At the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), one of the Polish representatives is the latest film "In Touch" by Paweł Ziemilski, which will compete for the award in the medium-length documentary film category. Daniel Stopa talks with the director.




Daniel Stopa: "In Touch" - just like your film "Rogalik" - is a collective portrait of the inhabitants of one of the Polish villages. How did you come up with the idea to portray the people from the depopulating village Stare Juchy?

Paweł Ziemilski: Even before "Rogalik," I organised several film workshops for the local youth in Masuria. What struck me was that I often heard from the participants about their relatives in Iceland. Someone had their parents there, someone had an uncle, someone else a sister or a grandfather... Such a weird phenomenon. I did a little investigation and this is how I came to Stare Juchy, from where one-third of the inhabitants immigrated to Iceland to work.

A couple of months later, I talked about it with the only Icelander whom I knew back then, a friend from the film school, Haukur Hrafnsson, and he persuaded me to try and make a film about it. I did the directing, and Haukur, together with his business partner Łukasz Długołęcki, produced "In Touch."

"In Touch" is based on a very interesting formal means, namely, the portraits of the inhabitants were filmed together with the screenings which depict their close ones in Iceland. Could you tell us more about this formal idea? At which stage of the film did it appear?

Late. I work according to the fixed rule that I make a long documentation first. I want to know as much as possible about the world of my protagonists and I stubbornly look for what I really want to show and tell. That is, first I invest my own time and my film crew's time in the content.

But by talking with the protagonists, I do not look only for their private stories. I believe that the best documentary films are made when there is some sort of exchange between the film-makers and the protagonists. In the course of work, the long-unspecified idea for it developed for a long time. For me, it became important what I could give to my protagonists, who sacrifice their free time for me and uncover their intimacy. Do the inhabitants of Stare Juchy have a need which my film could satisfy even for a short moment? What can we give to the protagonists?

Soon, we discovered that the most important thing for the inhabitants of the village is the contact with their close ones who are in Iceland. They talk to them almost every day on Skype. We explored this subject matter. We started to record the Skype conversations between Masuria and Iceland and simultaneously we wondered how we can make this communication better in the film, how to deepen it and try to bring the interlocutors closer to each other, create the illusion that they are together again.

And technology came to your aid ...

Yes. When we were shooting the film, we were accompanied by various formal ideas about how this film should look like.

We tried to "bring people together" on green screens, that is, by pasting some people into already filmed scenes with others. But as soon as during the tests, the effect turned out to be an artificial one. Almost the opposite to my intentions. Looking for interesting solutions, Filip Drożdż dug out from some Japanese album a family photo in which a half of the family stood in the room, and the other half was displayed as a projection on the wall. A photo of distant generations of the same family meeting together. These "virtual ones" from several years ago looked as if they celebrated together with today's people. That was it!

I wanted to achieve a similar closeness. I wanted to make sure that the interlocutors of my protagonists are not only twenty-centimetre heads on the computer screen, as it is the case during the calls on Skype. In the projections, I could show them on the scale "one to one."  When we used the projections for the first time, I guess that every member of the film crew felt that this is how our film would look like.

As a matter of fact, by confronting the inhabitants with the projections, you revealed the real emotions and tears. People forget about technology and emotions appear in the film. In the film, do we watch them at the moment when they first clashed with the projections?

The technical preparation for the projections alone took a lot of time and only when everything was ready, we let a person in a staged situation. But not every first contact of the people with projections was good for the film. In the documentary film it is often the case that for the first time, the protagonist is tense, unnatural because they know that they are being filmed and they react to the camera. Then you just need to repeat.

So, in the case of "In Touch," not every reception of the projections by the protagonists was ideal, sometimes someone did not see everything clearly, sometimes the most natural "take" was made when someone was tired, when they stopped to put on airs and graces, forgot about the camera, the film crew and the hiss of the projector.

Are all the materials shown in the film your own shots, or did you use some of the records by the emigrants?

All video materials were recorded by us. The most difficult thing was that we had to plan, quite precisely and in advance, the scenes which were to be shot a couple of months after the shooting in Iceland. Thinking about the projections straight away often caused various complications. One had to imagine how a given material would look like on the projection in the protagonists' houses in Stare Juchy. Our trips to Iceland were taken in order to shoot the source material for the projections, and not directly for the final film.

The two-step method of collecting materials makes it difficult to do any pickup shots.

Usually, if something is missing, you can try and reshoot it later, go to the location again. In our case, such a decision would require a costly and time-consuming operation: first, we would have to fly to Iceland, record the material there and then screen it once again, filming the scenes in Masuria.

We tried to reduce the risk of doing a lot of pick-up shots and in many cases, the scenes were tested by us before, without the participation of the protagonists, on the members of the film crew. But there were some interesting ideas to use the projections which we discovered only during filming.

We also used a rather unusual way of collecting audio material. Namely, a large part of the Skype conversations was recorded "spontaneously," without the participation of the film crew. Our protagonists agreed to record their conversations with their close ones during our absence and from these recordings we later extracted the fragments played off-screen.

And how did the work of the cameraman look like on such a project?

Filip Drożdż, our cameraman, had a hard time. He had to plan precisely how to film the material in Iceland. What mattered to us was not only that the recordings had a high documentary value, but also that it would be possible to screen them in the correct way in Stare Juchy. It often required a different kind of framing. One films the scene of the protagonist leaving their home in a different way when we know that the material is intended directly for the film, and in a different way when the scene is supposed to be screened as an element of another scene which we would shoot in a couple of months in a very distinct setting.

The filming was accompanied by two stages - the one in Iceland and the one in Poland. And how did the editing go?

The editing went in a rather classic way. I was lucky, because Dorota Wardęszkiewicz, the expert in documentary film editing, agreed to work on the film. We started working together during filming, and we edited this film for quite a long, long time... but I hope that it was worth the trouble and that the effects will be visible on the screen.

Thank you very much for the interview and good luck in Amsterdam.