"I AM INTERESTED IN POETS OF THE EVERYDAY LIFE" - INTERVIEW WITH PIOTR STASIK
Today, the 56th Krakow Film Festival starts with the première of the film by Piotr Stasik - "21 x New York City." We would like to invite you to read the interview with the film's author.
Daniel Stopa: Over many years, you were attracted to the East, you made two films in Russia and you set out with a travelling cinema from Ukraine to Burma. How come you made such a sudden turn towards New York City?
Piotr Stasik: The finale of "A Diary of A Journey," my previous film, was to take place in New York City. We shot a lot of pictures, but during the editing all the scenes in New York City were cut out, because they turned out to be unnecessary. What was left from the journey were a couple of interesting meetings and the conviction that New York City is my place on Earth and that I want to live there.
How New York City lured you?
Earlier on, I set out with the travelling cinema to Burma. We did not manage to reach our destination, but we were in Ukraine, in Turkey, Bulgaria, Moldova and Azerbaijan. The first stop was in Kiev, a city in which war was fought just a moment before. In Moldova, people live in constant stress and in fear of an invasion of the Russians. Bulgaria is a country which still cannot deal with its past, and in Azerbaijan, it was the worst. Later on, I went to Burma on my own and for a short time I lived in a monastery. There, it is a bit like in Poland in 1989. I made a Burmese version of "Talking Heads" by Kieślowski with the villagers. We assumed that it would be a pleasant journey, in the morning, we read books, and in the evening, we watch Polish films with the villagers. However, the image of the world which reached me was overwhelming. Landscape and the people wounded by wars and dishonesties. This kaleidoscope of countries made me realise once again, that as individuals we are hospitable, nice and interesting, but we cannot function as a society. In addition, I felt that I do not want to live in Poland anymore. And then the trip to New York City happened, and there, everyone feels at home - you cannot tell whether someone has already been here for a long time or has just arrived. And in addition, you know these streets, the subway, buildings from so many films that you have the impression that you have already been here. I shot the film in New York City, but it is an attempt to tell a story about our world. For instance, the finale of the film was made in Burma, Bay of Bengal. I treated New York City as a laboratory, a vision of the future of us all. The first time I landed in New York City in January. Snow was lying around, but in the lower Manhattan, sun was shining and everybody was wearing sweaters. I bought an old painting from a street vendor, went for a coffee and read the diaries of Susan Sontag. A woman was crocheting at the bar and she invited me to her home. An Asian whom I met in the Metropolitan Museum, invited me to an illegal techno in Brooklyn. After a couple of days, I knew some people from the neighbourhood. I thought that I would like to grow old here.
From what you are saying, New York City appears to be the most beautiful place on Earth. However, your film says something else ...
This is just the beginning (he laughs)! When I went back to shooting after some time, I sensed an enormous neurosis in people. After a month or two, it started to infect me and destroy me from the inside. My assistant panicked, because the battery in her iPhone had discharged. She started to cry, because someone might have written to her and maybe she had lost some opportunity. Half a year passed and I left this place, depressed. New York City is a place which at some point deprives people of energy, as if it fed on it. In my film, I wanted to show a different side of the city, to challenge the stereotype and myth, show people who are lost, overworked and lonely. I think that if I had spread the shooting in time, if I had taken it in doses and had not lived in New York City for so long, the film would have been totally different. Even when my situation was bad, I was short of money and terribly tired by all these people, lack of space, worms in the flats, garbage on the streets, rats in the subway, and the droning of air conditioning which did not allow to sleep. Cramped, smelly and too loud, these are the symbols of New York City. In addition, you have to pay heavy charges for all this. Most people can afford only a small room in a shared apartment for 1000 dollars. However, I decided to stay, because I felt that in this way I would reach some depth, touch something hidden.
You reached a large group of people, drawing their personal portraits. What was your way to the protagonists?
It was always the same. Usually, there were three stages. The first one: yes, I agree to participate in the film. The second: I will not let you into my home, we will meet in New York in the city, I will not tell you anything about myself. The third: I show them my earlier films and tell them something very personal. Then, the barriers disappear, people start to treat me as their closest friend, trust me because they feel why I want to tell about them, that it is not about exhibitionism or causing a sensation. I invite them to co-create the film. A lot of people ask me about the choice of the protagonists for the film. Why this one, and why not another? I do not have any easy, clear answer to this question. At the beginning, I got on the subway and I liked everyone. It was later on when I learned to select from the crowd. The majority of people did not have anything to say, both as ordinary people and as eccentrics. Finally, I chose people who seemed to me interesting but normal, though in Poland it would be considered that they deviate too much from the norm (laughter).
You chose 21 people and probably everybody asks you about the significance of this number...
Nobody has asked me this question yet (laughter). In "7 x Moscow," I told about the city in seven pictures. I could not imagine telling about New York City using seven characters. The number 21 seemed ideal for me, and I divided the script into exactly that number of characters. I recorded 40, maybe 50. There were characters of similar age, gender, appearance and history. Natural elimination. Later, during editing, I noticed that the whole is made up of 21 stories, though I did not edit it with the conviction that this number has to be exactly 21. At the end, we counted and did not believe it. The number was 21 people.
You often emphasise that you did not follow specific assumptions during film-making. Your film makes the impression of an epic poem written by the camera. It has a certain lightness, a sensation that everyone could make such a film ...
At some point I felt apprehension that the story lacks a clear narrative line, that it needs something which will be clearer, that will show that we are going from somewhere to somewhere. I came up with the idea to make an extended version of "Talking Heads," to create a story about life from 0 to 100 years of age. The film was to begin with the image of a child being born, and end with the portrait of the 114-year-old whom I found. Then I felt that it is too clear a signal for the viewer on my part. It would be better if the audience put these puzzles together on its own. I also noticed that I am more interested in poets of everyday life, people who can give a particular meaning to their everyday life. And when I sat down to edit the film, I was guided by emotions. I knew that I was building some kind of introduction, but it was not literal, later the viewer learns that it would be a film about relationships, and at the end, I put the strongest features. It is seemingly easy, it seems that everyone can do it, but if there is a pre-defined structure, it is easier to edit. You do not have to rely on the instinct so much, you save time and you do not have to wonder whether what we come up with will have an effect on the viewer. The editing took over a year, including breaks. At the last stage, my mentor joined in - Dorota Wardęszkiewicz. These were exact karate punches. I clenched my teeth, but at the same time I was happy about the new perspective on the characters, about even a greater courage, not being too wordy, about surprises for us and the viewer.
In my view, the narrative line of your film is created by moods. Is it the cinema of moods?
Recently, I realised that what I want the most is to become a writer, that I would like to contemplate the world without all this technology and the film crew. I like travelling alone, I look at paintings, I write down short notes in my journal, in my phone, take some photos. The record of moods is very important to me. What I like about the film is that I can connect all areas in which I am interested and which allow me to contemplate the world - painting, photography, music, literature. The influence of all these areas on my films is great, but I never include any works in them as a direct quotation. During preparations, I read a lot, listen to music and absorb everything around, but later I process it, filter it through myself. Initially, I wanted to include poetry excerpts in the film, quotations merged with the image. The result was kitschy, the poetry of everyday life turned out to be stronger, more expressive. In the film, you can also find a couple of quotations from my favourite books, but they are translated into my language and that of the characters.
Language unites these diverse stories. Seemingly, we have many protagonists, but all the time we feel that it is a common narrative…
In the film, there is a criminal who spent half his life in prison, there is a drag queen, a twelve-year-old, a psychoanalyst - these are so different characters, but I endeavoured to have something emotional, atmospheric to connect them. So that they would make an impression of being a single character. The commentaries which we hear are sometimes not their words. In a similar way, the character of Sebastian functions in the film, he is the Chinese who opens the film and appears in it as a refrain. His words are the notes from my diaries, and the films which we watch, were not recorded by him.
He is a very interesting character. Is he your alter ego?
Yes, to some extent he tells about me, but for a long time, he was not present in the film. At the beginning, I put Sebastian in the film without his voiceover in Chinese, however, I felt that it does not work, that this measure is too artificial. By accident, I found out that he keeps a diary. In the music files which I got from him, there was a personal diary. Tomek Wolski joined these notes to the image and it worked, I understood that I can go in this direction. During editing I was adding Sebastian, more and more until he turned into the leading character.
The element which connects the whole is also electronic music, which seems to flow out from the inside of the subway. Andrei Tarkovsky wrote that electronic music - if it is to be perceived as the natural sound of the world - has to be cleansed of the components which reveal its synthetic origin. In your case, the sound of the world itself has synthetic origin ...
The music which I used, had to make us feel as if we were in the heads of our protagonists, at the same time, it had to be consistent with the image. This music had to flow from the sounds of the city, but it was not supposed to imitate them. There were such trends in contemporary music, to mix the records of natural sounds, the sounds of the city, e.g. car horns with working air conditioning fans. I was not interested in it, I wanted to process these sounds and not to play them. At first, I edited the image with ready-made music, which turned out to be too diverse, too like the music videos, it had to many tones. Then I asked my friend for help, a DJ from Wroclaw - Karol Rakowski. I also started to compose some sounds myself, I bought a synthesizer, and I was creating something resembling music. It was an important moment, which moved the film forward. When I make a new film, I would have the stage of composing music before shooting.
This music induced me into a some kind of a trance, similar to the one which can be found in the film "Tokyo-Ga" by Wim Wenders. But there is a difference, in "Tokyo-Ga," there is the cinema Ozu and its echo, which wakes us from the hypnotic trance. In your film, there is no such waking up ...
It is an interesting comparison. I tried to find a character of an American Indian for the film. I did not manage to find him. The long search led me to some kind of collective farms, like the State Agricultural Farms in the Polish People's Republic, where the descendants of Native Americans drink vodka and cannot cope with anything. I took it as a sign and I left it as it was. At one point, walking the streets in New York City, I felt the spirit of these Native Americans, about whom I read in my childhood, e.g. Winnetou. These people, their culture was destroyed by the white man. This experience reminded me what America was built on, in general, the shallowness of this world. In tradition, everything adds up, mutates, develops. When you go to Paris, you will see some kind of middle-classness which has been created for centuries. It is not present in the multi-cultural New York City, the roots barely grow into the ground.
Is this the image of the entire contemporary world?
I wonder that all this is still going on (laughter). Mankind loves war. Once, I counted how many people were killed in all these wars. I wanted to include this information in the film, but it would be too much and in too straightforward a way. A global look at the world may terrify. We do not think about it every day, because we would go crazy, but sometimes we have to turn to it. Through all these wars, we can see the dark side of our nature. Now, it is all overlapped also by the Internet with all these inventions, I do not know what they are doing to us. I do not criticise it, because I use them myself, I experienced many friendships and love thanks to them, but where is it all going to? I do not know, we will find out in 10, maybe in 20 years. I think that this tendency is destructive to us and this is what I wanted to tell about.
I am very curious how your film will be received. Would there be people for whom it would be a positive record of the world?
A lot of people, to whom I already showed the film, gave me a sign that they wanted to go to New York City, try to live like the characters, that for them, it is also a story about people who fight for their freedom, who try to realise who they are, what they want. They reject all values and rituals at the cost of suffering and making errors, but they do try to be someone. They invent the world anew. I wanted to make this film in such a way that everyone can find a different story - I did not want to put my arguments forward, or to leave only one choice. Instead, I rather give clues to the viewers, create the mood for their own reflections. This is how I see my role. One of the characters say - I am you. It may be utopian, but I would like this film to be so open that it would be a film about you, about everyone who watches it, different for every person. For you, this picture is sad, for me, too, but how others would receive it? We shall see.
Thank you very much for the interview.