The latest documentary of Tomasz Wolski - "An Ordinary Country" - is a found-footage film showing controlled conversations, recording with hidden cameras, dirty records of interrogations and recruitment attempts as well as video tutorials for the officers of the security service in communist times. Read the interview with the director about creating such a documentary.

Since it's world premiere at one of the most important docuementary film festivals in Europe - Visions du Réel in Switzerland where the film was awarded with Jury Prize Clinique de Genolier -  "An Ordinary Country" was screened at many major film festivals in the world, including IDFA prestigious section Best of Fests. It was also awarded with Golden Hobby Horse for the Best Polish Film at 60th Krakow Film Festival.

The interview was published in "Focus on Poland" Magazine (1/2020) - you can download the magazine from here


Krzysztof Gierat: You were considered a great ob‐ server, watching your heroes patiently, following them day and night. Then you suddenly burst into an archive, which took many of your fans by complete surprise, al‐ though a mostly positive one. As the film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote: ‘An Ordinary Country is an outstand‐ ing achievement of the found footage genre’. Where did this change come from?

Tomasz Wolski: If you mean the Kazimierz Karabasz style of filmmaking, i.e. long‐time observation, without interfering with the filmed matter, then actually none of my previous films have been made one hundred percent  in this fashion. Even The Clinic had scenes that were directed and played out. I accept such a creative approach as long as the audience doesn’t notice it. Where did my transition from these films to found footage come from? Eight years passed since The Palace, which I made in 2012, and An Ordinary Country. Festival was between them – a cinematographic entrance into the world of music, somewhat creative, somewhat observa‐ tional but mostly visual. When making these films, I was close to the protagonists, but I never entered into their private lives and crossed the border of privacy that I would not want anyone to cross in relation to me. I tried to make these films different, despite utilising a similar method. However, these differences  were no longer enough for me. I felt that I either had to quit making films or find something else in order to start enjoying my job again. You cannot keep stepping into the same river all the time. I need something new, some new experiences. I have never planned to tell stories through archives, but the things which started happening in our politics worried me a lot, such as young people’s categorical reactions to the case of Lech Wałęsa and his cooperation with the Security Service. Voices of condemnation and unequivocal declarations that they would have refused any contact with the secret police prevailed. I was touched by this reaction of people, especially those younger than me, who did not experience the People’s Republic of Po‐ land. I decided to check if the Institute of National Remem‐ brance had any materials that could show the horror of those times, that this huge state apparatus kept watch over our lives as if for our safety, but in fact – to entrap us.

KG: But did you know right away that you wanted to make a film about ordinary people in an ordinary country?
Yes, the life of a common citizen under surveillance by the secret services seemed much more interesting to me. The fact that Lech Wałęsa is followed and recorded some‐ how seems natural. As an enemy of the system, he had to be watched, but since his children’s completely banal and  irrelevant conversations had been recorded alongside him, I found it fascinating, absurd, and terrifying at the same time.

KG: When you listen to two opposition activists under sur‐ veillance, it is sort of understandable, but when they waltz into kitchens, or even bedrooms, armed with microphones, it starts to smell Orwellian.

TW: I approached this film three times, deleting everything I had edited twice; I was trying to find the language of the story. It was only on the third attempt that I clearly focused on ordi‐ nariness and started to tell the story a bit like in observational cinema, i.e. patient in a way. At the beginning you said patience was the domain of my job. I guess it’s still similar, except that  this job was done for me by the security service officers who had to sit for hours and record these materials, hunt for people, and I got the finished result of their work just waiting to be edited.

KG: Reviews unanimously emphasise that you used this secret police footage to create a thriller, that this Poland is documented through their eyes, but they would certainly accept the scary message of your film without enthusiasm, because you’ve shown how this system corners people, how it drags its victims into unwanted cooperation.

TW: What’s more frightening is the fact that it’s just a tiny portion of what was destroyed after ‘89. The recordings used in the film are mostly leftovers made while watching someone or something else, but for me they were the most interesting ones because I could utilise them for my story. Besides, this is how I understand the idea of found footage – adding new meanings to materials often made with a different purpose in mind.

KG: Did you have any points of reference? You were look‐ ing into that topic for the first time, one that you have not explored before.

TW: I have great respect for Maciek Drygas and his archival films. The subject is similar, but I am speaking from a different point of view. With Drygas, it is an objective observation of the People’s Republic of Poland, and here we have a subjective camera with a specific representative of this system behind it, an employee of the Security Service. When it comes to the audio layer, it’s Sergei Loznitsa... I remember watching Blockade at one of Krakow’s festivals and how profoundly impressed I was by the use of sound. The added sound layer put me much closer to this story, although there was more than 60 years between us. That is why I invited Marcin Lenarczyk, a true wizard who conjured up this auditory world in An Ordinary Country, and Paweł Juzwuk brought in music exactly from that time, which puts a kind of parentheses around this story. It is this use of music that distinguishes my film from those by Loznitsa. By the way, I envy him a bit, because the archival footage he uses looks as if made just for him. Usually, he tells his stories with long shots and finds exactly those in archives.

KG: The fact that you didn’t have such long shots allowed you to make a different film.

TW: That’s because the officers of the secret police used film cameras like still ones. When someone stepped in front of the lens, they turned on the recording only for a moment. In the back of their heads, they knew they had to save film. The most important thing was to capture the face as potential evidence. KG: Were the original materials recorded without sound? TW: Most materials stored at the Institute of National Remem‐ brance, until the appearance of analogue cameras, is captured on film and lacks any direct sound. By their very nature, audio recordings are not accompanied by image. Interestingly, the later analogue materials on VHS tapes, which have both image and sound, and could be recorded without any restrictions, are generally much worse and less interesting.

KG: Now tell me what the other way looked like – you had sound but no image. What happened then?

TW: You had to start being creative about making archival footage. I don’t want to spoil the ‘fun’, so I will not reveal  exactly which scenes have been recorded by me. Some of them featured both professional and amateur actors who received a transcript of the audio track. I assumed it would be very easy to make, a bit like karaoke. It turned out that the manner in which those secret officers were speaking, their syntax; it was all so out‐of‐date that the actors had serious trouble remem‐ bering, repeating their lines, staying in sync. As the person responsible for these scenes, I had to start thinking like an officer of the secret police, I had to become slightly sloppy, learn to take ugly, crooked shots, which was difficult for me since I always care about visual aesthetics.

KG: It’s as if you animated that scene, which is quite common in documentaries. Instead, you decided to get down to the very nature of the archival footage, creating some‐ thing new in its image. Your artistic choice is very convincing to me because it is also a moral choice. After all, we are dealing with a shameful attempt at blackmailing people into collaboration with the secret police.

TW: I would have done the same even if I had authentic foot‐ age in my possession, just to avoid identifying the people being filmed at that time. Especially in such a difficult time for them. Either way, it had to be staged.

KG: I would use another phrase: filled with image. Just as Marcin filled the image with sounds, you filled the sound with images. These two areas have complemented each other beautifully here.

TW: You could say that we did the reverse of ADRs...

KG: It seems like you got stuck in the archives because you’ve already found an idea for your next film there.

TW: For two, actually. In the same archive I found materials about the events at the coast in December 1970. These are phone calls between generals and ministers at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Warsaw and the Tri‐City, Elbląg, Szczecin, but also Kraków, Wrocław, and Poznań. We observe dramatic events from the point of view of those responsible for the massacre. The second project is a film about Leopold Trepper. I found over a dozen reels that concern an extremely intriguing character – the man behind the spy network called the Red Orchestra.

KG: I would like to close this interview by mentioning the Krakow festival. With the exception of The Palace, all your other films began their lives in Krakow. This is where you received numerous awards and won the audience award twice for Goldfish and The Lucky Ones. And now the Golden Hobby‐Horse. Satisfaction?

TW: Well, I’ll be honest and risk sounding immodest – it’s huge. Despite all these previous awards, Krakow was such an impregnable fortress for me. This is the most important Polish award for a documentary filmmaker. I have worked for it for several years. It’s like climbing Mount Everest several times without success, and finally conquering it. The satisfaction is much greater. Filmmakers often say the awards aren’t that important. Of course, that’s not true. They are extremely important. It’s just that they’re not the most important thing.

KG: You have one more thing to be satisfied with. Instead of the film schools in Łódź or Katowice, you graduated from the Jagiellonian University, here in Krakow. You had a brief stint at the Wajda School. Was that the tipping point? You receive awards as a director, cinematographer, editor...

TW: My stay at the Wajda School ended with an unfinished film. I tried applying to Łódź four times, and to Katowice three times. Now, I would probably reject myself at these exams. I felt inferior for not going to a film school for years, but today I think it was for the better. I avoided the whole academic superfluity, any direct influence, fighting the professors’ ego, etc. Making films was my school. And I grabbed the camera not because I figured out that I wanted to be a cinematographer. I just had no idea how to work with one. I didn’t know how to say that
the camera should be pointed one way or the other at a given point in time. Being the cinematographer, I don’t have to consult anything with anyone. If I don’t have a camera in my hand when we’re shooting, I’m getting bored. I also quickly came to the con‐ clusion that, being an amateur, I needed to control myself and review the footage every day. Watching my mistakes, I didn’t want to waste any time, so I started making my own edits to see how to solve those mistakes, what to reshoot from scratch, what to expand upon. After I was finishing shooting, it turned out that I actually had the first rough cut ready. Giving it to an editor seemed completely pointless, because I knew more or less what to do with it. Besides, it turned out that I enjoyed shooting and editing a great deal. So why give it to someone else? Obviously, it has some limitations, because having someone from the outside, someone with new ideas, someone creative can bring new directions and give these materials a completely different meaning. It’s always a trade‐off, I guess.