Dorota Semenowicz: You made the feature films Warsaw 44 and Golgota wrocławska (Wrocław Golgotha), as well as the documentary Powstanie Warszawskie (Warsaw Uprising). Now, you are working on a show to be part of the Poznań June ‘56 celebrations. For someone who has said in interviews that he is not a great fan of history, that’s quite a lot...
Jan Komasa: History simply provides many incredible stories, and these interest me the most. It’s difficult to reach such events in the present, while they are actually happening. Besides, history can be told without hurting anyone. Golgota wrocławska is based on facts, and many of the people who participated in those events have died. Some might say, “So, you can get away with attacking them now?” No, but they can become more powerful symbols in film. For example, one person represents one type of ideology, and another person a different one; yet another person rebels because “that’s what others are doing.” History is easier to shoot. Its disadvantage is that it seems passé, that it doesn’t concern us any more. My whole effort is to bring history closer through film. I want to show the viewer that history is the same as what is happening today, only it happened yesterday, but the formula of life has not changed. There are frustrated people who take revenge. There are conformists who, instead of raising a yellow or red card at the right moment, think that “things will somehow work out”, and wake up one day to a different reality. This applies to lesser attitudes as much as major decisions, and you can keep track of these with many lenses, both macro and wide-angle ones. This is more difficult with reality because everyone knows it. Everyone is an expert on reality. It’s easier to say, “Come on, that’s not what Poland looks like.” This happened with Suicide Room which was criticized for, among other things, telling the story of people who don’t exist, for being some kind of comic book exaggeration, and so on.
About Warsaw 44, people also said, “No, that’s not what the uprising was like…”
I decided to apply my own filter to Warsaw 44, to translate a piece of history that happened 70 years ago into a language of kitsch and pop culture, to simply make a colourful motion picture. This, of course, shocked people. In Poland, people like realistic films, films that don’t use metaphors, that don’t go wild with conventions. Otherwise, people become upset that they don’t understand, or that they might understand, but nobody taught them how. “Can’t you just show it in a normal way, for ordinary people?”. But why would you want to be a particle in the daily stream that flows through the Internet and television? Sometimes, it’s worth adding a touch of colour to this stream. But doesn’t the historical context put some restrictions on imagination? How much time did you spend going through archives when you made Warsaw 44? Were you actually interested in archives? Archives really don’t sound very sexy, but they are extremely appealing. Once you get into them and overcome your dislike of history, you can find many interesting things. For a filmmaker, just like for a detective, anything can be evidence. In the case of Warsaw 44, I collected newspaper clippings, I met with people, I recorded conversations. And then I didn’t even have time to look through it all. But this approach puts my mind at rest. It gives me the feeling that I have touched what I am recounting. Knowing what something looked like, I can show it in my own way. Even if someone complains that this was not what happened… But this is what films do. They pave the way for generalisations, providing an artistic loophole for metaphors and shortcuts. Sometimes, a film needs a stronger accent.
Did you also look for this stronger accent in the June 1956 archives?
I didn’t really have much to choose from. With newsreel films, it was the same as with propaganda-based television: something very important was happening, but they didn’t show it. Camera operators were not allowed to shoot. Somewhere, perhaps, there are still some operational documents of the law enforcement agencies, and we are trying to reach these. But there is no official footage, because why would you film something that opposes you?
What about photographs?
There are some photos, but these were taken in secret, not to show the magnitude of the event, but to see people’s faces. They were meant to help identify the participants, and to catch them afterwards. The demonstrations turned into anti-government protests and almost no one recorded this. Someone took twenty photos from a window and that was all (which is still a lot). Photo cameras were censored at the time and film cameras even more so. We will reconstruct what we have, a bit like in the Powstanie warszawskie documentary. We will see a piece of history as if it were filmed yesterday. We want to recount not only the June ‘56 events, but to begin the story earlier, just after the war.
Do you want to show what led to the 1956 events, to create a visual genesis of the uprising?
We want to show how the country was recovering. We will see Poznań, and also some other cities. Slowly, people were trying to piece together their broken lives, brick by brick. And once they managed to do this to some extent, they started to work, and then work more and more. The ideology made them work so much that in the end they couldn’t take it. Just like in Battleship Potemkin: overload, oppression and protests. Other cities experienced a similar reality. It’s quite amazing that Poznań was the first to rise up. There is a picture in the Museum of 1956 in Poznań showing the sheer size of the protesting crowd. It shows lawns which no one stepped on, so that they wouldn’t trample the grass. In Warsaw, no one would have cared. They would have already climbed the trees. Warsaw has anarchy in its spirit, and if there is any kind of demonstration it means that shopfronts will be set on fire. In Poznań, on the other hand, everybody is walking in rows. But it was here that people were motivated en masse to take to the streets for the first time.
What do you find the most interesting in their story?
How their rebellion came to a head. We have all experienced this, this moment of becoming a separate, more conscious being. There’s something incredibly creative in that moment, something that every individual in the world goes through. It can be symbolized by a revolution, like the one in Poznań or the Warsaw Uprising, but it can also be a period in someone’s personal life. I have always been fascinated, touched by this moment. It reminds me of the act of being reborn. It is an act of expressing yourself, of the becoming of the will, of discovering courage. There are people who do not find this courage in themselves. Apparently, on their deathbeds, they regret that they hadn’t been more courageous.
Do you think that people shouldn’t go through life as conformists?
Obviously, that’s the easiest way out. You don’t suffer, you don’t pay any price. This applies to school, work, relationships, family. To be yourself, you have to be defiant. Not at all costs, because you need to do this wisely. But you mustn’t miss that moment. The price of non-defiance is horrendous. In my opinion, it can amount to a failed life. And I’m not talking about sacrifice; it’s about something else, about giving in. What interests me in the uprising in Poznań is how this revolution happened on that particular day. I think most of the participants didn’t want to go out on the street. But suddenly two or three people looked each other in the eye and said, “Are we going? Yes, let’s go!” And this is what is wonderful in all these acts and social revolutions, and also in personal revolutions and in artistic encounters.
Did ploughing through the archives of the stalinist period or the Warsaw Uprising change you in any way? Did it affect your perception of the past?
It definitely affected me. History even made me late for my plane to China where we were presenting Warsaw 44. We had an hour’s stopover in Moscow. I suddenly realized I had to tell my daughter what I knew about the Warsaw Uprising and about why Poland was what it was today. I made a clear presentation beginning with Hitler’s rise to power and ending with the present. It was the most expensive private lesson in my life.
Do you think that this kind of contact with history can teach us anything?
I think so, but not everyone will get good grades in this lesson. Among our dancers there are people from Brazil, Spain, Italy, Ukraine and Belarus. They all ask a lot of questions about Poland. I told them recently: “When it comes to Jews in Poland, if it wasn’t for World War II, one third of us today would have Jewish names: Rachel, Ari; you would probably be directed by an Adam Schwartzman. There were so many people of Jewish origin here.” “Really? How many?” they asked, to which I responded, “One third of the population of Warsaw was Jewish.” History is unbelievable. It makes us aware that, in the context of the past, what we have now is completely new. We have never been as homogeneous as today. I explained to our dancers that history had dispossessed us of all colour, that we lack the otherness which had once existed here and was so much needed today. We yearned for it during the era of Clinton, the Wolf of Wall Street, NBA and Sesame Street, up until the September 11 attacks. Afterwards, we became members of the European Union, so our sights shifted from the USA towards London, and we started to look to Europe. And now, people who return from Europe to Poland tell us how “white and Catholic” Poland is.
I have a feeling that history doesn’t teach us anything, because we feel morally superior to our predecessors. Recently, I organised a meeting about the poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and had to research various accounts from the period just after World War II. I’m beginning to believe that xenophobia, racism and anti-semitism are our national traits. Even communism in Poland was rightist.
This is a type of unchanging attitude, something deeply embedded in Poles. And this is why our project about Poznań ‘56 is called Ksenophony: from “xeno” which means “other” and from “symphony” – a symphony for others. Our commitment to homogeneity, the expelling of foreign elements, sending people “back” (wherever that is) from the Gdańsk Station, as if they were “from there”, is absurd. It’s Sweden and Norway that are genetically homogeneous. We are a country situated on a tectonic plate between the East and the West. But it’s hard to accept that you might be part blue, part green and part yellow. It’s much easier to be Catho-white. Still, this attitude is quite strange. Mikołaj Mikołajczyk, the choreographer with whom I am making the show, runs a theatre with senior citizens. He has told me how these elderly people, who can be called the essence of “Polishness” due to the values they profess, have accepted him in all his otherness: some lunatic from Warsaw who wants them to do strange things. They have accepted him because they concluded that he was honest. You may think that you see a wall, but it turns out that this wall has flexible edges. I think that Catholicism has softened Poles, and they seem to be saying: “I might disagree, but after all, this is also a person.” Another such “Miracle at the Vistula” is happening right now in Słupsk with Robert Biedroń. The “leftist on a bike”, the “broad bean, humus and soup greens” was accepted as town mayor because people saw him as a person. This is our own paradoxical philosophy of hospitality.
This “Miracle at the Vistula” in Poland is a standard in other countries?
I think that we simply aren’t able to identify ourselves. I have a lot of friends in the Czech Republic, and interestingly, they have no need to be always getting up from their knees. I asked them why, and they said, “We know it makes no sense. There are only ten million of us. We are too small and don’t even try because it would be stupid.” As a country, Poland is too small for everyone to respect us, but it is also too big to not be respected by anyone. This is our problem, and it makes us try to prove something all the time. We are always trying to be cooler: “Look at me. I’m a Pole. I want to be cool.” We are constantly in the process of becoming and have no established brand. Maybe two or three generations from now we will laugh at these efforts.
Can cinematography take part in establishing this brand?
Absolutely. Cinematography is a country’s showcase. If two films from one country compete at Cannes then that is a big deal. Cannes is a bit like a rating agency. If you are there your rating is good. When Ida won an Oscar, it was a bit like I won it too, as well as everyone else. However you look at it, this sense of community is very tough. When someone is on the red carpet, it’s impossible to get rid of the thought that you’re being followed by these thirty-eight million people.
Do you, as a film director, want to be involved in the building of this community?
Unconsciously, yes; consciously, no; because this would mean that I’m censoring myself. I don’t want to force anything.
And how do you want to make the viewers follow you?
I have always dreamt of cinema that embraces an element of drawing the viewer into the represented world, as opposed to cinematography which only plays with form. Dostoyevsky was a great writer; Mozart was a great composer; Shakespeare, if he existed, was a great playwright: all because the things they created drew us in. This element is essential but it must be counterbalanced by reflection, something that stays with you and which you refer to. This applies to everything: from painting and photography to film and video. The best things come from the combination of these two elements: the artistic and the popular. If something is purely artistic it loses its range, and if something is only popular it loses depth. That’s what I like in art: you use it to push this Trojan horse towards people. Something is cool, it sparkles and shines, it’s colourful. Someone looks and looks at it... and the suddenly they exclaim, “Wow! It really means something!”