Emilia Skiba’s (Five Flavours Film Festival) interview with Kelly Yang – programmer of Taipei Film Festival and co-author of the "City in Focus: Warsaw" programme.
EMILIA SKIBA: Can you tell me which Polish films have been presented in Taiwan by far and how?
KELLY YANG: I think Taiwanese people are very familiar with Polish films. We follow the steps of the masters – in Taiwan, we've watched retrospectives of masters of Polish cinema, especially at the Golden Horse [Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival].
It was in 1996 when there was the first bigger retrospective of Polish cinema was held. There were both documentaries and features. But even before that, if there was a new Kieslowski's film released, the Golden Horse would show it. And in that year, 1996, there was a big retrospective, I think because he had just passed away. Later, in early 2000s, there was a retrospective of Zanussi's works and he was invited to Taiwan. I was involved a bit in this retrospective, I edited the catalogue.
I remember that I could relate to his films very much because there's some connection to Taiwan. We might be different – but in Poland, you have a long history of oppression, you've been constantly connected to Germany and Russia and Poland has been influenced by that. And in Taiwan, we were influenced by Japan and before the Japanese rule – by Holland and Spain. We also have our context of communism because of the mainland China. So even if it's a very different situation, there are still similarities. I think it refers to especially Zanussi's films – we are very touched by them and Taiwanese people can understand well this feeling, this context.
I remember I attended several Q&As with Zanussi, and especially at the one after Illumination, the audience asked a lot about the psychological complexity of the character and how he makes his decisions, all these kind of things. And as far as I remember, Zanussi was quite impressed that people from such a distant country could understand all the difficulties of the situation he portrayed.
And this year, Taipei Film Festival has chosen Warsaw as the city in focus. Warsaw was chosen according to the audience voting, their wish-list.
How was the voting organised?
I'm a programmer and I don't know much details about the voting, but it was both offline and online. After selected screenings, the audience can leave their opinions about the screening or their wishes about next year's programme. And online they can submit their e-mails with opinions and suggestions. According to my knowledge, people talked about the Polish programme also in the previous years.
Was there a list of the cities to be chosen from or was the question open?
It was an open question. I think Warsaw is an interesting choice. The retrospectives of Kieslowski and Zanussi were already many years ago, but at the studies they still teach a lot about Kieslowski and Polish films, also about Polanski. Also, two years ago there was a small programme of Wajda's films, maybe 4-5 titles, in Kaohsiung. So we wish to know more about Polish films and it's a sort of surface reason.
On the other hand, there's a big election coming later this year in Taiwan, so the situation is very tense between Taiwan and China. I think this complex situation reminds us about Polish films. Many Polish films talk about politics and humanity while now in Taiwan we don't have many directors to dig deeper into these subjects. They rather turn political issues into genre films like romantic films. Or they just shoot a documentary, not a feature. So I think it's the right time for us to organise the Polish programme, not just because it was the number one of the audience wish-list. This programme can make us think more about politics with Polish films as an inspiration.
The section is titled “City in Focus: Warsaw” but it involves Polish films in general, not only films related to Warsaw.
It's because the festival is Taipei Film Festival – it refers to the city and we see the national programme from the perspective of the city. So even if we have the city, we sneakily refer to the national cinematography. Warsaw is a very important centre for the film industry and also has a very complex history. From Warsaw we can see not only the city, but also the history of Poland. So there might be the city in the title of the section, but as we discussed it, we wanted to show the changes in the Polish cinema. If there would be a key word of this section, it would be “change”. Because the section is not only about how great are these masterpieces, but also we can see how new Polish directors are influenced by the masters, even if they have changed their poetics or perspectives on the society.
Can you tell me a bit more about the process of selecting films?
As I said, “change” would be the key word. We wanted to show not only the change of style but also the way Polish people have changed. For example, Wajda's films were a lot about the World War II – they didn't talk about present times. So we wanted to show contemporary times, how Polish society has changed, how does it look now. We wanted to show films about the young generation because Polish society is no longer as in Kieslowski's films – we wanted to bring these films to Taiwanese audience.
I also like a lot the director in focus: Wojciech Smarzowski. We screened his two films already at a very small festival I work for. We were focused on the subject of fear then. I think he has a very deep and intelligent way to talk about fear and humanity. Also images are always very powerful in his films. I was very surprised by these qualities of his films when I first watched them. So I thought if we had a chance to show his films, we have to do this programme.
He also talks about history. His films are actually very diverse. I actually was surprised his latest film was a comedy. But he has a unique and different approach to talk about history, suffering, political issues – and not only about the wartime but he keeps the continuity to present times. It's different to Taiwanese people – because our approach to political issues is either to yell, to scream, or to pretend the politics doesn't exist. So I think Polish films can teach us a lot about these issues: politics, suffering, history.
But there have been recently historical films in Taiwan, like Seediq Bale.
Yes, but it's a different approach to history and we have only this one kind of approach in films about history. Also a recent production, Kano. These films are about small people fighting about big issues and becoming heroes. But we don't have films like The Dark House or Rose. These stories are more human, not just heroic epics. I don't mean epic films are bad but we have just one type of historical film in Taiwan. I appreciate Polish cinema because of this diversity when it comes to the way of thinking about history and politics. We have also these crazy comedies, besides these epic heroic stories, but they're neither a human way of talking about history.
We were somehow worried if Taiwanese audience would be interested in this different, more serious and non-genre way of talking about history. But now we can say that the screenings of classics were usually almost full, about 80% of the tickets were sold. And, for example, I watched restored Kieslowski's films and the screening rooms were almost full.
What was the reaction for the Polish programme from the audience and also from film critics and journalists?
When it comes to journalists and film critics, they are usually of my age, so we all watched Polish films when we were very young. For us it's a bit nostalgic. I myself watched for example Kieslowski's films several times before this programme but always on a small screen. So now, after all these years, I can finally watch these films in a theatre, on a big screen. These films bring me really a lot of feelings. Now when I'm older, I see them differently. We see new things in these films, new ideas which we didn't think about when we were younger. It really depends a lot on at what age you watch such films. When we were young, we appreciated a lot the style of these masterpieces, the big issues they talked about. When we get older, we appreciate more very delicate little things they show. For example how an empty face is portrayed and how very heavy issues can be shown in this way. They are not talked about but you can feel them.
Besides, for the younger audience, it's a chance to watch in a theatre these legendary titles that everybody talks about and they read about in their textbooks. Of course, you can watch it on a DVD but the feeling is not the same. Actually, for many of us, it's the first time we have a chance to watch in a theatre films of masters like Kieslowski.
Moreover, new films can give a picture of what Poland and Polish society is now. They show problems of teenagers, they portray the middle class, romantic relationships. They are similar to ours but of course somehow different. I think Polish directors are always closer to political issues, they always force their characters to face real questions and real problems. This makes Polish films different from the Taiwanese ones.
But I guess you mean new Taiwanese films?
Yes. Not older films from Hou Hsiao-hsien or Edward Yang – they were full of heavy political issues. Actually, it's very difficult to screen some of them because of copyright issues, like The City of Sadness from Hou Hsiao-hsien. But already films like Flowers of Shanghai don't talk about political issues directly, they rather portray some historical times. I don't know really why but it seems like our tradition – not to discuss politics very directly.
Do you think it might be because of the censorship in the past and its influence that is present now?
Actually, we haven't had the censorship for about 30 years now. I've talked about this situation with my friends a lot, also with directors, but we cannot figure it out, we don't have a good answer. It's as if it just happened to be like this. So let's take the example of Seediq Bale – it talks about history but it just shows how to fight and it doesn't relate to contemporary issues. But you can see a lot of such relations in Polish films.
So maybe Taiwanese directors don't dig deeper into political issues because they want their films to be screened in other countries, eg. in China?
Maybe. Of course, if you want a film to go to Mainland China, where the market is huge, there are things you cannot show: the police killing people, no politics, no gay issues. It might be one of the reasons but there are more reasons, it's more complex.
This is why I think that programming Polish films can show to the audience – and the audience include also filmmakers – how you can think about politics not only in the terms of fighting. Because politics is not equal only to fighting, fighting with your government. It's also being aware of your rights, what kind of society you want and what kind of society you want to fight for. But it's not simply fighting with the government but also fighting with yourself, maybe with your friends, your ideology. And these are qualities we can see in contemporary Polish films, while Taiwanese directors do it almost only in documentaries. It's as if the Taiwanese have some sort of schizophrenia: they accept heavy issues in documentaries but they don't include them in the features. Features should be easy, sweet, genre films. It's also interesting that many Taiwanese directors make both documentaries and features. But when they make a feature, they don't opt for politics although they do it in documentaries. It's the same person but totally different films! Meanwhile Polish directors, like Kieslowski, made both documentaries and features, and it was easy for them to make a smooth connection, to include the quality of documentary from into a feature film. This is why Polish cinema is so inspiring to us.
Emilia Skiba / Five Flavours Film Festival