Communion, dir. Anna Zamecka, poster by Jerzy Gruchot, source: Aurora Films
The documentary genre defies a clear definition. What does it mean to you?
Karolina Bielawska: Regardless of whether I am making a documentary or a feature film, I always think in cinematic terms. I transform reality into a story and translate it into images. That was the case with my documentary Call me Marianna, (Mów mi Marianna, 2015) as is now when I am working on my fiction feature debut about Violetta Villas. I believe this is the reason why Polish documentaries stand out from the rest of the world’s productions – precisely because they use the artistic license. Rather than being just documentary coverage, they are films in the full meaning of the word.
Anna Zamecka: In contemporary cinema, the line between documentary and fiction is becoming blurry. As a film viewer, I like to see documentary tools being used in feature films and the other way round. I think that the era of rigid generic divisions are long gone. Either something is gripping or it is not – that is the main criterion according to which a film is evaluated. Tools are just tools.
K.B.: Communion (Komunia, 2016) looks like a feature film.
A.Z.: How so?
K.B.: It is structured like a narrative. You refrain from using voice-over to comment on the events, there are no interviews, the story is told solely through scenes. I believe that form impacts on the viewers’ perception of a film. I do not know the ins and outs of the structure of Communion, but Call me Marianna is definitely structured like a feature film. There is the first turning point, the second turning point and so on.
A.Z.: I do not have a degree in film, but I know the rules, the stages of the hero’s journey, the turning points etc. However, while writing the script for Communion, I was trying to forget all that (which is not easy at all) and simply follow my intuition.
When you look at the biographies of many highly esteemed filmmakers, you can see that documentary films were often a step on their way towards feature cinema. But some former brilliant auteur directors who used to make original fiction films, such as Wim Wenders or Werner Herzog, can now find artistic fulfilment only in documentary cinema. Their latest fiction films leave us disappointed.
A.Z.: There is no one path for everyone and that is great. There are, for example, the Dardennes, but also Krzysztof Kieślowski, who at some point gave up documentaries for feature films. In both cases it was, without a doubt, a good decision.
And how did you begin your journey with filmmaking and documentary films? In Karolina’s case, it is quite a traditional model. First, you studied filmmaking in the Krzysztof Kieślowski Faculty of Radio and Television at the University of Silesia, then you made your award-winning shorts and first documentaries, including the excellent Warsaw Available (Warszawa do wzięcia, 2009), co-created with Julia Ruszkiewicz, and finally Call me Marianna. Anna, however, seems to have appeared out of thin air. We don’t know much about you.
K.B.: In my case, choosing a documentary form was determined, among others, by objective, financial limitations. A documentary is simply easier to shoot, as it is much cheaper. But really, I can say that it is films that find me, rather than the other way round. My previous film, Warsaw Available, was inspired by a newspaper article about a program dedicated to young women who come to Warsaw from former state farm areas in search of a better life. Since Janusz Kondratiuk’s Girls to Pick Up (Dziewczyny do wzięcia, 1972) remains one of my favorite films, I instantly wanted to check out what contemporary “eligible bachelorettes” are like. This is how Warsaw Available came into existence, which I made in cooperation with Julia Ruszkiewicz.
Call me Marianna, on the other hand, was supposed to be a fiction film. I once read an interview with Anna Grodzka, a famous Polish transgender politician and activist. That conversation left me deeply shaken. I wanted to learn more about what it was like to live most of your life in someone else’s body, about how it was even possible. I started researching that topic. While I was meeting with Anna Grodzka who was telling me about her life, Marianna popped by just for a brief moment. At the time, she was a beautiful, 47-year-old woman who believed in God and had very conservative views, but who had been battling her parents in court for four years so that she could formally change her legal identity to match her gender. At that point, I thought: Why make a fiction film if there actually exists such a fascinating heroine?
frame from Call me Marianna, source: Solopan
It has always been like that with me. What I care about is the protagonist and the story, not what genre it belongs to. You have to bear in mind that when you decide to make a film, regardless of whether it is a documentary or a feature, you also choose to sacrifice a few years of your life to that topic and to your protagonist. Not occasionally, not in your spare time, but with full awareness that it will surely take up almost all of your time. At least, I would not know how to work differently. For me, making films is a way of life, a passion that consumes me, takes up the whole space.
A.Z.: It was indeed different in my case. My story was slightly more unconventional. It goes way back. I was four when I first performed on stage. After graduating from university, my parents moved to a house in the middle of a forest in the countryside on the outskirts of Warsaw and they signed me up for local drama classes for children. When I was in primary school, I got hooked on directing. I was adapting all required reading books into stage plays. At that point, I was absolutely certain that this was the only thing I ever wanted to or could do in life. I had no doubt about it. I read somewhere that Agnieszka Holland had not graduated from a Polish film school, but from FAMU in Prague. I decided to follow in her footsteps. My mind was made up: I would be studying at FAMU. As soon as my first year in secondary school came to an end, I announced to my parents that I would spend the summer travelling with my friend, but I actually went to Prague. I figured that I could meet the professors and the students, ask about all that I needed to know. It was quite a challenge given that I was barely 16 and it was my first time travelling abroad by myself. Somehow, it did not occur to me that the school could be closed, as the summer season had already begun. When I arrived in Prague and reached the front door of the school, everything was closed, the building was under renovation. There was not a soul to be seen. I guess I read it as some sort of sign. Soon, I was faced with other problems. I rebelled a lot and got kicked out of school. I was sent to a secondary school for troubled teens. It was all very painful. I was an oversensitive, miserable child. I did not feel like I fit in anywhere: neither at school, nor at home, not anywhere. I lost all self-confidence. I gave up the dream of studying directing and I chose cultural anthropology and photography instead.
K.B.: And what about directing? You never even applied?
A.Z.: I did not have the courage. I was watching films by Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer thinking that I could not possibly compare with them so why bother. But I never stopped coming up with ideas and, at some point, I realized that one day, sooner or later, I will have to get some painful stories off of my chest.
Ola from Communion – is that you?
A.Z.: There is a lot of her in me. Of course, the exact experiences are not mine, but in the film there are many emotional images inspired by my own life. That is why I would not be capable of shooting that film in a more detached way, with no emotional involvement. I was interested in the situation of a child who is forced to suddenly grow up and take responsibility for others. At first, I contemplated making a short fiction film on that subject matter and I even started writing the script. But when I met Ola, I decided to make a documentary. For me, Ola and Nikodem in Communion constitute one person, who reminds me of myself. It was an intuitive rather than a carefully though-out idea. I felt that I was not looking for an external, but an internal purpose. It was all about the need to work through a personal, very difficult experience. Communion was a form of purification. Together with the characters in that movie, I went through a long therapeutic process.
K.B.: It is worth making films not just to learn about the world, but also about yourself. It is a unique privilege that comes with that profession. We live other people’s lives, which become part of our own life.
A.Z.: It would certainly be more difficult for me to tell that story from the perspective of Ola’s mother, because I do not have children of my own. But I would like to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Get closer to the unfamiliar.
K.B.: I think that this is what filmmaking is all about – finding “yourself” in the unknown. When I began preparing for the film about Marianna, I did not have much knowledge about being transgender. It was a topic that I had not had to deal with before. But later, it turned out that I could relate to Marianna, I could understand her. However, I was not trying to make a film about transgender people, it was meant to talk about the need for acceptance and freedom. I kept thinking that I am making that film for my little son, to show him what is important to me. After watching Call me Marianna, he said: Mommy, that was the most boring film in the whole world. Oh, well… We invest our entire selves into each film we make, that is why it is important what we get out of them, it is important that we grow thanks to them.
frame from Communion, source: Aurora Films
I represent the audience in this conversation. And I can say that I always see myself reflected in your films. I am Ola, Marianna, Anna, Karolina…
K.B.: What is required for that to occur is the artist’s true involvement and passion. And – although it might sound risky – not caring about the audience. The viewer should certainly not be treated as a fetish. I see directing as a sort of calling, not a profession. If I was to spend my time wondering whether what I was about to shoot or write would appeal to the audience, I would not be able to do anything. Weighing up whether something will pay off paralyses me. While making a film, you bring a new being, a new life, a new organism into the world. At some point, the film goes out into the world, the umbilical cord gets cut, but if at any point I was to wonder whether people would like it or how many viewers it would attract to the cinema, I would rather not do it at all. I would feel that it kills the sincerity and sincerity is what matters the most. I must admit, it was not how I felt from the beginning. Before, even if I received a very poorly written script, but one which came with a real opportunity of making it, I would be in. Because before, I would do anything to be able to work. But now I know that I will either make a film the way I deem fit, or I will not do it at all.
Karolina mentioned before that Communion has a narrative structure. I should also add: it has a very precisely thought-out structure. Anna, how did you figure out the form for your film, having no educational background in filmmaking?
A.Z.: It is true that I do not have a formal education, but it does not mean I was just improvising, going with the flow without any preparation. It was a long process. I met my characters in 2012 and we did not start shooting until two years later. Communion is a fairly simple film, also in its form. It is a rather typical coming-of-age story, even though writing the script took me over a year. At first, I struggled with telling the story right. It lacked something to hold it together. I did not know where to start or end it. But when I came up with the idea of Nikodem’s communion, it all fell into place. It was not even about the hero going through a process that changes him. The communion turned out to be a good metaphor for Ola’s initiation into adulthood and a pretext to tell the audience about her situation.
The decision to shoot in a small, cramped apartment also determined some of the formal solutions. The camera was not always able to follow the action, nor did it need to. I wanted the movement of the camera to reflect an emotional interpretation, reflect the relationship between the characters, resonate with the tensions between them and the way they react to each other. Many scenes were told through portraits. The camera in Communion is not an impartial observer, its movement corresponds to the emotions of each scene and helps express them. I decided against using additional lighting – very often, the only source of light is a TV set that is constantly on or a small bed lamp. This allowed me to capture the atmosphere of that place. I wanted the viewer to be able to feel it.
Karolina, when you were making your film about Marianna, you lived her life for many months, as was the case with Anna and Ola during their work on Communion. Is that a burdening experience?
K.B.: In the back of your head you always have this thought that even despite your best intentions, you could actually harm your subject. When you are making a film, you get in contact with real life, flesh-and-blood people. I also had to bear in mind that my film was about Marianna, a person who has gone through so much in her life and has been hurt in every way imaginable. However, I also wanted to avoid creating a sweetened paean to my protagonist. The responsibility for your subjects is a heavy burden imposed on the artist in a documentary film. During the shooting of Warsaw Available, I suffered from nightmares. One was stubbornly recurrent: in my dream, I was following my heroine with my camera while carrying her arm, torn off from the rest of her body, and saying: We will shoot a bit more, just a little longer. That is how subconsciousness works. Sometimes, we can feel like we are parasites. Actually, someone posted on my Facebook wall that in Call me Marianna I feed off human suffering. I try not to let it get to me, because I know that thanks to my film Marianna received what she had always wanted – acceptance.
Karolina Bielawska’s Call me Marianna, poster by Agata Kulik, source: Solopan
Is there any line in the relationship between the director and the subject that you cannot cross?
K.B.: I do not know if there is such a line. I guess it depends on your instincts, your intuition, your defense mechanisms. My relationship with Marianna was so profound and so difficult that at this point I cannot imagina finding the energy to start making another documentary. I need to take a break. It cost me too much.
A.Z.: It seems like insomnia is an occupational disease among filmmakers. Ever since I started shooting the film, there has been a question hanging over me of whether I actually have the right to take such a big risk. Whether I have the right to use someone else’s life to work through my own emotions. And I do not think it matters that my intentions are noble, that I want to present my subjects in a good light, because it is still possible to hurt someone unintentionally. I can only imagine how painful it must be for a person to be confronted with their own image in a film. Even if it is not painful today, then it might be in a few years’ time. After all, we usually perceive ourselves differently from how others see us. Sometimes we think better of ourselves, sometimes worse, mostly just differently. We each have our own image of ourselves and we have a right to that. In the case of Communion, what made matters even more complicated was the fact that I was filming children, including one on the autism spectrum – I had an advantage over them in every possible way, I knew they could not defend themselves or set boundaries. Even though I know that the entire family received the film very well, that it helped them and brought them together, I am a little afraid that Ola might resent me because of it when she grows up.
K.B.: There is only one solution. Before making a film, or even after shooting it, I ask myself the question: did I do right by my subject?
A.Z.: But who could answer such a question?
K.B.: Nobody else but me. No-one on the outside. This is what responsibility and honesty is about in this profession. Marianna truly likes the film about herself, but the girls from Warsaw Available had all sorts of issues with us. I completely understand it, but, at the same time, I am capable of accepting that burden, because I know that I made that film in the way I believe was right.
A.Z.: And yet, you just said yourself that you must take a break from documentaries. That making Call me Marianna was an extremely overwhelming experience.
K.B.: Overwhelming on a human leval, not for cinematic reasons. Marianna’s illness was what got the better of me. I visited her in the hospital every day. I was the one bathing her and brushing her hair. I was the one worrying whether she was going to be okay, whether she would survive or not, who would take care of her, where would she live and how could she earn a living.
A.Z.: It is a very complex issue. Both of our movies are so powerful partly because we both, as artists, developed an authentic, strong bond with our subjects. Feeling responsible for your characters is the price for that, but I do not think it is too high a price to pay. I am truly glad that Ola and Nikodem are still in my life after filming ended. I really appreciate being friends with them, even though it can be hard sometimes.
In his autobiography O sobie, Krzysztof Kieślowski wrote: I am afraid of genuine tears, I do not know if I have the right to film them. I feel like someone who has trespassed upon some forbidden areas. This is the main reason why I ran away from documentaries.
A.Z.: These were the exact reasons why, after making Communion, I started contemplating quitting documentary filmmaking.
Anna Zamecka, fot. Przemek Dzienis, źródło: Aurora Films
We keep talking about your subjects, but the structure of a documentary film and the idea of how to piece it all together is equally important.
K.B.: First, you need to do research and know the reality surrounding your subject, so that you can distill from it what you find useful. Before I even started shooting, I learned the ins and outs of Marianna’s life. I knew that she was part of a support group for transgender people, that she went to the doctor and to church, that she worked. I was finding out more and more details. But at some point, I had to tell myself to stop. I would not be able to use everything I had and I already knew what I wanted the film to be about anyway. I started the selection process, picking and choosing. I was certain that by looking at Marianna’s life, I wanted to tell the story of her need for acceptance and normality. I purposefully disregarded all the issues revolving around the LGBT community, the Miss Trans beauty pageant and so on – not because I do not find it fascinating, but because, as a director, I simply chose a different narrative. What was important to me was that Marianna was seeing her doctor and going to church, that she had a strong need to be just like any other woman. That was her biggest dream. With that in mind, I focused on filming her in everyday life situations, among people, on a bus, in the hospital or at work in the Warsaw metro station, where she was in charge of passengers’ safety. These were the aspects that seemed crucial to the story.
Both Communion and Call me Marianna are probably the two most awarded Polish documentaries of the last season, but Polish documentary cinema seems to be doing well in general. Next to some big names, there are many new directors and titles.
K.B.: It is actually safe to call it a boom in documentary filmmaking. Zofia Kowalewska’s Close Ties (Więzi, 2016) and Agnieszka Elbanowska’s Polonaise (Polonez, 2016) are brilliant films. Young filmmakers are making truly great films at the moment. This is why I worry what is going to happen to us now. I would not want a documentary to serve as a tool for propaganda, to become a genre for hire. I can see with my own example that some censorship is already being practiced. A television broadcast of Call me Marianna was suspended. Polish Institutes and other institutions co-financed by the government are blocking abroad screenings of my film, which I do not understand at all, as it is not a political film, it does not take sides. We have always been a country of opposites. On one hand, we are conservative, but on the other, Anna Grodzka was the first transgender member of Parliament in the world. Public television cancelled the television premiere of Call me Marianna, but the film has captivated audiences at festivals throughout the country – in Warsaw, Krakow, Ińsk, Września and many other towns and cities. This gives me hope that we are not as vicious and fossilized as it sometimes seems. Perhaps we are not so bad, after all?
It is striking that it is mainly female directors who are responsible for that boom in documentary filmmaking. Contrary to the male-dominated feature cinema, for the last few years, the world of Polish documentary cinema has been ruled by fascinating women artists: not only the two of you, but also Zofia Kowalewska, Magda Hueckel, Agnieszka Zwiefka, Monika Pawluczuk, Emi Buchwald, Katarzyna Trzaska, Teresa Czepiec, Monika Kotecka, Aleksandra Maciuszek, Ola Terpińska… All powerful female voices in Polish documentary.
K.B.: On one hand, it is obviously very good news, on the other, there is a whole debate about certain mechanisms in the film industry. Women have to constantly prove that they can make films. Even from a purely financial standpoint, it is much easier to find the money for a documentary than a fiction film. It is much more difficult for women to break through to narrative films, not to mention TV series or commercials. That world is almost completely dominated by men, female directors are hard to come by. I think this is telling.
Karolina Bielawska, from the film director’s archive
A.Z.: Only after the premiere of Communion did I realize that the film had been made almost entirely by women. I had to repeatedly explain myself during interviews and meet-the-audience sessions. But there was no conspiracy there, I did not mean to make any sort of statement. The editor Agnieszka Glińska and the cinematographer Gosia Szyłak are simply brilliant artists with amazing personalities – this is why I invited them to work on the film with me. I did not care about their gender. In cinema, a man’s presence is self-explanatory, obvious, while a woman is still considered an aberration. Moreover, she has to prove she has the “balls”, but once she has proven that, she will be criticized for it. I am sometimes told by my colleagues – both male and, unfortunately, female – that I am a difficult person. If I was a man, that is not what they would call it. I would not be “difficult”, but assertive and decisive. I want to be in control of all aspects of a film, I never give up on things, which raises eyebrows and sometimes even provokes aggression. The same qualities are valued in men. They do not have to fight against existing cultural stereotypes. A male director has a vision and knows what he wants, while a female director is a “quarrelsome, whimsical hag”. My gender keeps being brought up. Not long ago, during one of the festivals, some young man told me in a surprised tone: I pictured you as an ugly fatty in a hoodie.
K.B.: Being a good director is not enough, you have to be better than men. But at least, thanks to that mentality, we have such brilliant female directors in Poland.
Is it the same abroad?
K.B.: The extent of it varies, but yes, you hit the same glass ceiling everywhere.
The question remains: what can we do about it?
K.B.: We have to act rather than just sit and wait. We should not say that there is nothing that can be done.
A.Z.: A few years ago, when filmmakers were struggling with producing their debuts, the issue was solved in a systemic way, to the advantage of Polish cinematography. Polish cinema still has an issue with gender and I agree with Karolina that we should do something about it, we should try to find some systemic solutions, even if temporary, to even out the chances for male and female artists. Reality will not change by itself.
Translated by Małgorzata Szubartowska
Keywords: Karolina Bielawska, Anna Zamecka, Call me Marianna, Communion, documentary film, woman’s cinema
Karolina Bielawska – film director who graduated in filmmaking from the Krzysztof Kieślowski Faculty of Radio and Television University of Silesia in Katowice and from Wajda School in Warsaw. She has directed short fiction films and documentary features, which have been screened and awarded at numerous festivals in Poland and abroad. Her latest film Call me Marianna received 25 awards at festivals in Poland and abroad, including festivals in Krakow, Locarno, Petersburg, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Kiev, Lisbon, Chicago and Los Angeles. She was awarded with the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist award for her directorial debut in 2016. She was nominated for “Polityka” Passports in the “Film” category.
Anna Zamecka – director, screenwriter and producer. She studied journalism, cultural anthropology and photography in Warsaw and Copenhagen. She completed the DOK PRO Documentary Programme in Wajda School. Her feature debut Communion received numerous awards at international festivals, including the Grand Prix at the 69th Locarno Festival in the La Semaine de la Critique section and the Polish Film Academy Award “Orły” 2017 for best documentary. It was also shortlisted among the 15 documentary films recommended for the European Film Awards 2017.
Łukasz Maciejewski – film historian, film and theatre critic. Member of the European Film Academy, the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT) and the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). Programming director of the “Kino na Granicy” festival in Cieszyn. Professor in the Acting department of the Lodz Film School, as well as in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at SWPS University. Author of numerous book publications (Przygoda myśli , Aktorki. Spotkania , Wszystko jest lekko dziwne , Flirtując z życiem , Aktorki. Portrety ), co-operating on a regular basis with several magazines, columnist for Onet.pl web portal, expert for the Polish National Film Institute, HBO channel and commentator for Tygodnik Kulturalny on the TVP Kultura channel. Recipient of numerous awards and distinctions in journalism, including “Uskrzydlony”, “Dziennikarska Wena” and “Złota Róża” awards for “bringing a new quality to film criticism”.