Animated film director and screenwriter, feature film set designer and writer.
Born 9.07.1956 in Warsaw.
Dumała studied art conservation (specializing in stone sculpture) as well as, for two years, animation at the Graphic Art Faculty under the well-known animated film director Daniel Szczechura, both at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. By the time he graduated in 1982, he had made his directing debut with the animated film Lykantropia / Lycantrophy. Presently Dumała teaches animation at the Łódź Film, Television and Theatre School as well as being a writer. He has his prose published in installments (the novel Ederly in the magazine Kino), and a collection of his short stories Gra w żyletki appeared in print in 2000.
Dumała boasts a number of animated film awards, including Stanisław Wyspiański Young Artists Award in 1986, Wielki FeFe Award for "doing his own thing in the cinema" at the 10th FEFE Film Festival in Warsaw in 2003 and Luna de Valencia Award for Life Achievement in 2003. He is also the winner of Grand Prix awards at the film festivals in Krakow, Mannheim, Łagów, Oberhausen and Huesca, and of prizes for his commercial work, such as title sequences for music programmes, including Gold Award of Broadcast Designers' Association in Olrlando for Charlatan, MTV logo, in 1994 and Gold Award at the 1996 Los Angeles Festival for Kafka meets Dostoevsky.
Dorota Szwarcman calls Dumała "almost a cult figure nowadays" (Wprost, 26 March 2000) and Jacek Dobrowolski (Kino 6/2002) hails him as "a magician of animated film for adults". Bożena Jędrzejczak (Film 35/1993), in turns, points to an unprecedented phenomenon in Polish cinema at large:
"It is not Kieślowski, Wajda or Pasikowski who are the most sought-after, loved and welcome of Polish filmmakers at almost all of the world's festivals. It is Piotr Dumała."
What is so special about Dumała? Many film critics and essayists have tried to answer this question, and Dumała has helped them through what he has said and written about animation in general and his own work in particular. He comes across as an artist who is aware of both his art and of the objectives he sets for himself. The only thing which is missing from that image of his are references to his predecessors, the earlier great Polish animated filmmakers whose successor and, whether he likes it or not, a continuator he is. This relationship acquired a symbolic significance when Dumała played a main part in Wyspa R.O., the last work by the classic of animation, Jan Lenica.
As it happens, it was Lenica who, together with Walerian Borowczyk, had named the goals of animated films - that is the topics they can, and should, address. According to them, animation should leave behind the superficial fun of a cat running after a mouse to communicate serious, profound and sophisticated messages. In line with that, the older generation of animators addressed philosophical, satirical and social issues and focused on existential concerns and obsessions related to the civilization and atrocities of war, softening the effect with grotesque, absurd and black humour. Some, like Daniel Szczechura in his Fatamorgana, came close to surrealism.
Those goals - somewhat modified - are important for Dumała, too, who confided in interview about his film Franz Kafka to Tadeusz Sobolewski (Kino, 6/1992):
"Animation has traditionally used conventional figures, looking like Bolek and Lolek - flat men without shadows or space. And when someone starts - like I do - to use shadows (all of my 'drawn' lights and shadows were underlined with real lights or shadows), he is said to copy feature films. ... People generally think that animation is either flat kid cartoons or esoteric avant-garde. The truth is that animation does not copy 'the real cinema'. It is 'the real cinema'."
Dumała believes that, like features, animated films, too, reflect real life and re-create the internal narration that goes on in the minds, imaginations or dreams of their makers. His view is essential to understanding the success of his films - and of their public reception as films about real people and real problems, even though they do not have real actors.
Some of Dumała's films are works of a lesser weight. Made on the foundations laid by his predecessors, they include Lykantropia, his debut, and Czarny Kapturek / Little Black Riding Hood, a black humour fairy tale for grownups (although Dumała called it a 'psychological film' when interviewed by Krzysztof Biedrzycki, Kino 16/1986). Here belong also his sketches from the series Nerwowe życie, the film Latające włosy / Flying Hair and the grotesque Wolność nogi / Freedom of the Leg, whose atmosphere is evocative of Gorejące palce by Dumała's teacher, Daniel Szczechura. Yet Dumała's masterpieces - his most talked about, admired and valued animations - are, surprisingly, his psychological films which move away from the Polish animated filmmaking tradition. These include more or less faithful adaptations of literary classics as well as psychological portraits of the authors, such as Łagodna / The Gentle One after a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka about the author of The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis, based largely on Kafka's Diaries, and a half-an-hour-plus long adaptation of Dostoevsky' most famous novel, Crime and Punishment.
"After all, feature films are man-made, too. The people, the objects, the light and the time are invented .... Even documentaries are sometimes invented," says Dumała in an interview given to the documentary filmmaker Maciej Drygas (Kwartalnik Filmowy 19-20/1997).
Indeed, Dumała's characters are not only filmed as real actors - the play and behave as real people. This is what Barbara Kosecka wrote about the film Franz Kafka (Kwartalnik Filmowy 19-20/1997): "The figures move with an indescribable fluidity and flexibility " ... [The expressiveness] of "animated images is so great that even a motionless face expresses a sensual, vibrant living".
No wonder, than, that Dumała's Zbrodnia i kara / Crime and Punishment goes as far as presenting highly complex relationships between its many characters and develops a number of themes. The inspiration came from the films of the Russian director Yuri Norstein:
"In animation you can show reactions which are impossible in reality, for instance a man standing in a fire and laughing. Yet is it much more fascinating to show that the beings created by myself respond like living people, they think and observe," says Dumała (Kino 9/1990).
Dumała's deliberate references to feature films started from Łagodna / The Gentle One, in which, as observed by Krzysztof Biedrzycki (Kino 10/1986), "he adopted the 'big cinema' effects of camera movement, fast editing cuts, contrasting shots". In Franz Kafka and Zbrodnia i kara / Crime and Punishment Dumała has used fast editing cuts, multiple foregrounds and backgrounds and three-dimensionality to create an impression of a photography-like perspective.
Dumała is, however, closer to the silent cinema, that is to the films which are more conventionalized than sound movies but, because of that, the messages they convey are purer. Like in the silent cinema, Dumała's animations have no dialogues - not even his thirty-four minutes' long Zbrodnia i kara. A compensation for the character's internal life is offered by the sound whose powerful realism also opens up alternative meanings and interpretations while maintaining purity of the form. For Dumała never forgets that it is animations he makes - such as when he applies ideas which are only possible in animation alongside the ones borrowed from features. Take Łagodna, Dumała's animation in which a table turns into a bed and a clock becomes a square, and a huge spider is growing under the table as a symbol of the mounting threat of an emotional disaster for the film's two characters, the young woman and her much older husband. Or take Franz Kafka, whose protagonist transforms himself several times, finally becoming a dog.
Dumała's animations have provoked a variety of critical insights, the early ones emphasizing the diversity of his pursuits (Krzysztof Biedrzycki, Kino 10/1986). In contrast, nowadays critics tend to stress the coherence of his work - though they divide it into two main currents. The first one, started from Dumała's debut Lykantropia, includes also Czarny Kapturek, Nerwowe życie kosmosu, Latające włosy, Wolność nogi, Nerwowe życie and Ściany / Walls (while conveying a different message, Ściany share the first current's characteristics of having no express hero). The other current includes Dumała's adaptations, that is Łagodna, Franz Kafka and Zbrodnia i kara.
Dumała himself points to the consistency of his animations and writing, the link provided by the logic of dreams and references to his own mind with its obsessions, anxieties and sensations. He says he experiences things with his characters and identifies himself with them, be they literary figures or not. He compares animated films to dreams, implying that dreams are works which are ready to be written down or produced (Kino 1/2003). Critics, too, point to the logic of dreams in Dumała's writing and filmmaking (for instance Marcin Giżycki, Nie tylko Disney: rzecz o filmie animowanym, Warsaw 2000). The difference between his lesser-weight and heavier-weight animations is that the former, akin to surrealism, are fully governed by the logic of dreams (a man wakes up, puts his feet on the floor and drowns, the floor turning to be a lake), while the latter may resemble a continuum of nightmares, yet their bits and pieces make realistic and psychologically true tales, such as in the story of Kafka's life (Franz Kafka) or the tale of Raskolnikov the murderer of the usurer (Zbrodnia i kara).
One cannot but trust Dumała's claim that both kinds of his animations are very personal, a characteristic which is seen as another strength by viewers who find in them depth and authenticity which they often miss in feature films. Here they can watch a world populated by flesh and blood people and at the same time they can touch mystery - including the mystery of existence. "We are moving towards the metaphysical cinema," says Dumała (Kino 10/1989), who reaches out for Dostoevsky and Kafka, that is literature which, as was pointed out by Małgorzata Karbowiak (Film 34/1988), is hardly translatable "into pictures". According to Karbowiak, the more "unsuitable a topic is for a film, the more interesting is the production". Dumała himself says he wants his films "to be marked by simplicity, yet to contain a mystery," something even he sometimes fails to understand (Machina 12/1998).
Viewers of most of Dumała's films are able recognize his work after they have seen the first shots - a thing which does not happen in the case of most filmmakers and which is a result of animation on plaster panels, an innovative technique which Dumała invented based on his experience as a student of stone sculpture conservation at the Fine Arts Academy. Writes Marcin Giżycki (Kwartalnik Filmowy 19-20/1997):
"It would seem that there is nothing that has not been animated since the first screening by the brothers Lumière. There have been reliefs in thick pain layers and collages from old drawings, sand castles and drawings made directly on the film, pin screens and computer-generated pictures. Piotr Dumała is one of the few contemporary artists to have been able to add something new to this ... list of techniques. ... Painting and re-painting, scratching and scrubbing a picture he achieves beautiful, soft transitions between sequences and a surprisingly rich texture which brings to mind a painter's canvass."
It seems perfectly valid to say that Dumała would be different - interesting, but one of many - had he not started to use the plaster panel technique. Indeed, some of his films may not have been made, and it would have been difficult for him to make his drawn characters look alive, realistic and able to experience emotions as well as - and this is particularly evident in Zbrodnia i kara - to make them unique and expressive and seem to have their own internal lives and individual, distinguishing traits. This was pointed out by Małgorzata Karbowiak when she wrote about Łagodna, Dumała's second film made with the use of engraving on plaster, hailed by the critics his first masterpiece to have demonstrated the full strengths of this unique technique of his.
"An astonishingly difficult task has been accomplished: that of showing two people who, while living side by side, cannot establish mutual contact, and at the same time of giving it a universal appeal - the task of making a philosophical as well as psychological film", wrote Karbowiak. "Philosophy is much easier to achieve in animated cinema; psychology comes much harder."
This is what Dumała, who according to Karbowiak has found 'a technique which perfectly serves the purpose', said in an interview with Krzysztof Biedrzycki (Film 16/1986):
"I wanted to try to make an animated psychological film. Animated films are supposed to be either fun or sublime artistic visions. I wanted to enter the human mind, to prove that animation is suitable for presenting the most central human issues."
Marcin Giżycki, in turn, wrote (Nie tylko Disney...):
"The full potential of plaster boards was demonstrated ... by the two films after Dostoevsky, Łagodna and Zbrodnia i kara. Today these works are hard to imagine made using some other technique. The thick drawing and texture and the extraordinary fluidity of animation achieved through the transformation of a starting picture instead of replacing it with another the way classical cartoons do can only be compared with the effects obtained by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker with the use of another unique technique, the pinscreen. ... The plaster technique has proven particularly suitable for bringing to daylight the huge spiders and other phantoms from the characters' souls."
Watching Dumała's films we seem to commune with the great masters of European painting, a feeling which is confirmed by him when interviewed by Krzysztof Biedrzycki (Film 16/1986):
"Latające włosy and Łagodna were made, besides myself, by Munch, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Redon, Daumier."
And this is another strength of Dumała's animations made using plaster boards - that is of most of his works. He approaches them the way the old masters did, covering the boards with a layer of paint to provide the background. Baroque inspirations are particularly noticeable (Latające włosy, Łagodna), shades of brown, white and black dominating and other colours seldom used (Zbrodnia i kara). When writing about Łagodna (Kino 10/1986), Krzysztof Biedrzycki is right to observe that the blacks and browns "create an atmosphere of hopelessness, of the two characters being trapped", while the red wine in a glass and the red of the woman's dress are like a scream. And there is a real scream in Łagodna: at one point the woman's face becomes shaped like the face from Edvard Munch's famous painting, which is a strikingly literal device.
There are more such references to works by and quotations from old masters in Dumała's animations, and they provide extra meanings as well as introducing clear cultural signs, a trick which attracts the viewers' attention, a sophisticated post-modernist game which the artist fully controls. Jacek Dobrowolski has called Dumała "a spiritual cousin of the Quay Brothers (...) the magicians of the avant-garde animated filmmaking". Like they, he too
"traverses the stormy waters of liberated imagination which were earlier sailed across by other visionary symbolists: Goya and Max Ernst, Odilon Redon, Daniel Mróz, Edward Gorey, Jonathan Swift, Kafka, Borges and Edgar Allan Poe".
The world he creates, however, is his very own:
"It is a kingdom of night and darkness, dreams and shadows, where silhouettes emerge from the dark and stay in semi-darkness, never appearing in bright daylight (...) It is the world of a child amazed with the beauty and cruelty of the World" (Kino 6/2002).
This is what Dumała says about it in an interview with Małgorzata Pawłowska-Tomaszek (Kwartalnik Filmowy 19-20/1997):
"What interests me in filmmaking is the penetration of the 'ultimate mystery', that is of what we do not understand, what has got no name. It is God for some, fate for some, and for others it is the reason for the existence of the world or the question who we are and why we exist, or what drives what we do. We live to approach this mystery - everyone in their own way."
Dumała's engraving on plaster technique, which has been successful also in his commercial assignments, and the superior artistic effect achieved in Zbrodnia i kara have been a challenge to which he has since responded with Las and John D., an animation on John Doe, a sixteenth-century English magician and scholar. Both films use a combined acting-and-drawing technique.
His first feature was Las / The Forest, which combined the technique of animation with cinematography by Adam Sikora. The main roles of father and son were played by Stanisław Brudny and Mariusz Bonaszewski. In 2009 it was shown in the main competition of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, were it was awarded with a special prize for artistic merit, as well as in the competition of the Era New Horizons film festival in Wrocław. It was also nominated for four Orzeł awards.
I've watched The Forest. It is a perfect, pure, fulfilled film. Something very rare. An organic piece of art, which stands on its own. Simple, minimalistic, hypnotizing. Mysterious as a dream (...) This film is filled with something long forgotten in Polish cinema, something characteristic of Has's films. Cinema is truly personal not when it gives us the director's intimate experience, but when it says something important about me as a viewer, something, that makes me ask: "how did he know that?" - wrote Tadeusz Sobolewski ("Gazeta Wyborcza", 15.09.2009).
Dumała is the protagonist of Joanna Dylewska's documentary Świat według Piotra D. / The World According to Piotr D. (2001). The first Polish screening of his latest feature, Ederly, will take place at the T-Mobile New Horizons film festival in July 2016.
Author: Jan Strękowski, July 2004, updated by NMR, June 2016.