The writer's most recent and, arguably, most popular work is the screenplay for the acclaimed 2012 film You are God about Poland's hip-hop roots.
Maciej Pisuk, photo by Andrzej Georgiew
The writer's most recent and, arguably, most popular work is the screenplay for the acclaimed 2012 film You are God about Poland's hip-hop roots. His other projects include television writing and a moving series of photographs of everyday life in Praga, Warsaw's run-down right-bank district.
Pisuk was born in Bielsko-Biała in 1965. He was part of the city's underground from the mid-1980s, delivering leaflets and writing graffiti on walls. He edited the magazine Gąbka, a central outlet for young activists in the city in Silesia's foothills. Then he moved to Kraków, convinced that he would become a revolutionary. His publishing debut came in 1991, with two poems in bruLion. (He says they now make up nearly half of his published poetic output). He began an unfinished novel. - "Screenwriters Are Often Unrealised Writers" - he says.
Pisuk says the 1990s were a dark decade in his life. He began studying screenwriting in 1996 at the National Film School in Łódź. Following graduation, he had no trouble finding a job as head screenwriter on a soap opera. He moved from Kraków to Warsaw, where the Teatr TV produced his script, Gwiazdy i los człowieka / Stars and the Fate of Man. The film starred Zbigniew Zamachowski and Marek Kondrat in roles Pisuk wrote for them. His good luck did not last long, and he was laid off during an economic recession. Things got so bad that his electricity was cut off due to unpaid bills.
He took all kinds of jobs to make ends meet, such as writing material for a shopping channel and advertising collagen extracted from fish, for its beneficial effects on the skin. He moved to the Vistula River's right bank, when no one dreamed of Praga's coming gentrification. Plagued with financial troubles, health issues exasperated his problems, as did depression. "Drugs didn't work”, he said in an interview with Przekrój magazine, "it took me three hours to get out of bed, completely disconnected from the world. I used to sit in a rented flat in Praga, and I looked out the window into the yard".
Pisuk began taking pictures, first photographing his backyard from that window, then taking pictures by the river. A turning point came at Brzeska Street, considered among Warsaw's worst. He got to know the people there. "When a person is in bad shape, it is easily seen, it is palpable", he told culture.pl.
The interconnected courtyards of ul. Brzeska extend some 200 metres behind building streetfronts. Pisuk says that this collective backyard living is hard to find elsewhere, and he got to know people who asked him to photograph their christenings, weddings and birthdays. "An important moment was when I started visiting them in their flats. I realised that I was entering an extremely private space to which no one had access". In an interview with Przekrój magazine, he shared, "I felt like a loser, and I felt that these people, who I watched from the window, were losers as much as I was. This was what drew me to them".
In his pictures of Brzeska Street's private spaces, the order of contemporary reportage photography is reversed: He only takes pictures of people he knows well. These are not simple snapshots; the people being photographed are always aware of his presence. "They show real people and yet they are the most important here", Pisuk wrote in Kwartalnik Fotografia in 2011. "Without a description, the portraits stop being portraits, they becomes a sign, a symbol, a generalisation, a sociological observation".
The photographer wrote that the key is reciprocity, "Meetings are more than seeing someone, random encounters, shaking hands, being aware of another person [...] A meeting is an event that involves certain ethics, there is always an immediate face-to-face relationship. The heroes of my photos have an unusual feature: they have faces".
You are God
While living in Praga in December 2001, Pisuk read a story by Lidia Ostałowska in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, about the band Paktofonika and its frontman, Magik, published a few months after his suicide. He immediately began working on his script. Pisuk traveled to Silesia where the band lived and recorded to do research, meeting and befriending Magik's bandmates, Fokus and Rahim, and their families. He says it was extremely important to walk those streets for two years, and purchase goods in the same shops Magik frequented. He recalls, "I was there virtually every week, every two weeks. At some point, I stopped gathering information from them, and I began to participate in their lives: I went to concerts with them, and partied too. I admit, I also started treating them as friends.
He was looked for a producer to buy the script during this time. Some turned it down, finding no point in making a film about a junkie. Those who were interested often tried to manipulate the story, some wanting to get rid of the hip-hop angle, others wanting it to be a tabloid story. Pisuk did not want to compromise. When it seemed that nothing would come of the film, he published the story as a book in 2008. The first edition sold 30,000 copies.
The success was unprecedented, and confirmed Pisuk's intuition that he'd found the story of a generation, the image that symbolically described the complex reality of Poland's transformation to a market economy:
I said that I had found the Mateusz Birkut [lead character in Andrzej Wajda's important 1976 film, Man of Marble] of the turn of the century, that this is my story which symbolically sums up in what is important for the "Solidarity" generation, the generation that entered adulthood at the turn of the century.
You are God, with its ten-year delay, has become a historical film. The production team re-created life in communal blocks at the end of the 1990s, moving bus stops and placing coin-operated phone booths around the locations. Band members connect to the Internet via dial-up modem in one scene. Katowice's iconic train station, in which key scenes were played, has since been demolished and replaced. For Pisuk, these are only minor details. What is important is that the film tells the story of a few days in the life of three lads from Katowice.
Jesteś Bogiem describes the most difficult moment of Poland's transformation after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the system in its most brutal phase – something that Maciej Pisuk knows all too well.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, November 2012. Translated by Roberto Galea, November 2012.