The short documentary film "The Tough" will have its premiere at the end of January at the prestigious Sundance festival. We would like to invite you to read the interview with the director, Marcin Polar, conducted by Kaśka Paluch from

Paradoxically, in order to show the cave - the experience of being in it - you should not show it to the very end. How does the body, the mind and ... the camera behave in total darkness, under the ground? We talk to Marcin Polar, the author of the film which was selected for the upcoming Sundance festival: "The Tough" about the exploration of the Tatra cave.

Kaśka Paluch: Films from the caves, in comparison to these about other activities in the mountains, are definitely a rarity...

Marcin Polar: There are practically no such films. Getting acquainted with the films touching upon the subject matter of caves, I found out that not many of such films were made. There are some films shown at mountain film festivals, for example, the productions by Discovery, but these are typical television productions. Lots of talking heads, telling about the dangers and the wonders of cave exploration and potholing.

In general, potholing is a niche subject matter. As far as magazines, blogs and websites dedicated to caves are concerned, this is actually on the margins.

Because fewer people do it. It is not as attractive as climbing. In climbing, there is the effect, the landscapes, the action. The activity of cave exploration looks just like this: a dirty dude crawling in the mud. (Laughter) It is not very attractive to promote, to show, it looks rather like the activity of some avid "madmen."

It was one of the main thoughts which accompanied me while watching "The Tough." If we watch a film about mountain climbing, there is always a lot of drama in it. Wind, snow, break in the weather. In contrast, watching cave exploration is an almost meditative experience for the viewer. Silence, apparent calm, you cannot see much. But only seemingly, because there are dramatic plot twists in the caves, and what is more, they are often much more dramatic down there.

Yes, because if something happens in the cave, it is really bad. Particularly in caves which have a lot of tight routes. My imagination was awoken by the event which happened during our exploration of The Tough, at the bottom of the absolute well, where we had a camp. This place is shown in the film, this is the fragment where the speleologist goes down into a diagonal rift, and the hand "disappears" behind him. This is exactly where I tried to throw down a stone with my leg to widen the opening. Above my head, I heard rumbling, I jumped back instinctively and a second later, two boulders the size of television sets fell onto this place. I could only think about what would have happened if I had not jumped back in time. And imagine how the rescue team would get there, how much time would it have to take, what with hewing the stone in order to get there with the stretcher ... unimaginable. I remember that I sat down there, I thought for a moment and then I had to pull myself together. In my case, such feelings pass quickly and everything goes back to normal.

Exploring the caves requires some particular psychological constitution because, just like you say, it is very hard to reach a person who had an accident there. In a technical sense, but also in the sense that underground you have no contact with the outside world. A human being is completely isolated there. So if we talk about communing with the boundary between life and death, in a cave you come very near to it. I wonder if this is the reason why many people do not choose such a hardcore experience, even though they like communing with danger. 

I can see it even in Jarek [Jarosław Surmacz - speleologist, the main protagonist of "The Tough" - KP's note], who reviewed his outlook on the caves. Since he is a father, he does not go down as often as before. I also had such reflections, but in my case, there is a strong need for development and exploration. At some point, the caves which are known and accessible for the speleologists, where I used to go several times, started to bore me a bit. Now I climb with Andrzej Marcisz more often and I can see that on the mountain ridges and alps I experience a different aesthetics and gain more technical experience in wild and often unstable terrain. Now, the possibility to climb with this kind of a "guru" gives me the opportunity to make progress. Of course, I do not abandon the caves, I even ordered a new suit recently. Apart from that, the community itself discourages me from the caves.

It is rather hermetic ...

I am a bit of an outsider, I like to have my own rules, and in this community, it is difficult. There is a lot of rivalry and criticism of unconventional attitudes, the need for formalities. The community is peculiar, and I prefer to be as free as a bird, and occasionally go down to the caves with some speleologists I am friends with and work together with them instead of creating the club life.

It sounds a bit like the community of climbers from before a decade or two. For example, Adam Bielecki wrote the same things that you are saying now in his book about the beginnings of his own career. It is a pity, because such stories only hamper the development of the field, the harder it is to get professional equipment or a partner, the greater the chance that interested people would start to resign.

Sometimes I have the impression that these club communities are focused only on creating this club reality, and personal development is lost somewhere along the way. In any case, I have different needs than associating with groups. Climbing, caves should equal freedom, the option of using one's freedom. And it often happens that everything is closed in some kind of strange rules, determining who is allowed to do what and what is not allowed. For me, the only things that are unquestionable are the rules of respecting nature and the safety rules. Caves are a unique ecosystem where an excessive human interference will change them irrevocably and this is undisputed. In the same way, obeying the safety rules when you move underground is also undisputed.

From the film-making side, showing the caves is quite a challenge. A lot of light is often used to show the whole space, but "The Tough" is different in this respect. There is not much light, though I suspect that you had to use something more than only the headlamp, anyway.

The idea for the lighting actually evolved during work. In fact, at the beginning, I had the idea of lighting up the cave and showing all its spaces and various unique formations. I started doing it and many shots from the beginning were not included in the film, because they turned out to be inconsistent with the idea, which also evolved in me during the process of film-making, that is, the idea of minimalism. I came to the conclusion that it would be better to render the real image of what the speleologist sees. 

But this is not easier at all.

I was offered GoPro, but there was a problem with it, namely, my then-top model had a poor speed and spread, so the contrast between the boundary of the lighting and the total darkness was too great and the camera simply could not make it. Part of the shots come from Lumix GH2, which did quite well in this environment, but most of them are from the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera, with the Super 16-sized sensor. To all this, I added the converging lens, which gave me the standard Super 35, that is, the classic motion picture film format. Due to the fact that it focused the image on the smaller matrix, it also increased the lens speed of the lens by almost two diaphragms.  And this was the perfect solution because of the limitations of the speed of the camera, over ISO800, there were very large image noises, which were unacceptable in the film. So I tried to save myself using very bright lenses. The idea was that the lighting came mainly from the headlamps of the main protagonist and this idea also evolved. Initially, when we started to shoot the film there, Jarek's headlamp was rather weak, but it illuminated his face beautifully.

This is where this portrait shown in all press releases came from? (Laughter)

It is exactly thanks to the headlamp. But later on Jarek started to use a much stronger headlamp, it was powerful, probably over 200 lumens. Of course, we did not use such power. In some scenes, the headlamp alone would have made it impossible to see any space in which the protagonist was located. For this I used two small LED panels, which I initially really used to illuminate the whole space. But shown in this way, the cave did not look disturbing at all.

But this is not what you see when you explore a cave.

Exactly. In this light, the cave looked friendly and warm. (Laughter) I later started to use these panels only to show the delicate structures of the cave, and to selectively or only minimally fill it with reflected light. But it is so, as you may remember, only in the first part of the film.

In the second part, we go down deeper ...

And it is getting darker and colder. I changed the type of lighting, I had a powerful military torchlight with three spotlights which shone with a very focused white light. And these are the shots visible in the film, when the protagonist, for example, takes on water.

I remember.

This gave the effect of complete darkness with the counterpoint, which described something. All this was one great juggling: how to illuminate the cave in order to show in the most accurate way how it is actually perceived by the speleologists.

I think this is what makes this film special. Because, as I mentioned earlier, most films about caves simply illuminate them completely, and this is absolutely not what you really see there when you are inside. In a nutshell, the cave does not look like this.

In this, I also opposed the traditional cave photography. Illuminating these spaces can be effective, but often it is also kitschy. (Laughter)

I remember a photo essay made a few years before, it was from the Mylna Cave in the Tatra Mountains. Impressive lighting, but this place did not resemble the Mylna Cave that I know in any way ...

Photography can often defend itself, but in the film, the complete illumination of the cave is the way to make a nature documentary, for example, to show the beauty of the underground flora or fauna, but it is not, however, the way to show the experience of being in a cave. These are completely different stories.

Paradoxically, to show the cave ...

... you should not show it too much. (Laughter)

Was there a moment in your speleologist career when the cave showed you its demonic side?

Apart from this story from The Tough, which I have already mentioned, another event comes to my mind. We were shooting the material on diving in the Miętusia Cave. It was a rather long, time-consuming action. Just on this day, the cave was wet, my suit - even though it was with Gore-Tex - was completely soaked with water, I was also wet underneath the suit, and I helped with transporting the equipment in the pouring water for a long time. At one point, the initial hypothermia caught me, I started to feel uncomfortable, also in the mental sense - I was irritable and unpleasant for people. I only wanted to go to my sleeping bag, in my down jacket, and try to warm up. It took me almost two hours. At the same time, it happened to two other people from the film crew and such situations make it really difficult to be in the cave.

Pervasive darkness in the cave, permanent dampness, the sense of isolation, all this makes it easier for all kinds of problems to arise - with the body and with the mind.

I imagined what the people who had an accident in a cave must be going through when they are stuck in a cave and it is not possible to warm themselves up. A hopeless situation…

Well, I think that reading our conversation will encourage many new people to explore the caves. (Laughter)

I have a huge fondness for the caves and I will definitely come back to them. Particularly because there are still a lot of things to discover there and it gives me a great amount of satisfaction. I have always been attracted to the caves because I could get to know something new and unique.

"The Tough" goes to the Sundance festival. Are you surprised?

Extremely! This whole story was one great surprise because the film was selected from among thousands of entries, the festival replied almost immediately. It is a great success for a beginner film-maker and a great honour. For me, the Sundance is a quality brand, every film presented there made, in my opinion, the history of cinema. "The Tough" is included in this group, does it mean that we are making history? 

It looks like it. And how are you preparing for it?

Most of all, there is a lot of e-mail writing and replying to a plethora of questions sent by the festival, and these are often very surprising questions.

For example?

Did I shoot the film with the camera which belonged to me or did I borrow it? And what is my sexual orientation? (Laughter)

This does not surprise me, as far as the Sundance is concerned, anyway. (Laughter)

In any case, the questions are detailed, there are a lot of them, and what is more, the Sundance has many departments which do not share this information with each other, so in general, now I am mainly busy writing e-mails. In addition, it is important to us to promote and show the film in the best possible way ...

I know that your film plans go much further and beyond the mountain subject matter. There is a chance that the fact that "The Tough" goes to the Sundance will label you as the speleologist film-maker.

There is a big chance of that and now it is important to use it well. On the one hand, I want to show that as a film-maker I can pull myself together in a difficult mountain or cave terrain, so you can invite me to this kind of projects. On the other hand, I would like to show that I do not limit myself to this subject matter.

You can take it at face value that for me, "The Tough" is rather the image of a film-maker who can explore caves than that of a speleologist who bought a camera.

I would also like the film to take people who have never experienced anything like that to the world of the caves. So that they could see how it really looks like, so that they could feel it, particularly all those people who have never been in such a place and who are perhaps not even interested in it.

It worked. Watching "The Tough," you often have to catch your breath.

If you can feel this darkness, this pressure, and this whole atmosphere - it means that the film has succeeded.


The interview conducted by Kaśka Paluch