"THERE ARE MOMENTS WHEN ONE MAKES THE DECISION WHETHER TO HELP OR TO FILM, I OFTEN DO THESE THINGS SIMULTANEOUSLY" - INTERNVIEW WITH HANNA POLAK, THE AUTHOR OF THE FILM "SOMETHING BETTER TO COME"
We would like to invite you to read the latest interviews with Polish documentary film-makers and camera operators. This time, we present the interview with Hanna Polak, the author of the film "Something Better to Come," which will be available within the frames of the 55th Krakow Film Festival.
Daniel Stopa: During my preparations to the interview, I found out that you graduated from the faculty of direction of photography at the VGIK in Moscow, and you come from Katowice. Why did you decide to study in Russia?
Hanna Polak: I already left Katowice earlier. I studied at the Acting Faculty in the National Academy of Theatre Arts, first in Wrocław and later in Warsaw. I did not finish these studies. I think that in acting schools, the attempts to verify who is suitable for this job happen too early and because of this, many talented and sensitive people are treated unfairly. You are strong and spread wings, when you fully understand your talent, but in film school students are often oppressed, they think that they must stay at the university at all costs, exams are nightmares. For some time, I was not affected by it, but once I was not so lucky and suddenly I was left alone, many people whom I trusted before, turned their backs on me. I experienced the most painful part of this profession and decided to break up with acting and theatre. It was painful, because I wanted to finish these studies and begin to study direction.
You mention acting, direction, but you finally chose direction of photography...
I found myself in Russia and I started to help homeless children, with my friends we organised an apartment in which we could operate. We helped on the streets and railway stations. I wondered what else can I do to help these people. One of the ways was photography, making films which show their situation. I helped, studied and made films.
You consider the film as a tool which helps to fight for the greater cause. Does it hurt you when people do not notice it, when they say that you only observe things?
After the screening and the success of "Something Better to Come" in Amsterdam, I was criticised on Polish internet portals as the one who did not help, but only observed. Of course, I did help. I could not buy a flat for Julia, but I managed to arrange things so that she could give birth in the hospital, not on the dumping-ground, I collected money for her, 100$ a month, which still was not enough to enable her to keep her child. In my private apartment, help and shelter was given to many children, mainly from the street, but there were also children from the dumping-ground. There was and there is still a lot of this help, and so I do not want to explain myself to these who criticise me. There are always some malcontents, and when you help in Russia, they blame you for not helping in Poland, though before Christmas in Silesia we organised a great campaign for children from children's homes and pathological families. This is simply a result of ignorance.
Maybe these fault-finders would like to see more of you in the film. Scenes, in which you collect money and in which you bring tangible help...
I did not make a film about myself, about my own actions. This is not a congratulatory card for myself, I wanted to tell about reality, everyday life, suffering and hardship which the characters face. Of course, you can find subtle hints of my help, the trust my protagonists put in me is also built on the relationship, the bond which was made also because they knew that they could count on me. We filmed much more of these images, because we managed to transport someone to the hospital, to bring someone back to normal life, because I brought medicine for someone, but I did not include the most of this kind of material in the film, because I am not its protagonist.
The viewers should appreciate your presence next to these people. For many of them you were the only person who supported them and believed in them...
I asked Jula many times whether my presence helps her? She answered that it undoubtedly does, that thanks to me she knew where to get her role models from, she had a person by her side, who wished her well. I am happy when the children, whom I managed to help, today send me photos on Facebook, show their families and write that they managed to get out of the tragic situations. Some of them appreciate it years later. One girl from the railway station in Moscow, who spent a lot of time in prison, recently wrote to me that only now did she understand how stupid she was and what horrible deed she had committed. She thanked me for being with her, so that we can talk now and she has support and friendly word. I believe that if you sow a grain of good, sooner or later it will grow.
You firmly believe in the strength of the film, in that the moving images can help and change the reality. The directors often deal with sensitive, difficult subjects, but they say that it is only a film, that it cannot change the world...
I disagree. Many times I saw that a film can help. In Mexico, a woman left the screening of my film in tears and promised me that she would be a better mother now. She related the film story to her personal experiences and decided to change. After the screening in Chicago, a large discussion on the radio with the listeners was held on the subject of emotional loneliness of children, that is, the loneliness which affects children from normal or wealthy homes, in which, however, there is a lack of warmth, the parents do not have time, there is no love in them. This loneliness prompts the children to use drugs, alcohol, they run away from home. Also, the laws in Russia have evidently changed, new children's homes and institutions for the needy have been built. It is not only thanks to the film, but as a guest of many television programmes, talks shows over the years, I notice the difference between how the discussion looked like earlier and how it looks like now. All actions make the subject urgent, inconvenient, the authorities have to react, they see that they have to do something and take specific steps. Many people decided to take up social work, help children in need and the homeless. One young man from Australia told me that thanks to the film, he started to work in the centre for the homeless and he discovered his vocation, he feels that he does something good, that his life has a meaning. You cannot overestimate the role of the film, because it will not redress all evil, but it is an important means of help.
Your latest film, "Something Better to Come," tells something more about helping other people. The life of Jula, the main protagonist, might have changed even earlier. Her grandfather could have helped the girl. And I am not talking about some spectacular deed as buying a flat, financial help, but about giving her sense of warm-heartedness, support, understanding.
Everyone can help. You do not need heroic gestures, maximum commitment. I received a lot of messages, when I was still working on the film, that people are ready to become socially involved, I met a woman who has a family and children, but would like to do something good for others. It is not necessary to go to Russia, abandon everything and bring help to homeless children. You can help on your own yard, become interested in someone's life, have a bit of empathy. If my films convince someone to do it, this is a great prize and awareness that the films have an effect. I think that we are happy only when we give something, that giving is better than receiving. This is a huge privilege and honour to be able to do something for another person. In spite of the kilometres I crossed and the risk which I often took, I know that in my life I received more than I gave.
I am surprised that we do not talk purely about the film, that you treat the film only as a stage, a part of something larger on which you are working all the time. You were helping and shooting the film, and now you are still helping. The film is only a stage in all this?
Yes, life goes on. I am still in touch with my protagonists, I did not manage to help all of them, each one still struggles with their problems. Though Jula's life has radically changed, it is not a bed of roses. She is a clever, strong girl and she appreciates changes which she has made. She had to grow up and make a decision that she wants to struggle on her own. Her story should inspire others, she achieved everything on her own. Man is the master of his own destiny, the destiny is in our hands, we are not always successful, but the fact that one makes effort, has ambitions, dreams, it makes one stronger. I saw how people losing hope were totally lost, they became demoralised, did not know where to turn to, what to fight for. Sometimes other people, feeling support from another person, made heroic changes. I was making a short spot for an American organisation. As a result, a half an hour long film was made, a collection of amazing conversations. One of the men told me a story. A woman bought him a coffee, and he gave it back. The woman asked why he did it, and when he told her that he disliked coffee, she went with him to the shop and bought him what he wanted. This situation surprised him emotionally, he felt that someone noticed a human being in him, his individual need, he felt a relationship which he did not know before. And this was for him the beginning of overcoming his homelessness.
You mention strength and endurance. You also had to have strength, faith and conviction that the protagonist of "Something Better to Come" will be finally successful. I cannot imagine that you would have undertaken this if it was otherwise...
What gave me faith was the fact that these people on the railway station and the dumping-ground never lost their humanity, that they were successful in the human dimension. Often in our community we lose important features, such as the reaction of compassion, we smother our emotions, and there, though one has to struggle really hard for one's existence, people are not afraid to show friendly gestures, openness, warm-heartedness. They would not have managed without it. Criminality, breaking the law by the homeless is a marginal feature, a myth. Many of them do not steal, though it often seems to them the only way. I must confess that I am often ashamed of myself when I compare myself with the humanity of the homeless.
This humanity, this special something inside the human being, is what I often see in the films with Russian protagonists. Before our conversation, I recollected the documentary film début by Paweł Pawlikowski, "From Moscow to Pietushki with Benny Yepofeev." The characters in this film, though they are alcoholics, have something in themselves which no one can take from them...
Some kind of metaphysics, something more profound, inconceivable. I remember scenes from this film, how people say that they recited the poems by Anna Akhmatova while drinking. The first person to make an error or forget the text had to bring vodka. Even this drinking was not ordinary drunkenness. Many homeless, lonely people lose the meaning of life and get lost in drinking vodka, but they do not lose their humanity.
Because I experienced such a great amount of the beauty of humanity, it grieves me that now there are such political turbulences, antagonisms and situations in which a brother kills his brother.
I would also like to talk about the making of your films. "The Children of Leningradsky" was a collective portrait. In "Something Better to Come," you concentrated more on a single protagonist. Which type of documenting was more difficult?
It was easier in the case of the collective protagonist. I had a lot of problems in documenting Julia's life. The place, where we were shooting the film, is an enormous area, people constantly move, relocate their shacks. In the meantime, I worked on "The Children of Leningradsky," studied and helped in the centre of Moscow. When I came to the dumping-ground, it was usually hard to find Jula. In addition, it was totally prohibited to visit this place. In the film, it is only hinted at, but the security and the police were constantly hot on my heels. Even though Jula is the main protagonist, it was not like that I chose her and I consistently stuck to her. I was aware that by showing the entire community, environment, characters, I will also tell about Jula, and that she is reflected in everything around her.
It took you over fourteen years to make your latest film. When I watch this kind of documentary films, I am reminded of the works by Helena Trestikova. She said that she often looked at her protagonists as if through a microscope, that she had to keep her distance from them. She was even inspired by nature documentary films...
I think that Trestikova is rather a chronicler of specific times, changes, epoch. My aim is a bit different, I want to help people whom I film, bring attention to a difficult subject. I do not have to separate myself from my characters, to introduce distance, to treat them as the object of observation, though I am aware that in order to show the realness, the raw reality, everyday life, you also have to observe, to look more from the side. Of course, I spent a lot of time with these people. I do not ask children to sniff glue in front of the camera, because they do it notoriously. It is enough to stand next to them and press "record." There are moments when one makes the decision whether to help or to film, I often do these things simultaneously. But I guess the help is always more important. Anyway, I also help by filming, because if I would not show all this, who else would?
How did you manage to bring order to such an extensive material as "Something Better to Come?" Did you do the editing simultaneously with the shooting?
For the first time, I started the editing three years ago. I wanted to start the editing earlier, but somehow it was always put aside, and in the end I concentrated mainly on collecting materials. Such stories, taking place over many years, are very difficult to edit. When you decide to follow chronology, the story becomes boring, and when you start to juggle the material, many themes are incomprehensible. We had a problem, because the protagonist changes physically, grows up, changes her hair colour. News about the Moscow theatre hostage crisis come, I do not know whether it is right, but for us and the protagonists it was the sign of the times. Maybe there are not enough of these signs of the times? At a certain point you lose the distance to the material and you cease to see some things. At the beginning I thought that the editing would take a couple of months, and it turned out that it took us three years. Marcin Kot Bastkowski, who edited tens of films, told me that it was the most difficult challenge for him. I think that we both learned a great lot while working on this film, regardless of our earlier experiences. We had a sea of material at our disposal, uneven, sometimes broken-off scenes. It was hard to edit a coherent film out of it. In addition, sometimes there is something missing, something I am sure I filmed. Was it confiscated by the police or was it lost somewhere over these many years? It is hard to say.
Perhaps it was only during the editing when you began to think more about the film, about how to make the shots coherent, how to make the language clear and the story - understandable...
Editing is such a stage when the film really begins to be made. Then it turns out that something was not filmed, that some crucial material is missing. With the editor, Marcin Kot Bastkowski, we often sat not next to each other, but opposite each other, and edited this film simultaneously on two computers. We needed each other, because I understood the characters, their choices, language, I had my own ideas. In turn, Kot helped me with his accuracy, professionalism, he brought distance to the material and his creativity. We bounced off our ideas and inspired each other. It is such a film which took a long time to make, we created subsequent layers of narration, the scale of difficulty was huge and in this sense it was an incredible experience and a wonderful meeting with Kot in this work. Anyway, during the making of this film I came across many amazing, dedicated people. My producer Sigrid Dyekjaær and Jan Rofekamp, the distributor of the film "The Children of Leningradsky," Dorota Rozowska and Ola Derewienko from the film production team and Piotrek Rejmer, from the technical team, Iza Łopuch and Hanka Kastelicova from HBO – they all gave me a lot of support, not to mention friends and professionals, whose advice and aid, especially in these more difficult moments, were priceless.
Now we are glad that the film achieved its first successes and we are pleased with its shape, but it cannot be forgotten that without the contribution of all the aforementioned people, without the support of Polish Film Institute and many other people and institutions it would be hard to make this film.
Thank you very much for the interview.