Since its world premiere at Visions du Reel in Switzerland the latest film by Michał Bielawski - "The Wind. A Documentary Thriller" - was screened in Mexico, Germany, Russia and USA. It was also an Opening Film of the 59th Krakow Film Festival. Recently it was awarded as The Best Documentary at DocsMx in Mexico City, Silver Eye Special Mention and MDR Film Prize for Outstanding Central East European Documentary at DOK Leipzig. Krzysztof Gierat talks with the director about realisation of such a difficult project.

Krzysztof Gierat: The film, which is about a force of nature, attempts to combine two cinematic elements: a quick reporter’s intervention, a rapid recording of events that are happening before our eyes, and on the other side – an attempt to make the story into something of a universal reflection, something which requires entirely different means.

Michał Bielawski: When we were presenting this project at various international pitch sessions, together with the producer, Maciek Kubicki, we were trying to get our heads around how to talk about it, so that it wouldn’t be seen as just a local topic. And here in Krakow, at Doc Lab Poland, we were understood by foreign tutors like Leena Pasanen, Rada Šešić, and Peter Jäger. However, we fell into a trap – we had developed an interesting, attention‑catching pitch, but the question of how to make an equally interesting film remained.

KG: So, you had a topic, you ‘sold’ it, but you still didn’t know how to do it.

MB: We knew that the main topic would be the wind, but told through the stories of people who experience it. From the outset it was certain that we would want to avoid a TV formula – don’t ask any questions, don’t talk in front of the camera, just observe. We felt that – for the credibility of such an emotional story – it would be necessary to create the impression that we are recording reality from the inside, that we are not interfering with it. But this required us to be fully prepared. You had to be there, in the mountains, exactly when the wind was coming – walk it out and sit it out.

KG: It must have been very time‑consuming. It took a long time until we got the finished film…

MB: We started working on the film in 2015 and by the end of the year we did our first shoots. Afterwards we worked intensively through the spring and autumn of 2016 and then everything stopped for a while. Somehow, intuitively, I felt that I wasn’t quite ready to go between all the situations and emotions we’ve witnessed so far with a camera. Confronting the material with HBO’s editors, Hanka Kastelicová and Iza Łopuch, proved very helpful, though not necessarily nice at the time. It forced me to make a decision that it was time to conquer a certain shyness towards a foreign world and approach the characters. That was in 2017.

KG: You had to be aware from the very beginning that there would be two types of narration and that these would be two differing energies you’d have to submit to, because – on one side – if you have chosen these people, you have to follow them patiently. And on the other – you’ll have to catch what’s fleeting, which makes you a filmmaking emergency service.

MB: Yes, but from the beginning I tried to select protagonists whose lives intersect with the wind. A lot of situations that I expected actually happened.

KG: Don’t say you wanted your protagonist’s house destroyed.

MB: No, of course not, I didn’t think about it. Rather, I expected the windmill to fall apart because I had seen how flimsy it was. The fire was a complete surprise, as was the destruction of Teresa’s forest. With her, I followed another topic, let’s call it an emancipatory one, because she was attempting to get a driver’s license. I assumed that she would pass her exam and start driving around with her poetry.

KG: And a tree falls in front of her car during a storm…

MB: …and she can’t move anywhere. But she came up with something more interesting to do with her life which I wasn’t prepared for at first. She decided to buy a forest. After the last storm, about 20% of it remains. Fortunately, a new one is already growing…

KG: Weren’t you tempted to follow people from emergency hotlines? They’d probably be more ‘cinematic’ – suicides, drunks…

MB: The phones came up later… My protagonists had already opened up, they had strong stories. At first there were a dozen or so, but some were clearly taking the stage. Weaker stories inevitably gave way to them.

KG: A highlander poet, a shepherd, a medical rescuer, and the fourth, featured the least…

MB: The first three personalities began to throw elbows so hard that we had to make room for them. And the fourth one became just a weather guy, a symbolic figure who watches from somewhere up high in a small observatory that’s swaying and creaking whenever there’s a stronger gust.

KG: Let’s go back to the halny. There are so many – let’s be honest – more photogenic forces of nature in the world. What is it in your project and in your film that goes beyond a local problem concerning people from Zakopane?

MB: With Maciek Kubicki we had the privilege that wherever we showed up with our project (for example, in Lisbon), we were welcomed as filmmakers from Poland, and since it’s Poland – it must mean that the project’s good.

KG: A mark of quality earned by generations.

MB: It was a great but stressful feeling. Naturally, there were various reactions. There was a group of scouts, sales agents, editors – many wanted to re‑edit it and make a completely different film, but there was also a group that grasped our intentions perfectly and shared our feelings that a story about a wind is something of an impossible project, but one worth undertaking. Among them was Hanka Kastelicová from HBO. It was much easier with her on board.

KG: Do you think that the genre idea worked here? To make a wind thriller, if you will?

MB: These intended genre borders were very helpful because they organised the story for us, and on the other hand – we saw how it affects the audience.

KG: Your film is a, let’s call it, a socio‑psychological thriller. Someone said that halny is death in opposition to life or – at least – chaos in the orderly life of these people. They have to struggle with it, try to repair these moments of halny’s interference in their lives.

MB: This wind performs a social function. It is an existential constant that you can to when trying to explain or justify something.

KG: But it can also be an excuse or an alibi for something that you haven’t done or have done wrong. I also see this film as a metaphor for life, our small way of the cross, like the shepherd’s journey with his windmill. It’s quite an uplifting reflection that one can be harassed by often very cruel adversities in life, but we can still get back up again and carry on.

MB: Of course, such an interpretation was my intention… On the one hand, halny is a destructive force, and on the other – it gives new plants a chance, so it devastates and creates at the same time. I really wanted this point to be conveyed in the film.

KG: I think that here lies the answer to the question why this film is so attractive at important international festivals. I’m proud that it opened the Krakow Film Festival. It was screened in Nyon, in St. Petersburg and in Leipzig. You certainly had signals of its beyond‑local appeal already during production, when the Slovaks joined the project, when the crew was shaping up – a Slovak sound engineer and composer, a Hindu colourist residing in Poland

MB: It was a great compliment that Péter Kerekes, who is a great documentary filmmaker and producer, found time for himself with our film. He helped us recruit Martin Merc, a great sound engineer, and Lukáš Kobela, a very talented composer. In Krakow, Glen Castinho, a brilliant colourist, joined us…

KG: You invited someone who isn’t an experienced cinematographer, but comes from Zakopane, to work with you?

MB: We sort of invited him, and he sort of invited us – because we entered his territory, a world he knows like the back of his hand. It turned out that Bartek Solik is an extremely talented filmmaker, a one‑man band, but until recently a lone wolf. Bartek is able to put other things aside, grab a camera, get somewhere and start shooting before an hour has passed.

KG: And who came to whom, you to the producer or the producer to you?

MB: The producer came to me. Apparently, a long time ago, at one of the Krakow Film Festivals, he was telling stories until day break about the halny and a film that he saw as somewhat a crazy and impossible project. I also thought it would be an incredible experience in every respect. And it was.

"Focus on Poland" Magazine 9 (1/2019)