Daniel Stopa talks to Wojciech Staroń about making ‘Argentinian Lesson’, music inspirations and ways of documenting ‘simple matters’.

‘Argentinian Lesson’ has won five awards during the 51st Krakow Film Festival, including The Golden Horn Award and The Award Of The Polish Association Of Cinematographers, both for best photography. Whilst giving their feedback, the judging panel described your film as a true masterpiece. What was your reaction?

W. S.: You know, for me the biggest reward is that ‘Argentinian Lesson’ gets across and that people are watching this film, interpreting and discussing it. Festival highlights and positive responses from the judges are also very important, especially as I am always trying to aim higher. Firstly, I collaborate with various great directors and I observe how they make films, their attitude towards the protagonist as well as how they achieve the essence of reality. Secondly, it’s vital to me to nail the point in a film, I am against documentaries in which ‘the tabloids’ headlines’ are the main subject. The floating subject very often absolves the authors from maneuvering with film form. At some point, the look of the film or how it  is made is no longer important; but it is its ‘hot topic’ that counts the most. I am very pleased that my work was appreciated in Krakow.

I already know the kind of films you are against. So, what sort of documentaries do you prefer?

W. S.: To me, making documentaries is like stepping into a completely new environment. I can’t come up with an idea and then simply film it – transfer my imagination into pictures or a finished form. I’m always curious where the film will take me, so I try to gain an insight into it during the principal photography and post-production. Often, in the end, I am surprised with its results, when we have created a totally different documentary than originally planned. As for the subject, I always aim to talk about simple things, independent of the socio-political situation. To me, the politics can be entirely pushed aside, it is never a starting point for me. 

Janek appears to fit in to your hunger for the unknown, the eagerness to get to know the world. A child seems to be a proper example of litmus paper, an excuse allowing observation. After watching the film we have noticed that it is you who learn more.

W. S.: Yes, I was searching for the right element that would enable me to follow my interests, to look at everything through a camera. Sometimes with a smile, another time with sympathy or irony. Following a child with the camera it’s the ideal excuse to observe simple, every-day activities – sometimes even in a rather naïve way. Through Janek I was trying to find those little metaphors that a viewer can generalize and fit in general truths about life, feelings, relationships. On top of that I think that ‘Argentinian Lesson’, like every documentary, is a kind of a meeting – a meeting with a new world, people, reality. Thanks to the presence of a child I could experience such a feeling myself, enter a different world and open my own too. In ‘Argentinian Lesson’ we can see how certain relationships are formed between Janek and Marcia, how the process of getting closer is being built between the two people. In a documentary this close up is the most beautiful – just like in a real life.

In both ‘Syberian Lesson’ and ‘Argentinian Lesson’ knowledge is mutual. Departure and Polish lessons are an obvious excuse of the narrative.  

W. S.: In the beginning the assumption is exactly like this: Małgosia is to teach Polish and it is indeed happening. However, each meeting is a big learning tool for us. We get to know how others live, how they can do something better, or sometimes worse, what their problems are etc. There is a sort of mutual learning experience occurring. The Syberian and Argentinian experiences taught us empathy and co-responsibility for others. In both films we treat people we meet as our partners. We learn life mutually.

In ‘Argentinian…’ the verbal side, dialogue is at a minimum. Does visual story-telling based on moving images interest you more?

W. S.: Absolutely. I think you should watch a film even when somebody turns the sound off. A film without sound can be very compelling. I always try to treat dialogue more as sound, something that can add a lot to the meaning, but it stays as an absolute minimum. As I have mentioned earlier, my observation is limited to simple things – every day activities. But I try to look at everything so that this perception expresses some feelings, emotions that a viewer can recognise.  ‘Argentinian…’ almost entirely consists of small activities such as hide and seek, setting up a shop or brick-making. You need, of course, to link these things coherently. The scene set up has an extraordinary meaning; there are some elements that need enforcement and others that need a punchline. I very much like to compare film to music. The dramatic structure of a film should resemble the structure of a music composition. Chorus, climax point, faster and slower elements – it can be all found in a documentary film.

Do you play any instrument yourself?

W. S.: I’ve never played any instrument, but I listen to music quite a lot. I imagine that you can lead the camera, just like rock stars play their concerts – a bit aggressive emotionally. I do like jazz and often while making features I collaborate with actors observing how they improvise; I let the camera go and wait, to see what is going to happen. I also get inspiration from classical music that expresses emotions in more harmonious, peaceful way. Therefore I work a bit like a musician. 

Coming back to cutting the verbal sphere, I was wondering whether introducing dialogue and voice-over wouldn’t falsify the truth about the protagonist of ‘Argentinian…’? Janek seems to be quite a retiring child. 

W. S.: Exactly, I was even trying to record voice-over with Janek – I thought that the film would be based on a verbal commentary. It didn’t work out at all. Janek didn’t feel like showing his emotions during the conversation whatsoever – I think he isn’t that age just yet to start talking openly about feelings. We had another idea to film the conversations between Janek and Małgosia, in which we would sum up some events (for example Marcia’s situation). On one hand, it wasn’t my aim because I preferred telling the story through a visual image and contrasting various scenes – not via dialogue. On the other, Janek is a reticent person, but very active physically; he was constantly coming up with new fun and games, new tasks. I was observing him and didn’t need any words at all. 

You also mentioned that scene lay out is extremely important. How did the editing look like? 

W. S.: The editing was multi-phased and extremely difficult. In the beginning, we had to cut the whole footage. Next stage was related to synchronization of sound. I was shooting on cameras that don’t record sound. I had to use sound recorders instead. I needed sounds and dialogue in synch and I had to do it manually. It was difficult, time consuming work. Only after that the process of creative editing has begun, during which I received a lot of help from various people including Zbigniew Osiński, Agnieszka Bojanowska or Marian Marzyński. Together we watched various versions many times, changing ‘plywood’, moving scenes around, creating new sequences in the film. ‘Argentinian…’ consisted of particular bases that we knew we had to shoot in chronological order, such as the arrival, departure or first day at school. The rest was like building bricks, small elements that can be compared in many ways. We piece them together so that they will create a story about the experiences of a girl and a boy. 

You chose to work with tape, which limited the length of the film to just nine hours. Did it influence integrity of the film?

W. S.: Certainly. While I was filming I knew I would need to choose just a few takes. I started to select the scenes in my mind much earlier. I was also awaiting chosen moments in extreme tension, so that I wouldn’t lose anything, to ensure the camera was on. This is the main difference between shooting on digital tape and on video. When you shoot on video camera, you’ve got the complete scene from a beginning to an end. Therefore it is very easy to lose this ‘something’, this tension. If I shot ‘Argentinian…’ on video, I would have at least hundred hours of footage. It is difficult to work with it. Additionally, I like to make film from various ‘shreds’. Sometimes it can be only recorded sound or a short take, from an entirely different scene. I’ve got a sequence like this when Marcia comes back from her father – it is an emotional collage of at first totally unrelated scenes.  Tape helps this kind of solution. I collect and merge takes, shot in different place and time, however, in the same spirit, and then a new ‘word’ is created of them.  

Have you ever run out of tape?

W. S.: Surely. On many occasions I ran out of ‘reel’ or had to swap tapes and lost the scene. But you can always turn everything to the bright side. When you are overlooking something and need to switch tapes you’ve got a two-minute break, so you observe what is happening and thinking how to capture what you’ve missed. In a documentary film even though you haven’t managed to capture what you wanted in hundred per cent, but it happened in front of you, you will somehow restore it. You can tell what was missed through filming something new, people or events. I have learnt it shooting on tape. It makes you think.

During last year’s Berlinale you were rewarded for best photography on ‘El premio’ by Paula Markovitch.  Allegedly ‘Argentinian...’ is reminiscent of it... 

W. S.: There are a lot of similarities: Argentina, small town, school, children of similar age. A girl – as Janek – thrown into a new place, to an unknown city. In ‘El premio’, like in ‘Argentinian…’, the socio-political issues are  far in the background. They obviously pervade the screen, but you don’t talk about it. Stories are extremely short, they consider relations with other children, regardless of the context.

Have you learnt from the experiences of shooting both films?

W.S. I have started principal photography on ‘El premio’ after a year and a half’s work on ‘Argentinian…’, thus   I have gained large experience with Argentinian children; I knew how they react to camera, what is happening at their school. Therefore, the documentary experiences, observations of reality transferred onto a storyline. Even the Argentineans didn’t know about Argentinian school as much as I did. I helped them by providing information about the set or some school rituals. All of that has connected us enormously. 

You once mentioned that you are preparing two versions of ‘Argentinian...’ – for television and for the cinema distribution. In Krakow you presented the shorter one. When and where are we able to watch the cinematic version? 

W. S.: I am constantly trying, having a go at the possibility of using some extra scenes I like, to extend the television version for another ten minutes so that it meets the theatrical requirements. As for the cinema distribution, it is extremely hard to screen ‘Argentinian…’ once it had been shown on television. People, who potentially could have watched the film would have seen it on television and probably wouldn’t go to cinema after all. Distribution also requires a lot of money and time. Of course, we would like ‘Argentinian…’ to have theatrical distribution; I feel this film is made for cinema, it is full of nuances, details creating the vibe. We also think of the festival distribution.

Do you know at which international festivals you will screen ‘Argentinian Lesson’?

W. S.: We still don’t know that. We are invited to numerous festivals, but these are the invitations to the main selection only – the final selection hasn’t happened yet. The majority of most important festivals have the premiere requirement. Katarzyna Wilk from the Krakow Film Foundation has her finger on the pulse, making sure a film will have a premiere at a bigger festival. I hope it will happen.

I wish you all that and thank you for the interview.

W. S.: Thank you.

Wojciech Staroń was interviewed by Daniel Stopa.

(Translation by Aleksandra Kaplon)