Agnieszka Holland is this year's recipient of Culture.pl's Superbrands award. In an interview with Bartosz Staszczyszyn, she shares her reflections on politics in Poland, Europe, the role of the arts in social debate, and her new film. "The artist has no obligation to fight for social matters, but if that's where his emotions take him, then there is no reason why he shouldn't take part in important debates."
Bartosz Staszczyszyn: Do you feel like an Ambassador of Polish culture?
Agnieszka Holland: I'm an Ambassador despite myself. When I'm shooting films, I am the one signing them but I'm aware of the fact that the films and my international appearances are also a bonus point for my country. Especially given the fact that I often talk about Polish culture, achievements and problems.
What are foreign viewers interested to know about Poland?
They want to known the real Poland. When I talk to people outside of Poland, I try not to sugarcoat anything. What people are most interested in is living culture and living ideas and not a tourist advertisement. The Adam Mickiewicz Institute [editor's note: cultural institute promoting Polish culture around the world, among others through this website] understands that too. The institute's director, Paweł Potoroczyn, and his co-workers show the complexity and richness of Polish culture without hiding the controversies. Instead of promoting Polish culture through old-fashioned musical or dance groups, they support expressive artists who are able to enter into a dialogue with the cultural circles of different countries around the world. That's what makes receiving the institute's Superbrands award even more special.
You once listed a couple of Polish directors as the most interesting young Polish film directors: Małgosia Szumowska, Wojtek Smarzowski, Bartek Konopka and Andrzej Jakimowski. Would you alter this list?
It's hard to say that those people are particularly young. By the rules of the calender, they are middle-aged. They have yet to disappoint me, they are accomplished film-makers. I believe that their best films are still ahead of them, although I don't know what their ambitions, interests are.
Especially when it comes to Wojtek Smarzowski, who became the most important film-maker of the generation, he's still a mystery to me. Even his most demanding films, like Pod Mocnym Aniołem (Angel) bring in huge audiences. Wojtek manages to speak to the sensitivity of Poles, and that's a very important skill to have as an artist. I'm a bit suspicious of artists who function extremely well on the international film festival circuit while having no more than five thousand viewers in Poland. It's impressive how much people and journalists talk about Smarzowski's films. What leaves me wondering, however, is why his masterfully-shot films don't appeal to foreign audiences.
Ida, on the other hand, is a great international success…
Festival audiences value restraint and moderation and Paweł Pawlikowski's film is the quintessence thereof. It's the first time since Kieślowski that a Polish film is so eagerly viewed in the West. Especially in France, where almost 500 thousand people saw it, even though it deals with Polish history and Polish problems.
But given the extensive time he spent in the UK and France, Paweł Pawlikowski looks at them from an international perspective. A bit like you do. You have been working in the U.S., France, the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland for many years. How did your world experiences change your perspective on social problems in Poland?
I'm not entirely sure what that change consisted of. I've always viewed Polish society slightly differently than my Polish filmmaker friends. I left to study in Prague at the age of seventeen, so I learned early on that you can look at the world from different vantage points. The Czech Republic is close to Poland, but at the same time they differ from Poles greatly. There, I spent five of the most formative years of my life. That period changed my view of Poland far more than emigration later on.
How do you view Poland today?
Despite 25 years of freedom we are still holding back. That's mostly caused by our egocentricism, which is also visible through Polish cinema. This generation of directors knows how to tell a story, but apart from Małgośka Szumowska, the majority isn't capable of looking at themselves from the outside. And that's indispensable in order to communicate with people who have slightly different experiences and different views.
Ida's success abroad is no coincidence, it's the result of understanding that audiences outside of Poland have a different perspective on certain issues. Paweł Pawlikowski is a worldly man who re-emigrated to Poland and is himself a bit surprised by that. He now lives in Warsaw, in the district of Mokotów, but I think that after returning to the country, he doesn't completely understand it. Perhaps that separateness is his great strength.
I made a career in the West because I had the ability to view the world from different vantage points. You can have a strong personality and fixed views and simultaneously be curious by how others view the world. Polish culture lacks that curiosity. Not only in film but in literature too.
Why is that?
It's mostly linked to history. National complexes still have a strong hold on people, we build walls around ourselves thanks to which we don't feel inferior to the rest of the world. I'm not saying anything original here, Professor Maria Janion, Witold Gombrowicz [Polish writer] wrote about it.
This fear of being different is also a result of enclosure, ignorance, it's a consequence of complexes of superiority and inferiority. I also had a share of that arrogance resulting from ignorance, so I understand it. I started leaving for the West very late. When, in 1978, I went to the San Sebastian film festival for the first time, I was already a 30-year-old woman. Later on, I began to go to film festivals in other countries. I wasn't given a private passport, but I was given a business passport. I remember when we went to Rotterdam for the first time with Krzysiek Kieślowski and we looked at that world like today Polish MPs Żalek or Janusz Korwin-Mikke [right wing controversial Polish politician] look at the West. There were a lot of films about sexual minorities at the festival. We thought that the Western directors are extremely stupid for constantly talking about fags as if it were something important. We viewed feminists like crazy old spinsters and equal rights as made-up by those whose lives were too comfortable. On top of that, there were many disabled people in the streets, which also seemed very weird, in Poland they were hidden.
Years have gone by and many Poles are still at that stage. Also, the elite often can't accept diversity today.
These stereotypes are changing, although not too rapidly…
Whenever something changes for the better, there's a regression. A lot of the fault lies with the church and the conformism of the political class which doesn't have the courage to stand up.
Our identity problems manifest themselves in the way in which we view minorities. This is a pan-European problem. For years we were witnesses to violent social change regarding sexual minorities, the disabled and above all - women's rights.
Today's reaction to that change is a counter-revolution which stems from a fear of identity. It touches of all Europe although it's the East that sets the tone for changes. It's rather telling that the impulse to fight against "moral decay" comes from Putin. And the Polish elite, mostly the Catholics, follow in his footsteps.
Is being socially engaged a burden for an artist? To what extent can an artist be a citizen?
That's a matter of personality. The artist has no obligation to fight for social matters, but if that's where his emotions take him, then there is no reason why he shouldn't take part in important debates. I myself am very interested in the homo politicus and I feel responsible for the things that are happening around me.
During the premiere of Burning Bush I was talking to some Americans about the fact that it's still a mystery to me why some humans have the courage to be dissidents. Why do humans fight for others and for the community, risking their own safety? I think it's a sort of gene of justice or gene of freedom. These people simply have it. Even if they try to fight it, it's stronger than them.
I read somewhere that conservatives and liberals have different brains. What distinguishes them is the way the amygdalae are built. Apparently I have a pro-freedom brain. It's a part of my personality, my political statements and actions are a natural result of my views. Freedom is something very important to me. Also the freedom of other people, which consists of the acceptance of the fact that they are different.
So how did you find your place in this new tribal Poland where the parties from the left and right form two separate worlds?
With difficulty. The break up of a community, which we are now observing, is dangerous. It's necessary to build some kind of platform of understanding, although I don't believe that it will be possible to unite both Polands – the left wing and the right wing, the conservative and the liberal. This is not an exclusively Polish phenomenon. When you take a look at the United States and at how distant the paths of the republicans and the democrats have become, it's hard to believe that in essence the differences between them are not so great. A similar polarisation is taking place in France and the whole of Western Europe.
These divisions are strengthened by the internet and social media which have taken over the role of public space. Locking ourselves up in niches, among people who think the same, we are creating an illusory mega-reality. In such a world the objective truth stops being significant, ideologies are what counts.
I was recently in Ukraine and I saw that pro-Russian separatists really believe in Putin's propaganda. They believe in it so strongly that they are ready to take up arms and risk their lives. Russian propaganda explains the world to them, just like a lot of Poles are buying the propaganda put forward by Antoni Macierewicz [Polish politician] regarding the Smoleńsk plane crash. This kind of fiction is dangerous for the community because it's a weapon in the tribal fight.
History, as well as Polish cinema, becomes one of its battlefields.
That has always been the case. Remember the dispute between Stefan Żeromski and Henryk Sienkiewicz [two 19th century Polish writers], blind heroism and refusal to stand up in the face of the enemy, or the Second Republic.
Cinema and culture play a large role in these disputes. The debate spurred by Jan Tomasz Gross' book about Polish crimes during the Holocaust was very mature. But a couple of years have gone by and today we are witnessing a political stiffening. In a polarised society, debate is replaced by hysterical accusations directed against opponents.
Can history in Poland be talked about without glorification and conspiracy theories? You managed that in "Burning Bush".
In the Polish way of thinking about history, there is a lot of tawdry thinking and one-sidedness. But there is also openness to discussion. The last two historical films I shot - Burning Bush and In Darkness - were well received even by that fraction of right wign parties who I don't have anything in common with. But to my surprise, I was suddenly attacked by people who I thought close to my own set of beliefs. For example, they asserted that In Darkness sucks up to Poles by telling them about their heroism. That hurt me because I saw that I have no language to speak about history and its complexity without getting stuck in fortresses of extreme systems of belief.
It was only with Burning Bush that I reassured myself that people are ready for historical stories in which black and white extremes are replaced by truth, even if it's much more ambiguous. The fantastic ratings of Burning Bush and In Darkness are a sign that something is changing in our approach to the past.
Soon you are embarking on your next project "Pokot" based on Olga Tokarczuk's book "Drive Your Plough Through the Bones of the Dead". The author herself once said that her book is a political work. Will that be the case for the film too?
Olga touches on a feminist-ecological anarchism. Her novel is political, but it's more of an intellectual provocation, as opposed to a voice in the journalistic discussion. I hope that the film will also be a provocation.
Tokarczuk dabbles in anti-clericalism. Are you not worried that the right wing parties will accuse you of that again?
But at the moment I am anti-clerical. In recent years, the Polish clergy sealed itself up, instead of connecting people and giving them credits of love, it antagonises them. I have no sympathy for such a politicised church although I cherish many priests and I respect the tradition of the Christian ideology.
Will "Pokot" be a crime novel more than a film about journalistic ambitions?
It's a difficult adaptation. Together with Olga, we have written a couple of dozen adaptations. The one which we decided would be final, still isn't entirely satisfactory. I still don't know what I will make out of the cluster of contradictions which I find in Olga's text. My duty as a director is to tell the whole thing in an interesting way.
Tokarczuk's novel is very self-aware in a formal way, she plays a lot with literature and patterns found in different genres…
What turns me on are its numerous tricks and twists. I'm trying to translate that game into the language of the cinema and escape linear, realistic storytelling, which is normally my strong suit. When I was looking for inspiration during the writing of the script I watched Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismäki's films rather than political or crime films.
Did your work on the crime series "The Killing" help you with "Pokot"?
Working on series gave me a lot in general. That goes for The Killing, the recent Rosemary's Baby as well as the earlier The Wire, Treme and Cold Case.
What I know, however, is that you can't make too many series. Working on them can wash away your expressiveness as a director. Shooting more than 2-3 episodes per year can make you lose your own style, erase your fingerprint. Series are more like a stylistic exercise allowing a director to refresh their working technique. Today, even though I'm getting older, my techniques are much more up-to-date than ten years ago.
Have you managed to find an actress for the leading role in "Pokot"?
I think I'm going to make the film with Stanisława Celińska. The downside is that she doesn't drive, which Janina from "Pokot" has to do and she has some problems with her physical condition but she has a great inner strength. After meeting with several dozen great actresses, I saw that Celińska is not only talented but she brings light and energy. That's a rare gift and I would like to warm the whole film with that light.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translator: Mai Jones Jeromski 27/05/2014