Krzysztof Gierat talks to Rafał Łysak whose documentary debut "Unconditional Love" won the Golden Hobby Horse for the best film in the Polish competition at the 58th Krakow Film Festival. The film's international premiere will take place at the biggest in the wolrd festival for documentary films - IDFA - at Competition for Short Docs.

Krzysztof Gierat: You are a child of the Third Polish Republic, you were born a day after the second round of the first free elections – on June 19, 1989. Is it of any particular meaning to you?

Rafał Łysak: I've just started to consciously think about it for the first time but I don’t have any specific answer yet.

So you are a tabula rasa, you were born in a new system and you don't feel the need to get back to previous times in any way?

No, not yet.

First you wanted to become an actor. Did you change your mind later on, or was this always part of your plans?

It was actually the other way around. I made amateur films, but when I had to choose a degree, I decided I wouldn't pass the exams to be a director. So I thought about acting, since I wanted to be close to this world and this kind of people.

Many people devote their lives to becoming actors but you just “boom!”, you just passed the exams?

It wasn't really a “boom”. After high school I had a two-year break, I took this time to make some choices and decisions. I decided to concentrate on acting and became fully devoted to it. I spent almost a year in Kraków, where I attended special class that prepared me for the exams.

Do you find it useful now?

I think, yes. It made me very open for people, and before it I was shy, close. That degree was kind of therapeutic for me, I started to be curious about people and wanted to get to know them better.

And then the Wajda School appeared...

When I graduated from acting school, I started to think about making films again. I wrote a feature screenplay to bring it to the Munk Studio. Jacek Bławut saw the material about my grandma and advised me to study in the Wajda School.

Was your grandma the reason why you made the film, or did you have a plan for your film to come out?

My grandma has always been a striking person and the camera just rested on her all the time. But my real coming out was my amateur film Łysak, in which I show the situation when my grandma heard about my orientation for the first time. Then I had more and more material about my grandma, so I thought I would make a film about her. I hid behind the camera and the lens was focused on her alone, but my orientation was the main trigger of our conflict. The decision to make a film about me and my grandma was made when Jacek Bławut became the artistic curator of my debut.

Do you mean that you used material documenting many years of observing your relationship with your grandma in this film?

Yes, the shot when my grandma grieves over me being gay was made in 2008.

Its surprising how I don't notice this passage of time, the seasons and hairstyles change, but the only material from a visibly different time is the scene of your second birthday, something you can see from the video recording date.

Yes, this material is my confrontation with my past, my father. The trauma related with him connected us. And the scene when grandma reacts to my sexual orientation was built in the current narrative.

So, it seems that your grandma became the co-maker of the film somehow, an insider (the winking, the knowing looks) who plays her previous states of mind in front of the camera.

But she is like this every single day, no matter if the camera is on her or not.

The film is even more reliable, since you show what is behind the scenes, it is something more than a personal and self-theme picture, for example when you say: “Can you move this bag?” or “Can we repeat this?” Since you went back to your childhood just for a moment, does it mean that this material was all that you had, or you didn't want to show more than your relationship with your grandma? Actually, we don't know much about your family, apart from the fact that your grandma raised you. Does it mean that you will go back to your home in another film?

I am thinking about another family-related topic.

Did you have any film models in this project? During the screening of the films which won Krakow Film Festival awards, Marcin Koszałka sent me a message asking for your number...

Yes, I got a message from him, a very nice one.

He felt you were soulmates, he followed his mother with a camera himself... Did you try to find a model of your debut filming, or was your artistic curator the only point of reference?

I think it came naturally. I didn't try to imitate anybody. I saw Koszałka's film a long time ago, but I felt he was my soulmate, it strengthened me.

Let's get back to the nitty gritty, the cinema direction, all the backstage stuff to do with the making of the film. It is hard to be objective when somebody else is standing behind the camera. Generally, the protagonists talk to the camera, and so to you. Didn't you want to remove all of that or did you assume that such rough material will be more real?

From the very beginning I didn't want to hide the backstage, and my only impulse was to cut myself out. I had to undergo a certain process to show myself with my grandma in this film.

The film's strength is in its simplicity. We believe from the beginning that it is not fake, it's a real story without the filmmaker's typical showing off. And now the question – were you very surprised by the award in Kraków?

I was surprised, for sure.

But why?

It's hard to say, maybe because it was my first film and I hadn’t had the classic directorial education.

Then I'll tell you why I was surprised, because the jury could have chosen a more spectacular film, more thoroughly made, with a certain budget, while they awarded a modest, almost one-person home-made movie, but with a very important message. Our society is completely divided, we used to be the pride of Europe, and now I'm constantly asked abroad about our phobias and various “isms”. In your film there is a Catholic grandma, a deeply faithful woman, who faces a problem she can't accept. Her beloved grandson is gay, and she can't reject him, because she loves him.

She kind of has no choice.

We often scream “down with Jews”, “down with refugees”, “down with black people”, they won't litter our Polish land, but when we get to know those strangers better, they become ours. Your grandma suffers, because you contradict her tradition, her faith, her cultural and social stereotypes, but, after all, you are “her little Rafał”.

It was probably the first time in my life when I felt I had to fight for something and it was kind of a fight with my grandma, a fight for this approval. Although I believe that you can't change a person, especially at that age, my grandma proves that sometimes it's worth fighting for approval, a compromise, at least.

I think that your modest film about family relations shows the complexity of relations between people in a nutshell.

Somebody said that before we start fighting for peace in the world, we should try to have this kind of peace around our family table.

"Focus on Poland" Magazine, 8 (2/2018)