Courage is an Important Weapon: An Interview with Agnieszka Holland
default, Courage is an Important Weapon: An Interview with Agnieszka Holland, Agnieszka Holland, photo: Mark Blinch / REUTERS / Forum, center, holland_agnieszka_fot_forum_55.jpg
Well-known film director Agnieszka Holland talks about Orwell’s dystopias, avoiding genre films and the ethics of contemporary journalism. Her newest film ‘Mr. Jones’ had its world premiere at the 69th Berlinale.
Marcin Radomski: During the summers, you live in your home in Brittany, France. What does that place mean to you?
Agnieszka Holland: It’s a space of creation and a sanctuary. For example, right now I’m editing a film. When I write screenplays, I normally organise my time so as to be here, separate from Polish and American life. Everything is far away, and the views! The house is spacious and fits all my things; books, friends, family, whatever’s needed. And my collaborators, when we work together. Sometimes I have to complete some domestic tasks, fix something when it breaks. It’s getting harder to find domestic workers. That’s a paradox of the rich West. No one wants to complete basic, technical tasks or they do them poorly. And then they complain that immigrants are taking their work…
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MR: How did you find this home? Working on ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘Total Eclipse’?
AH: We were actually filming Eclipse. We were searching for a home on the moor in Brittany. And that was of course an idea inspired by The Secret Garden. Here, the climate is temperate, though year by year it gets warmer. It was a properly thought out decision, planned at least for the next few decades. We’ll see what happens later. Should we move on to Mr. Jones?
MR: Why was ‘Animal Farm’ the basis for Gareth Jones’s story?
AH: That was the screenwriter’s idea. And that idea captivated me from the script’s conception. Animal Farm was supposedly inspired by the Holodomor (editor’s note: Terror-Famine during 1930s) in Ukraine. After World War II, a large group of Ukrainians found themselves in forced displacement camps as prisoners of war who didn’t want to return to the Soviet Union. A first edition of Animal Farm found its way to them and they recognised that the tale described their experiences. They translated the book into Ukrainian. One of the displaced prisoners was our screenwriter’s grandfather. He and his loved ones immigrated to the United States and created an American family with Ukrainian roots. Her grandfather came near to experiencing the Holodomor. So these different threads link together in a clear and personal manner. In my opinion the connection to Animal Farm gave our film the character of a parable, which in Orwell’s dystopias are very distinct.
MR: And is ‘Animal Farm’ relevant today?
AH: Unfortunately, yes. We’ve come full circle and the themes repeat themselves. 1984 and Animal Farm were first place on Amazon’s bestseller lists after Donald Trump’s election. Dystopian catastrophes are becoming reality and appearing in ghastly, authoritarian governments. Reality once more gladly poses the question: how to shape society so that people have minimal freedom and don’t rebel against the state of things. And so – supposedly for the good of the people or the government – the servile class is being formed anew, and then used by those who are evil – as slaves or as fodder for political purposes.
MR: ‘Mr. Jones’ is told in the style of a political thriller.
AH: You can describe it that way. It’s more of a political film than a biographical tale.
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MR: Do you value genre films?
AH: I rather avoid labelling. It’s always some kind of trap. Labelling a film’s genre is only important when you’re selling a product. With Spoor I had many problems with financing, because sponsors were unable to determine what kind of genre it belonged to. But for me one of the greatest traits of the film was its genre fluidity. Thanks to that, it can be interpreted on many levels. I don’t like to only stick to one. For example, Europa Europa was on one side a historical drama, and on the other, an ironic philosophical tale. But it’s becoming harder to resist categorisation. At this time, T.V. shows have more freedom in that regard.
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MR: How about the news correspondent, the journalist Mr. Jones. Where does his ambiguous nature come from?
AH: I think he’s an unambiguously positive protagonist. But his character is folded together. He was a man with a good education and insightful politics, but he was simultaneously naïve. But his naïveté was his strength. He knew a lot about Russia. In reality it wasn’t his first trip to the country, rather his second or third. But it’s easier to talk about first impressions in cinema, rather than one out of a multitude, so we decided to change the story. He knew Russian, German, French and was a sharp, young journalist, who understood the modern world and could decipher political machinations. He saw something that others didn’t see, or perhaps ignored. He asked fundamental questions: what is a journalist’s responsibility? – which is what the ethos of the whole profession rests on. The question is still valid.
Nowadays, we deal mostly with personality-based journalism, right? It treats facts in a cavalier matter, rather trying to fit into some prescribed political purpose or ideology. Gareth Jones deeply disagreed with this idea. He believed that a journalist’s purpose is to understand all the facts and publish the truth. It turned out tragically difficult – no one wanted to listen. Though not much has changed since that time. We still have Don Quixotes who often pay for their courage with their lives.
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MR: On top of that, we live in the time of ‘fake news’.
AH: It existed back then too, though it didn’t have as wide of a reach as social media. The method and speed of communication changed, but for Hitler or those in Rwanda, the radio was enough. It’s these basic mechanisms, the triad, which we tried to show in Mr. Jones: media corruption, cowardice among politicians and the indifference of citizens, which creates the necessary circumstances that lead to catastrophes, among them Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust, the Great Purge or Stalin’s crimes.
MR: Does telling stories like ‘Mr. Jones’ feel like a moral obligation?
AH: I think so. Talking about history, or issues that affect many people, but also the deeper mechanisms that influence humanity should be a part of cinema. It’s been like that at different times in the short history of film. Now political films aren’t especially fashionable. Now personal films dominate.
MR: How would you describe them? Describing intimate stories?
AH: They focus on the language of cinema, the individual problems of their creators, like growing up, questions of identity or sentiment. I’m not saying those aren’t important things. But my belief is that in today’s dangerous world it’s an escapist trend. Some people believe cinema should be clean and separate from politics.
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MR: You have a different opinion.
AH: Turning away from politics or not trying to understand the deeper reasons behind what’s happening is a form of escapism.
MR: Not running away takes courage.
AH: I spoke out as the chairwoman of the European Film Academy against Oleg Sentsov’s conviction, the Ukrainian filmmaker who was sentenced to twenty years in prison by Putin, despite his innocence. A few years ago, Oleg made a beautiful speech during his trial. He said, quoting Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita among others, that the greatest sin is cowardice. And it’s also turning away from an uncomfortable reality. Civil courage is rare, as we can see in many countries ruled by populists and autocrats. In any case, it’s always been that way. But now citizens and artists must once more answer the question: are they ready for the risks that come with standing up against evil.
In the case of Gareth Jones, the choice wasn’t easy. He was blackmailed, and his decision to publish what he saw in Ukraine was rejected by the entire British establishment. Often this kind of courage comes with loneliness. Even your loved ones turn away.
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MR: The scenes of the Holodomor are haunting. What did working on those sequences look like?
AH: We began with them. If it wasn’t possible to portray it in a clear manner, then the entire story wouldn’t make sense. We tried to find as many primary sources as possible. We found plenty of photographs and stories of witnesses. The screenwriter worked on it for a few years. It was equally important to show the main character’s subjectivity. How he reacts, how this terrible truth becomes his own experience. When I show this kind of situation, it’s important to me that it isn’t an external description, but rather an interior experience. I hope I succeeded.
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MR: You recently finished production on a Czech-Irish-Slovak-German film, ‘Szarlatan’ (Charlatan). Is that also a biographical tale?
AH: Yes, it is the story of a real man, the forgotten Jan Mikolášek. Few people remember him, though it turned out that when I spoke with Czech citizens, nearly everyone had heard of him. For many years he was a famous healer in Czechoslovakia. During the occupation, he healed Hitler’s dignitaries, and after the war, communist dignitaries. He was a conformist with an excellent diagnostic talent. The story takes place in the 1950s, when he’s arrested. We also return to earlier times: World War I, the interwar period, the Nazi occupation. It’s also a tale of love. I treated the healer as a literary figure. We weren’t true to the facts the whole time. In truth, I’d prefer to create fiction, but it’s difficult to sell these days. Everyone wants the stamp of true history.
AH: The fear of freeing the imagination. Generally speaking, we lost what was 20th century literature’s greatest strength. We seem to think that by clinging to reality, we’ll receive a guarantee of truth and quality. Such are the times we’ve come to live in.
Interview originally conducted in Polish, translated into English by AZ, 4 Dec 2019
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