in Wrocław).

And it can still pose a threat.

That’s not very noticeable in the theatre, and you can publish whatever you want when it comes to literature, but cinema is still subject to a program of historical politics; a program implemented with a ruthlessness and consistency worthy of an authoritarian state. There are up to a dozen films made annually in fulfillment of the far-right policy of historical politics. This makes it difficult to secure public funding for projects that don’t match these policies, which is why no one makes them.

Meanwhile, Made in Poland was very enthusiastically received at Berlinale.

I’m very happy about that. The festival in Berlin has put me back in the film world. I left cinema for over five years and this movie was my comeback, one that didn’t garner great reviews with the industry in Gdynia. That changed somewhat after the Era New Horizons prize. The people responsible for Berlinale saw Made in Poland there and decided to invite me to their own festival. So I got the opportunity to go to one of the top three film festivals in Europe, where critics described my film as interesting, fresh, and worth watching. The reception was positive enough to make me believe that the next time I made something interesting, I would have my own place, somewhere I could go back to. This festival is my life insurance policy. If it weren’t for Berlinale, the Polish film industry would have no qualms about stamping me and my guerrilla films into the dirt.

The main character in Made in Poland, with the words “Fuck Off” tattooed on his forehead, is a guerrilla as well.

The cinema isn’t a beauty pageant. I don’t make pretty movies: all my attempts at beautiful work have been complete and utter failures. What I do try to do is create something original and fresh, something irritating, but in a way that gives you something to think about when you leave the theatre. The more I get used to Made in Poland, the more I like the main character. He’s not your run-of-the-mill Polish meathead, redneck, or rube. Boguś is a charming, gentle elf who espouses beliefs that are completely at odds with his appearance. And I — as the creator of the film — am on his side.

You shot the film in 2008. Why is it only coming out in movie theatres now?

We made a copy for the Gdynia Festival in May 2010. The reason for the delay was that our original producer was having trouble keeping his company afloat, and there’s usually a domino effect when the producer goes under: each subsequent project is weighted down with even more debt. We managed to wrest the project free at the last minute, but it took us a few months to fight our way through all the red tape. Fortunately for us, we didn’t lose too much time, and we managed to re-edit the film and add a few things. That’s when we came up with the idea to give a mosaic structure to the narrative. It’s a technique that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while. I keep trying to come up with a way to make films in an environment that’s hostile to art-house cinema. Paradoxically, this hiatus has forced me to be even more creative. Heritage is also going to be patched together from many different pieces.

Made in Poland is stitched together with animations by Krzysztof Ostrowski from Cool Kids of Death, who recently became infamous for making a comic book about Chopin that was scrapped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Made in Poland,
dir. Przemysław Wojcieszek
. Poland 2011
I was deeply sorry that the comic book didn’t end up in a bonfire in front of Sigismund’s Column. That would be the natural consequence of how Poland’s ruling right-wing yokels treat culture. I’m very satisfied with my collaboration with Krzysztof. His animations for Made in Poland resemble a punk-rock fanzine: they’re simple and based on a surprising concept, quick, loud, and intense. They took quite a while to prepare, but some of the time wasted on reclaiming the film was also used to make the punk animated scenes. I personally detest 3D animation — the shitty, ovoid, soulless technology that has taken over cinema — and the primitive notion that the more advanced a film’s computer effects are, the better. I believe that technological progress in film should be applied towards lowering production costs and simplifying the process, not the other way around, and this idea is becoming increasingly popular around the world. HD technology is so common that human resources are the only real cost nowadays. In terms of the philosophy of production, this makes film more akin to literature and theatre. It’s a good time for the cinema.

Made in Poland’s punk style is also apparent in the quotes by the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and The Stooges. Is that music still important to you?

Counterculture is important to me. I still consider myself a guerrilla. The DIY ethic is important to me, because I live off of my own projects and what I make myself. You can’t always make a living off of culture, but if I couldn’t support myself through culture, I’d go back to doing some menial task like working a cash register. I can’t see myself joining the rat race. My generation was very familiar with punk rock when we were growing up, even though it was the music of an older generation. At the time, we were very much into pop culture, or perhaps counterculture, and music-wise, we were also very interested in music that was a decade old. I think it’s still important today, in an era when countercultural currents are disappearing, and there’s no counterweight to the massive neoliberal propaganda. For me, punk rock doesn’t mean going to a show and headbanging some of my hair off. It’s more of a suggestion on how to live.

The music to Made in Poland was written by Jakub Kapsa, who runs the ElectricEye studio in Szubin along with his brother. You seem to like outsiders.

I’m a great fan of Jakub’s art — his work with Contemporary Noise Quintet, and earlier on with Something Like Elvis. I try to work with people whom I like and whose work I admire, as far as my meager means will let me. The music to Whatever Happens, I Love You will probably be composed by Pustki, who also performed in the play. Indigo Tree is going to write the music to Heritage. I’m rooting for all of them and I hope they’ll have the determination to keep at it.

You directed the music video to Indigo Tree’s Hardlakes, and Filip Zawada makes an appearance in your movie The Perfect Afternoon.

I’m very impressed with Filip’s tenacity and the fact that he keeps doing things that have little hope of commercial success in Poland, but are nevertheless valuable and which I find musically appealing. Polish pop culture is so atrocious that people like Filip are my natural allies, even if they’re in a different industry. The Indigo Tree video was made while we were casting the roles for Whatever Happens, I Love You. We found two girls that we liked and we shot a video with them running around Warsaw at night. It was just right for the track, so we gave it to Indigo Tree. Preparations for Whatever Happens, I Love You have taken several months. The project has been waiting for approval at the film institute for half a year and it keeps getting rejected. It’s unbelievable how deeply rooted homophobia is in our society. And I’m not just talking about the kind of people who shop at Biedronka, I’m talking about the elite. We have another session scheduled in ten days, where I’m going to try to convince an esteemed board of experts that the holy city of Częstochowa won’t go up in flames if we make a film about lesbians in Poland. You could say it’s my job to keep flogging a dead horse.

That’s odd, considering the fact that MP Robert Węgrzyn, a member of the ruling party, expressed interest in watching lesbians.

That’s the “no fags, but dykes are fine” approach you’d expect from a mustachioed guy whose only knowledge about lesbians comes from his regular intake of porn. That’s the mentality of the people who make decisions about culture in Poland today. It’s national-democratic ideology mixed with a neoliberal disdain for humanists, minorities, and the poor, along with a typical dose of boorishness and sexual complexes.

The Polish Film Awards were handed out on March 7. Did you follow the outcome?

I’ve been trying to figure out what that event is all about for years, and I still don’t see the point of it. Ever since the festival in Berlin, which reminded me where true cinema can be found, I haven’t been able to muster the slightest interest in the Polish Film Awards. The format of the awards, just like the format of the Gdynia Festival, is greatly detrimental to Polish cinema in the long run. The awards themselves have absolutely no value and build a false hierarchy by promoting anachronistic filmmakers and films that often turn out be of no importance. Then those filmmakers are hurt when no one will screen their award-winning films abroad.

The new artistic director of the Gdynia Festival, Michał Chacińśki, has announced that he will be making significant changes to the festival’s format.

I wish Michał all the best, but I don’t think he fully realizes what he’s gotten himself into. The format of the event isn’t just the result of some conspiracy among the judges, and it’s not just a question of the quality of the films that happen to be submitted in a given year. In its current form, the festival serves the interests of the industry that designs it. The red carpet, the golden lions, the camera flashes, and the lavish banquets all serve to fossilize a backward, hypocritical, and completely detached film world. Would anyone care about a German film festival in Rostock and the awards they gave out? Berlinale, Venice, and Cannes are the real places where films are tested. Who on earth cares about the winners of the Golden Lions? This festival should be a professional industry review of Polish cinema, without awards, but with a record number of film selectors from international events and sales agents. I read a rather powerful and radical interview with Michał; I’m sure he’ll change his tune when he starts getting calls from pasty-faced gentlemen demanding that he put some stinking pile of crap into the competition. What worries me the most is that the generational shift taking place in Polish cinema is purely biological — there’s no change in quality in terms of how the film industry is run. The old are being replaced with the young, but the structures and the bad customs are staying the same.

Nevertheless, you’ve decided to go back to making films.

Films change, they develop, they’re alive and surprising like never before. I’m completely focused on Heritage at the moment. I’m running around with a camera and doing two or three minute takes every once in a while, hoping that it all comes together into a film by the fall. I hope this movie, which I’m making for pennies and against all odds, blows this system sky-high. My re-entry into the film world has been rather painless; I wouldn’t want to waste that and show up with another movie in five years, because I don’t know if I’ll get as warm a reception.

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.