“Call me Marianna”, a new film by Karolina Bielawska, is taking world by storm. Soon, the audience of IDFA will have opportunity to watch it. In the interview, the director talks about her work on the film and her relation with the main character.

After a great success at this year’s Krakow Film Festival (the film won four awards, including the Golden Horn and Audience Award), Marianna’s story has been appreciated by the Semaine de la Critique jury at Locarno Film Festival, where “Call ma Marianna” had its international premiere. Karolina Bielawska received Premio Zonta Club Locarno award. Other awards, won by the film at film festivals all around the world, made the screening at upcoming IDFA possible. The film will be screened in Amsterdam in the Best of Fests section. Karolina Bielawska has talked about her film with Krzysztof Gierat, Krakow Film Festival director. 

Krzysztof Gierat: I must start by mentioning the Krakow Film Festival. A few years back you won the national competition, and this year you received the main prize in the international competition as well as a number of other awards.

Karolina Bielawska: Including the audience award. Who knows if this wasn’t the most important one! It would be difficult to imagine a better start, both this and last time. Yes, I was very fortunate to receive these awards in Krakow. I would wish every film to have a similar premiere.

Tell me what you’ve been up to all this time? A few years have passed.

Five. After completing Warsaw Available co‑directed with Julia Ruszkiewicz, I came across the subject of transsexuality. And I met Marianna. 

So you simply wanted to make a film about gender reassignment.

I read an article about Anna Grodzka, a member of Polish parliament, who underwent the change as an adult.I wanted to know what it was like to live in a body that wasn’t yours. I was wondering whether or not her family knew. Why she resigned herself to living a lie? Initially I had a feature film in mind, but once I met Marianna I knew that she would make a great protagonist: someone far from clichés about transsexuals,a modest, religious, and attractive woman of conservative outlook longing for normalcy. No actor would match her authenticity, so I decided to make a documentary instead. 

This was still prior to the surgery, but she was alreadbecoming a woman. 

Physically, Marianna already looked like a woman. But at that point she had already been waiting four years for the court case to end – one that would allow her to undergo the change. Regardless of a person’s age, Polish law required that their parents appear in court and give their consent for their child’s gender reassignment. Only after the court’s ruling the whole transition process would begin, including change of documents and surgery.

But her co‑workers already knew about her plans.

Yes. Her colleagues accepted her decision and even testified in her favour in court.

Does it mean that at first they perceived her as a man,and then as a woman?

Exactly, but they said she was an odd man being Wojtek. 

And they accepted this transition?

Yes, and they supported her at difficult times.

This is truly inspiring.

It was impossible to remain indifferent when one saw how much she wanted it and what she had to go through to achieve something that no one should have to fight for. However, whenwe asked Marianna’s boss about possibly filming her at work (she was working at the Warsaw underground as an automation specialist, i.e. a person responsible for passenger security), we heard – ‘No! It would be bad for the company’s image that we have a two‑headed calf working for us!’ It was the same every step of the way. Making this film made me understand how hard it is for Marianna to be forced to prove time and again that she is normal, that she deserves respect.

But if I’m not mistaken, your initial approach was slightly different. You wanted to show the problem through other people’s reactions: how they wouldn’t make it easy for her, how intolerant they were. Yet, after a while you adopted Marianna’s point of view, identifying yourself more with your protagonist.

I knew from the start that I didn’t want to make a film about gender reassignment; it was merely an excuse to tell a story about a human being and their need for closeness and acceptance. This was the original idea.

You also knew from the very beginning that Marianna’s family wouldn’t appear in the film.

This is why I came up with theatre scenes.

So you knew from the start how you wanted to tell the story. It was a highly original idea.

I didn’t want to tell about Marianna’s past and her relationship with her wife through talking heads or off‑screen narration. I opted for a more cinematic way, through scenes played by actors.

Let us explain this further. Saying theatrical scenes you refer the so‑called table rehearsals. Two excellent, well‑known Polish actors who read out…?

They read out extracts from a play based on Marianna and her ex‑wife’s life written specifically for the film. This serves a double purpose: informative and emotional. Firstly, it allows the viewer to learn about Marianna’s past as Wojtek; secondly, it serves as a form of psychodrama, a cleansing that stirs Marianna’s emotions. This idea had been with me from the very beginning of the project and I worked consistently
towards it.

You already had a concept of the film, but you couldn’t anticipate the incredible plot twist. I refer to Marianna’s sickness. After gender change she was a beautiful woman. But in the first scene we see a damaged, deformed person,only afterwards learning what had happened.

Indeed, life wrote a script that no one could foresee. At some point, filming was relegated to the background. When Marianna got sick, the most important thing was whether she would live. The doctors didn’t give her much hope. The only people who kept her company in the hospital and helped her with eating and bathing were Andrzej, Marianna’s partner whom she met a while back, and I. This was another traumatic experience for us.

This may sound strange, but it added drama to the film. Did you know from the start who to invite to table rehearsals? Did you know from the beginning that you would want them to analyse their characters and to try to work on their roles, which added greatly to the film?

I wanted a strong male actor to play Wojtek in order to emphasize the contrast between him and Marianna. Both MariuszBonaszewski and Jowita Budnik, who played the wife, did a great job. I knew immediately that I wanted the actors to try to find out more about the characters and their history, desires, feelings and emotions. This allowed them to inquire about what I missed in the picture. I knew what elements I needed to structure the film and if I didn’t have them on film, I could introduce them through rehearsals. While we improvised I watched the reactions of Marianna and the actors. In the scenes about her past when she was still Wojtek, everyone refers to her as ‘him’; this was initiated by Marianna herself, she talked about herself from that time as ‘him’. I liked this and I wanted us to use this form consistently in all theatre scenes.

An important element of your film were homemade recordings documenting family life, something common in familymovie type of documentaries. They allowed you to show how Marianna looked like when she was still Wojtek.

Marianna was loath to show me her photos from the past, because she denies her past self. However, this past was important for the film. I didn’t want to tell Marianna’s story from her point of view only; this is why I kept in touch with her ex‑wife who gave me the family recordings and showed me the photos. In the end Marianna accepted this.

All reviews highlight the very close relationship between you and Marianna. It is commonly said that a documentary filmmaker shouldn’t get too close to the protagonist. On the other hand, there are filmmakers such as our Dragon of Dragons award winner Helena Třeštíková, who develops close friendships with her characters. Was this the reason for the truthfulness and honesty of your film? Because while the closeness between you two is obvious, you don’t abuse it.

Marianna’s story became a part of my life. I made this film because I felt a need to share the story as I saw it. It was very important for me not to hurt my protagonist or her loved ones. This is a profound and intimate portrayal because we have come to like each other as people. But I never wanted to violate the privacy of Marianna’s body. I show her in situations that expose her feelings and emotions, because they reflect what is most important to her, but I never cross the line of exposing her body.

There is this extraordinary moment when right after the surgery she calls her friend saying: ‘I have a pussy!’ Her joy, eagerness, determination, and need to cross to the other side are captivating. While others warn her that the process would be irreversible, she knows that it is what she wants. To what extent the person that we see is your creation?

I knew what scenes I required to tell the story. I needed scenes at work, on a bus, or at the hospital among other people to show Marianna as an ordinary member of society and to tell about her desire for normalcy. The process before shooting a documentary is extremely important for the director and the protagonist alike. The protagonist needs to know what he or she agrees to participate in and how inconvenient this is going to be. It took me quite a long time to find financing for the project, which allowed us to get to know each other very well. Before we started shooting, I told her: ‘This is the time when you can back out; think carefully whether you really want this’. The period of filming is extremely taxing for the protagonist, both physically and mentally. 

Especially considering that it’s not only you and her, but the whole crew. Camera operator, sound technician…

If I filmed everything that happened off‑screen, perhaps it would be an entirely different film. So what if something incredible happens when it cannot be seen or heard because there was no camera present. I’m well aware that the film is not made of what I saw, but what was recorded on camera.

How big was the crew? 

There were three, sometimes four people. 

I don’t personally know Kacper Czubak, the film’s DoP, but he has a kind look in his eyes. This also could have contributed to putting Marianna at ease.

This film was made in a company of friends. Kacper is a great cameraman, and I also had an excellent editor Daniel Gąsiorowski. We are a team that gets together not only when we are working on a film, but also privately. Marianna also became a friend of ours. The film is a result of this mutual relationship.

So you must like your protagonist.

I must like the protagonist and he or she must interest me as a person. Spending so much time with someone who doesn’t interest me would be a disaster. 

You mentioned in your interviews that Marianna’s sickness coincided with your own.

Yes. And making the film became for me a form of therapy. During filming I found out that I had breast cancer and I had to undergo a surgery as soon as possible. At that point we filmed all the outstanding material and I went to the hospital. Marianna called me after my surgery and invited me to join her and Andrzej at the seaside. I hung up feeling offended – there I was fighting for my life and she goes and suggests a trip to the seaside. But then I though: I have an ending for the film! I asked the doctor for permission and all bandaged up I went. When we were shooting on the beach I had an impression that it was for me that Andrzej was pushing Marianna’s wheelchair. This made a beautiful scene.

In this final scene you finally let the film’s recurring musical theme play out. The uninformed hear merely a beautiful song, while for the more musically savvy the figure of the singer opens up a new perspective. Antony’s Another World was one of the parts that you fought for to the end.

For me this music was an integral part of the film. I knew that we didn’t have sufficient funds, but we managed to reach Antony and showed him the film, and it worked.

What about the producer, did he offer you support?

I felt the support of Zbyszek Domagalski from the Kalejdoskop Film Studio, also in personal matters and when production of the film was threatened. It was important that he came to like Marianna and helped to dispel her doubts regarding her participation in the film.

This is not just another documentary about gender reassignment. While each and every film on the subject talks about determination and exclusion, this one is unique. We identify entirely with the protagonist; we are with her and want her to succeed. Your film also plays an important social role.

It wasn’t my intention to make an educational film. That said, it does have educational value, because it raises people’s awareness, showing them a person fighting for acceptance.

The film captures how difficult it is to function within society, within family, among loved ones, when one wants to retain individual freedom. It makes you realise that sometimes a person’s happiness goes against the happiness of others. After all, to certain extent Marianna built her own happiness at the expense of others, rejecting the role imposed on her by culture and tradition. Call Me Marianna is also an appeal for tolerance and mutual respect.

SOURCE: "Focus on Poland" Magazine, 2/2015, publisher: Krakow Film Foundation.