"I WAS STRIVING FOR A SIMPLE, NATURALISTIC FILM, IN WHICH EMOTIONS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING..."
'Close ties' by Zofia Kowalewska is on Oscar's shortlist! Documentary film will have its international premiere at upcoming DOK Leipzig festival and shortly after it will be presented at IDFA festival. Read the interview with the director.
Daniel Stopa: The protagonists of the film "Close Ties" are your grandparents. Do you remember the moment when you first thought about portraying your grandparents?
Zofia Kowalewska: I was looking for an idea for my first documentary film. After several unsuccessful attempts, I went to visit my grandparents in Krakow, with a small video camera. One day, I recorded such a situation: grandpa Zdzisław bought, without the agreement of grandma Basia, an ironing board and a clothes dryer. Because of it, a two-hour quarrel broke out, at times funny and charming. In the end, grandma cut the argument short by saying: "You came back after eight years with your girlfriend and now you'll turn my house upside down." The atmosphere got dense immediately, grandparents sat down in silence to eat dinner and none of them spoke again. It was the first impulse - it was the moment when I felt that a film could be made about it. I used the recorded and edited material as the documentation of the project which I submitted to Munk Studio.
As far as the choice of the subject matter is concerned, it is not a coincidence that I engaged in this story. In my immediate surroundings, I observed a lot of relationships which broke up. However, my grandparents decided to do something which others do not do after the break-up - they tried to rebuild their bond and be together anew. Their courage and their difficult decision were moving for me. I rooted for them very much. Their 45th marriage anniversary became the pretext to tell about their relationship.
You also showed great courage, portraying your close ones. Did your grandparents immediately agree to participate in the film, did they agree to your entering their private, everyday life with the camera?
I am tremendously grateful for their courage and openness, which they showed during making of the film. There was no such a specific moment, one conversation in which I asked them for their consent to the film-making. It was a gradual, continuous process. From time to time, I came to them with the camera - first on my own, and then with the film crew. A lot of time passed from the idea and the submission of the project to the final decision about film-making and I think that they gradually got used to the thought about the film. What helped us was our close relationship and trust which they naturally gave me. I think that they also wanted to help me as their granddaughter. When we learnt that the project was approved for implementation, my grandparents rejoiced together with me.
I think that your grandparents were in a comfortable situation, that for them, you were a guarantee that the camera would not hurt them...
From the beginning, it was important for me that the observation of my grandparents' life is delicate and non-judgemental. I naturally looked at them in this way - with love and tenderness. I knew that as long as I stick to this, I would not cross the moral border. With the camera, we looked not only for the moments of conflict, but most of all, for such times when my grandparents tried to find common ground. I hope that it is clear in the film.
It is visible, among others, in the scenes which give the impression of "pure" observation." We look at the protagonists from a distance, e.g. we are separated by a corridor or the image of the protagonists is covered by an object.Did it happen to you that you staged some situations? Or was patient observation in the lead?
We made the film using long lens, the camera was always located in the other room, never close to the protagonists. We did not want to make my grandparents feel ill-at-ease because of the camera's presence. This method allowed us to minimise the camera's influence on their behaviour. On the set, the camera was turned on practically all the time. Most of the scenes which are included in the film are the moments when the protagonists "forgot" that they were being filmed. Of course, I was making the film with some assumptions, specific ideas for scenes, which resulted from my earlier observations of my grandparents' everyday life. The rhythm of their days, activities, even topics to talk about often repeated themselves. Sometimes, in private, I asked grandpa to take up the matter which they had already discussed with grandma when I was present. But this intervention always referred to something that I had observed earlier, I did not embellish the story by artificial staging. My grandparents are extremely charismatic, colourful, "film" characters, there was no need to invent anything more than that.
The tale about your grandparents is bitter-sweet, the moods and atmosphere of the film perfectly capture the relationship between the protagonists...
I was striving for a simple, naturalistic film, in which emotions are the most important thing, emotions which arise when two people live together in one apartment. All elements of the film were subordinated to this goal. Bitter-sweet moods that you mention, arose naturally, because this is how this story looks like and this is what its protagonists are like. Their funny teasing and quarrels hide deep, difficult emotions, which they try to work out. I edited the film in such as way as to highlight this duality. As a result, we laugh watching the first half of the film, whereas in the second half, it gets more serious and sadder, though humour does not disappear in the end.
Finally, I wanted to ask about your grandparents' impressions after watching the film.
My grandparents watched the film for the first time at the première organised by Munk Studio in Kino Kultura in Warsaw. They experienced the screening in a very emotional way. The film portrays an important moment in their relationship, so watching it in a room full of people was a challenge for them. I think that what helped them to overcome embarrassment was the reaction of the audience and the family after the screening: big applause, congratulations from strangers, sincere praise. For them, it was important to feel that they are not judged by the audience. After the screening, they were very moved. Later, we also had the première at Krakow Film Festival, that is, in my grandparents' home city. My grandparents invited their friends to the screening and gladly participated in the conversations with the audience, together with the entire film crew. At this stage, it is a pleasure and an adventure for them.
Thank you very much for the interview.