The Last Lesson directed by Grzegorz Zariczny, the winner of Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival for his short film The Whistle, is one of two documentaries selected to the international documentary film competition at the 58th Krakow Film Festival where it will have its world premiere. The Festival Director, Krzysztof Gierat, talks to the director of the film.

Krzysztof Gierat: Did you have a master in your life?

Grzegorz Zariczny: As a young boy growing up in a rural area, I met Jerzy Ridan and it was he who believed in me; I have always appreciated Marcel Łoziński’s so‑called ‘long observation’, and Jacek Bławut taught me that films shouldn’t be made against people.

KG: So when you speak about boundaries in a documentary, you mainly mean not hurting the protagonist?

GZ: These stories are often so personal and painful that I can’t use them purely for my own satisfaction of making a cool film.

KG: But if you, let’s say, clean up your protagonists, you don’t show them as they really are.

GZ: I only protect them. One of the protagonists of The Dog Hill’s gave me a lot of himself, but I cut out a couple of things in the editing; perhaps not enough. Two years after the film’s release, he hung himself. I live with the feeling that maybe I could have saved him. Not only through my film, but also beyond it. Perhaps I missed the moment where I could have steered him away from this decision.

KG: A documentarian’s responsibility is a burden that Kieślowski experienced as well when he shied away from the documentary form... room in my head to carry it all. There is a box inside every human that can only fit so much and that’s it. No, I am not announcing the end of my documentary career here, but I know this moment will come.

GZ: The protagonists’ lives cumulate inside me. I have no more room in my head to carry it all. There is a box inside everyhuman that can only fit so much and that’s it. No, I am not announcing the end of my documentary career here, but I know this moment will come.

KG: You once provided the following definition of a documentary: ‘no off‑screen sounds, no music, no talking to the camera’.

GZ: Telling stories about the world through film has value to me when the director and the whole production effort are invisible. That’s when the viewers watch it and don’t think to themselves ‘what cool images and nice music’.

KG: So you want to create an illusion of entering the real world.

GZ: To stir emotion to the point where we forget we are watching a film.

KG: Yet you have to create the image.

GZ: I do create and I am aware of the means I am using for that purpose. I like long shots and a broader view, because they don’t judge the protagonist. A close‑up is a frame through which the director tries to penetrate the soul of the protagonist. I personally prefer it when viewers find what is hidden in that soul on their own. I don’t like music in a documentary, as it suggests what the protagonist is feeling. Happy music – happy protagonist. Sad music – sad protagonist.

KG: After your first two films: The Dog Hill and The Whistle, it has been said that you have an excellent feel for the provincial. Besides, you also declared that you don’t know the city, and yet you moved to a city.

GZ: I moved to a city, but quite a particular one. Nowa Huta is a district of Krakow which was built by people who came from the provinces and this is why I was able to find myself there. Obviously, the rural areas and suburbs will always be closer to me.

KG: Is the school from The Last Lesson a school in Nowa Huta?

GZ: Yes, I was a student of this high school in Nowa Huta. I spent a great deal of good time there, I received a lot from this school, and so I decided to tell its story after all the years. To describe the experiences and emotions – both mine and my classmates’.

KG: Did you find your former teachers there?

GZ: ... and the same emotions; the students were only a little bit different, but the problems of adolescence, love, and overcoming shyness remained the same.

KG: Are the young people selected from different classes and years at the school?

GZ: No, it is one group. For a year, I went there for documentation; I participated in various classes and watched those students. I wondered which class group would be the most tight‑knit and thus similar to mine.

KG: You started picking those protagonists out in the crowd, as the camera shows them cautiously. No violence takes place in these portraits, no clich.s in our minds about how brutal and inhumane young people are, nor is bullying referred to.

GZ: Sometimes, I witnessed this violence off‑camera, but to tell the story of how a school is bad, how people are bad? It is not me. I prefer to say that people need to change something about themselves, provide something to each other. This is what is important to me in the world and in film.

KG: So before you turned the camera on…

GZ: I talked to them, asked where they lived, how they lived, what they coped with and what they didn’t. And after a year, we started shooting in the class. After a few months, when they got used to me, I started penetrating their internal world, but I talked to them about it beforehand. I would meet them outside school, and tell them: ‘This is cool, you could talk about it with your pal in the religion class. If you feel like wanting the camera was set up, and we waited. Me in front of a monitor.

KG: Microphones, boom poles, crew?...

GZ: The teacher took up their attention. We accompanied the classes, we didn’t change them. There were no classes prepared at my request.

KG: Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to section it that way? Classes, then conversations during the breaks...

GZ: Yes, I assumed this would be the rhythm of the film.

KG: Did you usually film them in twos because this is when they were most sincere, without witnesses?

GZ: Yes, but I was also aware that a collective portrait is the hardest part. Marcel Łoziński said this was practically impossible. It is easier to follow an individual.

KG: Once or twice I felt you provoked a situation…

GZ: Yes, they performed small things at my request – ‘Go, you have to go up to that girl and talk to her.’ It is the so‑called thickening’, as Marcel Łoziński says.

KG: You treat all those teachers and students with respect. You try to show something positive.

GZ: It is easy to show a dirty sidewalk, but hard to show the person who cleans it up. I follow the latter.

KG: It is a collective portrait of young people before they make the most important choices. Right on the threshold.

GZ: The last moment of innocence. Once they pass ‘Matura’ and leave high school, they will start to lose their innocence. I wanted to capture the moment when all of us are still sincere, good in a way, and when we are about to face decisions about the future.

KG: You once said that Haneke is a director, the Dardenne brothers are directors too, yet you are merely a challenger. Do you still think so?

GZ: I still feel I am somewhere far behind them. I lack the knowledge and skills that would allow me to amass everything I need in a single material called a film.

KG: I am really curious about how the future of The Last Lesson will unfold, as it seems very universal.

GZ: I want to make films in such a way that an Inuit would understand them and for them to be translated into English. I want this film to reach everyone, not only the few Poles who spend their lives in Parliament and understand nothing but their own world.

KG: And films that talk about love.

GZ: Yes, about building love, searching for each other. Once you get to this desert island, it would be nice to be there with a group of 5‑6 people close to you, then it is possible to live.