Conversation with Jagoda Szelc: “The soul is something that cannot be lost”
Bernd Buder: You draw an intense emotional picture of two sisters who are different and at the same time quite similar – one wants to control the material world; the other one symbolises a metaphysical approach. How did you come up with the idea of confronting those two worlds with each other?
Jagoda Szelc: We live in a time of a geopolitical and ecological crisis. Capitalism as we know it must come to an end because we simply cannot continue with such overproduction. My film is about someone who feels like they own the world and someone who understands they are merely renting it. I think that either we finally understand and cope with the notion of renting rather than owning the world or we’re in trouble. A wise person told me that this is a film about a fight between the brain’s right and left hemispheres.
The film shows a family in which conflicts usually seem to be swept under the carpet. Since the family is often labelled as the ‘germ cell of society’, I understand that Wieża. Jasny dzień. reflects the rift that runs through the whole society. Do we need more metaphysical presence to open our eyes to the conflicts that we tend to neglect in the name of ‘control’ but which might better be carried out to find a sustainable way of togetherness?
Spirituality is one’s own experience. Religion is importing someone else’s experience and that someone tells us how the world works. It seems to me that everyone realises their own spiritual needs and I think that, especially in my country, the church does not fulfil the need for the metaphysical or ritual that people lack. Of course, it is easier to handle a crowd of lonely people who live in fear of losing something. The soul is something that cannot be lost. If only we understood we’ve got nothing to lose, there wouldn’t have been so much fear and anxiety.
You shot the film in an isolated house in a beautiful landscape. There are a few inner circles: Kaya is kept in her own spiritual world; Mula is kept in her conventions; the whole existential discourse within the family takes place in a remote place. On the other hand, there are sidebar lines with the Syrian refugee and the discussion about veganism – has the outer world already entered our Central European bubble?
Mula is not bad. Nobody is bad in this story. Mula was taught how to act but she’s also got a gut feeling. Just like us. Only as children are we not bad – we haven’t been taught to question everything. And that is a good lesson because it creates independent people with responsibility.
Thank you for asking about the refugee plot. Nobody had asked me about this before. It is my protest song against the politics of my country. The refugee is played by my Palestinian colleague from the directing department of the Łodz Film School – Moha, who was assaulted in a store in Łodz. I wanted to create a scene where he is the voice of all those poor people. He begs to be let through and Kaya gets out of his way. Kaya and the children also see the cruelty of animal exploitation on TV. That’s my second protest song, about veganism. I do not want to patronise anyone, just shed some light.
Another important sidebar character is the priest, who, in contrast to Kaya, is not really steeped in spirituality but personifies a formal believer. In the end, even young Nina, who was to receive her communion, turns her back on formal religion. Does Wieża. Jasny dzień. also open a space to reflect on other levels of spirituality than the one which is offered by the institution of the church?
It is also important that the church in the film is undergoing renovation. The priest has a feeling of the approaching end and new beginning, but because he is integrated with the building, he is unable to give in to change. He is not bad, but he doesn’t have access to what’s really going on. The children laugh at him because it is funny how someone can be so blind to what’s happening.
You used unfamiliar faces – wonderful theatre actors who so far have not often been seen in Polish films. When and why did you decide to use this ensemble, and how did you prepare them?
First of all, I wanted outstanding actors. Second of all, I wanted them to be unrecognisable because Przemek Brynkiewicz, the cinematographer, and I wanted the film to be naturalistic. Wieża. Jasny dzień. is not improvised; it is painstakingly prepared. Each cut was planned. The actors had been rehearsing for this film for about three weeks. They had been meeting for a year to merge as a family. They joined the film separately, in their own metaphysical way. Anna Krotoska, who plays Mula, and Rafał Cieluch, who plays Michal, are each other’s first love. Though when casting Rafał, I had no idea they knew each other. Anna Krotoska and Małgosia Szczerbowska (Kaya) have been friends for twenty years.
Wieża. Jasny dzień. offers an unusual, unforeseeable mix of genre and art house cinema motifs. Before beginning your career as a filmmaker, you studied Fine Arts in Wrocław, which adds another approach to your artistic style. At which point did you decide on the genre mix, and do you have cinema role models?
I don’t care what films are about. I’m interested in how they influence the audience, what they do to them. At the very beginning, I knew I wanted to make a film that would have at least one genre flip flop or genre U-turn and would fall apart in the end. I wanted the Polish audience to remember they’ve got the same right to interpret as critics or professors. Freedom must be exercised. Art is supposed to help that happen.
More often I think of painters than filmmakers. I don’t feel like a filmmaker myself. I will be making films as long as I evolve and when I want to tell a particular story. I am inspired by the younger generation of painters: Aleksandra Waliszewska, Alex Urban, Hubert Pokrandt – as well as older ones like Bacon, van der Pol, de Kooning, Freud. I know it sounds weird but that’s my way.
In one of the interviews after Wieża. Jasny dzień. won the awards for the Best Debut and Best Screenplay at the national Polish film festival in Gdynia, you used the word ‘genetic code of a film’, which offers a key to understanding a film as an artistic approach, especially if it does not offer solutions but spaces in which to reflect its subjects. How would you describe the genetic code of your film?
If you make a film about the main character losing control, the genetic code of the film results in the film falling apart in such a way that the viewer also loses control, so in making the film, you as the director also have to lose control to not come across as an arrogant, baseless or idle artist. Especially if you’re a control freak. Fate helps you perform something on yourself that you want to perform on someone else. Films are wonderful because they give you the chance to go through life on fast-forward. As if you had the possibility of mass-producing incarnations or producing multiple incarnations. And they are great because they don’t exist... film is only in our head.
(Interview by Bernd Buder, January 2018)