Director of Joanna: "It’s a Story about the Simplest Life Issues, which are the Essence of Life (Interview)
small, Director of Joanna: "It’s a Story about the Simplest Life Issues, which are the Essence of Life (Interview), Aneta Kopacz, January 2013, photo: Krzysztof Kuczyk / Forum, aneta_kopacz_fot_krzysztof_kuczyk_forum.jpg
"It’s a story about the simplest life issues, which are the essence of life", said Aneta Kopacz, the director of Joanna – a documentary nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category. The film's protagonists are a young woman dying from cancer, her husband and her son.
Joanna Sałyga, associated with the Rak’n’Roll foundation, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. She described her illness on the blog Chustka. She died in 2012 at the age of 36. In the documentary you show moments of Joanna’s, her husband Piotrek’s and their son Jasio’s lives. How did the production of the film begin?
Aneta Kopacz: I had just became a mum, my daughter was seven months old at the time. I fed her, changed nappies, took care of the house. One day, when I was going through the news on the internet, I found an article about Joanna. The topic included “cancer”. I did not want to burden myself with unpleasant emotions, so I automatically moved along. A short while later, though, I returned to it. My attention was caught by Joanna’s portrait, I couldn’t take my eyes off hers, her gaze. It was magical. I read the article, then her blog, which completely absorbed me.
I was absolutely thrilled. By how she lived, how sensually she described her everyday life and relations with family. I adored her style. Compact, to the point, full of intelligent, witty humour. We both loved life, we’d both enjoyed it with a similar sensitivity and our paths had to cross sooner or later.
From Chustka I found out that Joanna would be a guest of Klub Księgarza, where a radio reportage about her would be presented. When Tomek – Tomasz Średniawa, co-creator of Joanna’s script, privately my life partner – came back from work, I handed him the baby and I ran to the meeting. During the broadcast, when Jasio’s voice appeared, Joanna couldn’t handle her emotions and she left. After a while I went after her. Barely visible, she was standing in a dark, empty room, with her back turned at me. I thought she looked frail. Sounds of the reportage came from the speakers – the reader quoted fragments of Joanna’s blog.
I went to her, I introduced myself. She knew who I was, because we’d previously been in contact by e-mail. We stared at each other in silence for a longer while, teardrops ran down. I felt it was a mutual, incredible closeness, a strange feeling to have on a first meeting, but that’s how it was.
I told her that I wanted to make a film about her. She replied that she’d already had propositions like that from popular directors and she turned down all of them. I asked her to give me one minute, during which I told her how I wanted to preserve her history in the film. I added, that if after this one minute she says “no”, I would never hassle her again. Two days later we began shooting.
How much time did you spend with Joanna Sałyga and her family? In what period was the film shot exactly?
We started filming in April 2012 and we ended in August. Joanna died in October of the same year. We had 13 shooting days. However, we spent much more time together. Off the set, in private. I visited her in hospital as well. We talked a lot, both about trivial and important issues, we shared our thoughts. We talked about life, death, the illness. About “here and now” and about “there and later”. Sometimes we cried, sometimes we just sat next to each other. We were getting to know each other and we built a relationship. Most of the camerawork was done in Joanna’s home near Warsaw and in the Masurian lake district.
How difficult, in terms of emotions, was it for you, as a director-documentalist, to make a film about a woman suffering from cancer, who’s aware that these are the last moments of her life?
Addressing Joanna’s history was difficult in all dimensions and exhausting for me, both physically and emotionally. I didn’t handle it well and it earned me some health problems. Observation of such a vivid, cheerful woman, who is slowly, day after day, without lament, saying goodbye to the world and, above all, to her own child, is very painful. And there is no way to relieve this pain, forget about it, distance from it. I had to get through with it, survive it. I’d come back from the set, hug our daughter and cry. I still haven't distanced myself from it. This history is still pulsating strongly in me.
Which statement of Joanna Sałyga, or which of her life moments, has left the strongest imprint in your memory?
We recorded an incredible dialogue with Joanna, standing in a field, on an early morning, in the Masurian lake district. I asked a lot, but I just couldn’t ask some questions. Joanna dared me, she said “Ask me what you’re most scared to ask about”. I finally found the courage and asked “What about Janek, when his mother is gone?”. Joanna remained silent for a while, and then slowly, greatly concentrated, she said that she regrets not having her son when she was 18, because he’s still so little now… She added, that her fear is contained in the simplest, the most primitive female’s concern about her egg. I knew exactly what she meant, nonetheless I asked: “You mean that no one will be able to tie his scarf in winter like you do?”. She nodded.
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The moment which stayed in my mind the most took place away from the camera. On one September evening Joanna visited us with Jaś and her husband Piotr. She wanted to see our daughter straight away, she was one year old at the time. Olena was already asleep. We entered her room in silence, Joanna took her in her arms and smelled her for a long time. There were tears in her eyes. Then we walked around the garden. Asia walked slowly, holding her hip. She told me “This is the end, I can feel it. Janek woke up at night, screaming, he came to our bed. He probably knows it as well”. It was the first time that I realised that she was dying. It was our last meeting. Joanna died a month later.
Do you believe that your documentary has universal significance? What is its message, what values does it tell about?
During work on the film I asked myself many times if we need to know the date of our death to be able to live. To live truly. To appreciate what we’ve got, to enjoy the little things, to notice them, to derive pleasure from the simple everyday reality. To make oneself and one's loved ones happy, to make the right decisions, to gain the courage to realise one’s needs. Not to waste any time, not to put aside the things important to us for later. Only - for when? Who will guarantee, that “later” will happen?
I think that Joanna’s
universalism is very substantial. The origin of the character doesn’t matter, neither does her education, work, and even the type of illness itself. The whole film is built on the mother-child relationship, which is based on the simplest emotions. Anyone, anywhere, can feel it and understand it.
To me it’s a film about conversations with one's own child and husband. About laying on the grass together, wearing wellies and walking in puddles, and about picking mushrooms. It’s a story about the simplest life issues, which are the essence of life. This is how I perceive the sense of what is here and now. And, as one of the film's viewers said: “Either you feel it, or not. That’s it”.
Interview by: Joanna Poros (PAP), edited by: tk, translated by: Agata Dudek, February 2015