‘I was in a dilemma upon deciding what can be shown in the film. The sight of two paddles of a defibrillator in direct contact with heart doesn’t terrify me, I’ve got used to it. But is the viewer ready for such scenes?’ Daniel Stopa speaks with Tomasz Wolski about the film "Doctors".

How long did you work on the latest documentary? 

Tomasz Wolski: I’ve visited the John Paul II Hospital for the first time in 2008. At that time, the hospital had a different director, and I had a different vision of the film. I wanted to portray doctors only during surgeries, and thus show all the drama of operations. I received the permission and  landed at Dr Olechnowicz’s thoracic surgery department. He took me into an operating theatre. Already at that moment I knew he could be a perfect protagonist, he had a certain something. 

In 2008 you were working also on other films... 

T.W.: Yes, in the meantime I was finishing the editing to The Lucky Ones as well as shooting Slowly and ”H2O”. I had to stop the shooting in the hospital, when I decided to come back to this topic, the director of the institution was arrested by the Internal Security Agency. It wasn’t the best time to enter the hospital with a camera. I waited for the nomination of a new director, and then I had to get a new permission for the shooting.

Was it difficult to get the permission?

T.W.: I didn’t expect such a quick and positive reaction on the part of the director, Mrs. Anna Prokop-Staszecka. I sent an e-mail to the board of the hospital and 20 minutes later I got a phone call with the good news. Then, for 5 months, we were negotiating the details of the contract with hospital’s lawyers – settling the rules of my stay at the premises. The documentation, that is working without a camera, took another four months. I spent that time visiting departments and looking for doctors who could participate in the film. Then, I began the shooting, which took four months.

How long was the footage and how did the editing look like?

T.W.: I recorded 70 hours of footage. The editing looked just like in the case of previous films. After a day of shooting, I sit by the computer and edit systematically. When I come home, I know whether I have something good or not, and where it is. I arrange a scene and catalogue the footage according to protagonists. After making a few interesting scenes, I begin to put them together, I watch how they harmonize. I go for another day of shooting and come back with new footage. Then, I edit new scenes and add them to the already existing. And so on. Thus, pretty soon I have something resembling an initial puzzle. The editing lasts during the whole shooting period and until few days before the premiere. 

The world presented in the documentary seems closed: the camera never leaves the hospital, the patients’ faces remain anonymous. A hospital is not just doctors, but you decided to focus on the title characters. Why so?

T.W.: I portrayed patients in my first film, The Clinic. From the start, I knew that Doctors would be a documentary only about the title characters. I was interested in their world, relationships, problems. If I had introduced patients, the focus would unintentionally move towards them. I didn’t want that; I wasn’t interested in the stories, lives, and problems of the people who where in the ward. I was curious how people from whom we demand very much, sometimes even to be miracle-workers (after all our lives depend on them), deal with all of that. Although such a great responsibility rests with them, they are ordinary people with common imperfections. I wanted the audience to look at doctors from a different perspective. Naturally, there had to be patients in the film; they are an inseparable part of doctors’ work. They are present in the film, but either outside the frame or totally fuzzy. They were shot in such a manner from the very beginning.

And the closed, alienated world of doctor?

T.W.: You say I created a closed world, but this world really is like that –inaccessible for a mere mortal , which seemed interesting to me. I limited myself to scenes which we would most probably never experience, for example a heart surgery. If we land on the table, it will be only under anesthesia; or the so-called Heart Team, that is the qualification of patients on the basis of test results, carried out by, among other, cardiac surgeon, cardiologist, and anesthetist – no one would ever allow a patient to observe these meetings. I will answer the question in one sentence: simply, I was interested in the world of doctors. There is no point to go with the camera outside their world or to built space artificially. 

We can see some of the cardiac surgeon more often then others (eg. Marek Krochin). Did you know before the shooting on who you would focus? 

T.W.: Before the shooting I knew that the documentary has to have two protagonists: the cardiologist, Marek Krochin and thoracic surgeon, Henryk Olechnowicz. They are outstanding specialists with exceptionally strong personalities, interesting and intelligent. I knew that the camera would love them instantly. During the shooting, I met doctor Bogusław Kapelak, who is leading the Heart Team. I liked very much the way he carried out his research. Doctor Kapelak is attentive, matter-of-fact, sees things which other seem not to notice, and he has this sense of humour, which I like. I started to visit him more often, like Krochin and Olechowicz. I wanted to work with and film people that interest me, who have a sense of humour, are intelligent, and don’t object to my presence. What’s more important, I didn’t want to suffer spending time together. During this shooting it was just the other way round.

What was the biggest difficulty?

T.W.: Doctors start their day very early, so the greatest problem was getting up in the morning. All the more because I like to stay up late, and my, at that time, half-year old daughter was waking up at night. The visits in the operating wing were difficult to endure physically. A surgeon has two big surgeries a day. They start at 8 am and finish around 3 pm. Of course a surgery can lengthen. Between the surgeries there is one break. Operating, they are standing all the time, and I was standing with my camera as well. My joints were not used to such an effort. What is more, the surgeons are standing unnaturally bent over the patient. It is an extremely difficult work physically. After a day of filming surgeries, I came back home and lied down on the sofa at least for one hour recovering.

Your films often show situations independent from our interference (e.g. in „Slowly”). In Doctors we experience an almost miraculous recovery that Dr Krochin tells us. Does Tomasz Wolski’s method of documenting involve waiting patiently for a “miracle”? 

T.W.: I think it’s a combination of few things – patience, empathy and, above all, good intuition. From the beginning, I knew that in Doctors those “miracles” are necessary – both positive and negative. I wanted to include scenes in which the heroes are surprised by the reality; show that the human body is unpredictable – sometimes in plus, sometimes in minus. Every one of us is different, responds differently to e.g. medications – they can help one person but not the other although the symptoms are the same. This makes doctors’ work even more complicated and interesting at the same time. 

So your work was waiting for the mentioned above in plus and in minus? 

T.W.: I had to wait patiently for all the „gifts”. I guess this is my method of work; I wait and film scenes from the beginning till the end, even if in the beginning nothing happens. In the least expected moment something can happen so it’s better to have the camera turned on.

What is this „something”, this „miracle” that the director awaits patiently? 

T.W.: Every time, it is something else. Sometimes a joke, a gesture. In scriptwriting textbooks, wise men from Hollywood advise to put a ‘hook’ into every scene, something that catches the attention, surprises, intrigues. I look for such ‘hooks’ in a documentary – the less spectacular the better. I don’t work with a cameraman. I stand behind the camera on my own, because I can’t explain to another person what to film, what to pay attention to, why once the camera has to focus only on the face of the protagonist, while another time it has to show something else. Why does it has to be this way? I don’t know. I just feel it that way and can’t explain the reasons.

Did you have qualms about looping into the area of surgery?

T.W.: During the first visit in the hospital in 2008 doctor Olechnowicz cured me out of this. ‘Mr. Chief Director, please come and take a look at this’, he said and I had no choice. I couldn’t start making a film about doctors without overcoming this problem. Today, the look of an open chest, beating heart, blood, or cutting the sternum doesn’t make such an impression on me and I wonder why it did before. I see flesh and muscles every Saturday, when we’re preparing chicken for dinner, blood is spurting from the TV so after all we should be used to it and prepared. We are not.

You have overcome your problem making this documentary, but can the audience prepare themselves for such a “bloody” experience? 

T.W.: I was in a dilemma upon deciding what can be shown in the film. The sight of two paddles of a defibrillator in direct contact with heart doesn’t terrified me, I’ve got used to it. But is the viewer ready for such scenes? Am I supposed to prepare him for it? Should I show such scenes? Maybe they should be put towards the end of the film? I shot them and threw away almost all of them during the editing, because I decided that I don’t want this kind of literalism in my film. I think that their lack or just a suggestion make greater impression on the viewer who can watch drastic accidents, beheading, and Iraqi executions on the Internet. 

Tomasz Wolski was interviewed by Daniel Stopa.

(Translation by Olga Brawańska)