State Of Weightlessness, 1994
I've cut out the word "interview" from my dictionary... When you meet a person, meet them for a conversation, not an interview – Maciej Drygas
Maciej Drygas's slim body of work numbering five documentaries, all under one hour long, belie the sheer dedication and effort in their construction. Drygas cuts to the true essence of the forgotten and suppressed, not only through the painstaking research for which he is known, but also seemingly more casual interactions, conversation, anecdote, gossip and hearsay. Vehemently rejecting the term journalism as well as its methods for his work he feels more connected with archaeologists. His films are mainly centred around historic events and the people involved, whether it be Ryszard Siwiec's public self-immolation in demonstration against the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (Hear My Cry, 1991), the psychological and metaphysical effects of the Soviet space programme (State Of Weightlessness, 1994), or the postal censorship in Poland between 1945-1989 (Violated Letters, 2011). In this vein, setting out on a venture to explore an entire new world, for his next, perhaps final film, Drygas follows the inhabitants of a small village in Sudan since it was destroyed to make way for a dam.
Michael Garrad: Your films are concerned with either what was not recorded at the time, not spoken or suppressed. I was wondering if you could comment on "silence" in your films.
Maciej Drygas: I feel more of an archaeologist than a filmmaker. Even before I started becoming interested in Ryszard Siwiec, back in the 1980s when I was writing scripts for feature films, I was mainly interested in digging things out from silence, from forgottenness. I really do love this job of an archaeologist, I really like working in archives, going through obscure material, walking around cellars and discovering things about the people who no-one remembers anymore. And these documents from the past always serve as the inspiration for my work. Before I started dealing with the story of Ryszard Siwiec, it was completely obscure and unknown. Or in State Of Weightlessness there is a lot of footage that had never been broadcast before. And when I was working on A Voice Of Hope (2001), I listened through six and a half thousand different radio programmes. As well as researching them, I was learning about the things I'd never heard about and never knew before. And this serves as my motivation when I'm thinking about my next piece of work. Before I start working, before I decide to spend three, four, five years working on something, I need to find a story that allows me to learn something new because it's not worth working on a project for five years if you already know everything about this topic. So to me, it always feels like opening a magic book, some kind of a gateway, and I feel like a child entering this whole new realm, discovering things step by step. It's fascinating, I feel like an explorer. I always have my preset ideas about this new world and in the end my work always turns out completely different than what I thought it would be like.
In some of my films, the inspiration sprung from lies about reality. For example, I started thinking about making the State Of Weightlessness when the world was struck by the information that there was a lonesome cosmonaut out there, all alone in a space station called Mir and that there wasn’t enough money to bring him back home. This was when the Soviet Union started to collapse; Sergei Krikalev was sent into space from the USSR but came back to Russia. And suddenly, there was this piece of news all over the world about this lonesome cosmonaut out there and the inability to bring him back home. It was amazing how this piece of news was strong and convincing. There was a protest in Mexico in front of the Russian embassy and people were shouting, "Do something! You can't let him die out there!" In a small Italian town people started collecting money to make it possible to bring Krikalev back home. Every morning, I thought about this poor cosmonaut and asked myself, What is he doing out there? Has he got enough to eat? I wondered whether it would be possible to perhaps send him an apple or a jar of honey. And then I thought it's such a fascinating premise for a film. It's a story of mankind getting out there, into the infinity of the universe, and this is how the universe is paying us back. And it’s also perhaps another perspective on the end of the 20th century. But I knew that because the story was so widespread, once Krikalev'd returned to Earth, journalists from all over the world would be trying to talk to him, and I wanted to be the first one. So I went to a solicitor with the idea to sign an agreement for exclusive interviews between Krikalev and myself. I was very naive because I still had my mind set to the communist times – you could make these sorts of agreements back then. Before that, I was never interested in space travel, cosmonauts, and science fiction, nothing like that: it was completely new to me. So I decided to make up for it and read everything about orbital spaces and life in the universe to prepare myself for this meeting. I also read this book about the American astronauts who went to the moon where it said that they didn't want to speak honestly about it, they were covered in some sort of armour and would only answer general questions.
Then I received a phone call that yes, I would be the first person to meet Krikalev as soon as he was ready to walk and meet people again. So, I went to Moscow and I was full of these existential, deep questions that I wanted to ask him. I was convinced that I would meet a person who was so deeply touched by this experience and so upset that we could really sit down and talk about life. Once I met him and looked at him in the eye, I didn't see dead eyes, he was full of sparkle and full of energy and I completely didn't expect it. I thought he would be completely upset about this whole occurrence. I asked him, "How does it feel when you're up there, all alone, in this dramatic moment, one year out there in the universe?" He said, "Well, what do you mean? I wasn't alone; we're never alone out there. It's a minimum of two people." I said, "But how is this possible? The whole world heard about you dying out there, all alone. What do you mean you weren't alone?" He looked at me, completely bemused, and said, "Well, one thing that changed was my partner, because initially I was supposed to go up there for six months but I decided to stay the full year so they just changed my space partner." He also told me, "We had so much food up there that we had to throw it out into space, so I was never hungry." And I just couldn't get to grips with what he was saying... I thought that the Russian authorities told him to lie, that they’d said, "Tell them some nice things about it, just don't tell them the truth." I just couldn't understand it. In this one moment, my whole plan fell apart. I didn't know whether I should go back to Poland and just waste the money that I spent on a ticket, or whether I should stay in Moscow and investigate because at the time I didn't have any film productions to work on. I only went to Moscow because my friends gave me some money to do it.
State Of Weightlessness, 1994
And then my inner archaeologist spoke. I thought, You can't leave just like that, you need to investigate. I didn't bring out my agreement that I wanted to sign with this cosmonaut because the life that I'd imagined he had just didn't exist. So I stayed in Moscow, trudging through a number of obstacles because back then, space travel was top secret in Russia and it was very difficult for anyone, let alone a foreigner, to find out anything about it, so I started documenting various places that were connected with space travel. What helped was the fact that I’d studied in Moscow, and could speak Russian very well and I also got help from my Russian friends who decided that we would pretend to make a film and that we hired a foreign director who had studied at the Moscow Film School [VGIK].
At some point I found an archive full of documents and materials, including recordings of the conversations between Earth and space from this very flight. I went through 650 hours of these conversations. About ten to twelve times a day, every time they flew over Russia, the cosmonauts would connect with Earth and talk to their counterparts there. Very soon I realised that Krikalev told me the truth, that he wasn't just all alone out there. But what struck me most was the change of tone of these conversations, that were completely different than the ones conducted three, five years before, because it was the time when the Soviet Union was falling apart and it turned out that it was life on Earth that was a nightmare.
The first thing the employees of this communication centre on Earth told the cosmonauts was, how impossible life in Russia was at this time. Other conversations were very technical, like "How are you? Did you have your breakfast? Get ready for so and so... there's this and that experiment." But then, for example, they talked about people in Russia getting up at five o'clock in the morning, queuing to buy a piece of sausage. People had numbers written on their hands and by the time they got to the front of the queue, the sausage had gone. So the people from Earth would tell the cosmonauts that it's much better up there than it is down here. These conversations were so fascinating that I realised, OK, I might not have the Krikalev story that I initially thought I had, but I had a completely different thing that I could research for my new film. Listening to the tapes, I heard the cosmonauts had received messages from journalists or politicians who said, "Well, since you're out there and able to see everything else on Earth really well, can you tell us which fields need to be harvested, because if they haven't been harvested then we're going to punish the people who are responsible." It turned out that all this research, all the money, all the brains working on the space project boiled down to reporting which fields needed to be harvested and which didn't.
It was a melting pot between the sacred and the profane, between something that was really high up and something that was really down to earth. I would go to this archive every single day and listen to the recordings with headphones. They were Soviet headphones and they were terribly uncomfortable. After several days my ears were completely swollen. But I had this profound feeling of actually being up there in space, the only difference being that my body wasn't there. I was aware of all of the experiments they took part in. I knew about every single detail of life in space. And this is how the documentation began. Then I wanted to find the other cosmonauts, but it wasn't easy. My conversations with them were very different. It was very easy to talk to them about the surface of the things but they didn't want to talk about how they felt being out there. They were very eager to answer all the questions journalists would normally ask them, like how it feels to be in a state of weightlessness, that water in space takes the form of a ball, what you eat, how you fall asleep, digest, etc. etc., but they were very introverted when it came to their private thoughts and feelings. They all repeated the same clichés. By the time the fifth cosmonaut told me how beautiful and tiny and fragile the Earth looks and how you should send politicians into space to make them understand that they shouldn't be damaging our planet, I'd just had enough.
State Of Weightlessness, 1994
I reached their feelings using the patience of the archaeologist inside me and the knowledge that I'd gained, listening to all these Earth-space conversations. In my conversation with Krikalev, the breakthrough came when I told him that I remembered one of the recordings that took place in the summer. He was talking with his wife and she wanted to get some piece of advice from him about whether or not she should go to the Crimea, because she didn't know whether the weather would be good or not. And he just looked through the window and said, "There are no clouds, it's a beautiful sun out there, so you can go." He asked me, "How did you hear about those conversations? How do you know?" I said, "Well, I was out there with you in space, for 650 hours." Then later, I felt that the other cosmonauts began to respect me because I had listened to all of those conversations, and that they didn't see me as a journalist anymore, instead I'd become some sort of a partner who would listen to them. So, they started telling me about things that they would never talk about with anyone, about all the metaphysical aspects of being up there in space and about certain irrational feelings they had.
I remember one of the cosmonauts telling me in front of the camera about his terrible nostalgic feelings, a profound, horrible longing towards the Earth, towards his home which was at its worst on Sundays, when the cosmonauts had a day off. So on Sundays, to avoid going insane, he would go to the loo and pump the water through because he didn't want to think about anything, because the feeling was so overwhelming. His wife was sitting behind the camera, and started to cry. After we finished our conversation she said, "Sasha, you never told me about this, why didn't you?" He said, "Because we had to be tough guys, even at home." Officially they were men of iron and they didn't even talk about these feelings with their families.
The reason why I'm talking about this in so much detail is to explain my methods, how I prepare a film, how I research. It is actually digging things out from the ground, pebble by pebble. Life has taught me that the more time I spend digging things out, the more gifts I get from the heavens. And the greatest gift that I received for the making of State Of Weightlessness was the cellar in the medical institute. I always follow up on the gossips I hear and someone said that there is a film or two in one of the cellars of the Space Medicine Institute. When I went there and asked them about the cellar they said they didn't know what was in there and that the key belonged to a person who was long dead. I asked them to open it for me just to check what was actually in there. It turned out there were thousands and thousands of boxes full of film tapes and nobody knew what was recorded on them. Because they didn't have any equipment to watch these films, we couldn't check it there and then. So I hired a van and an editing studio in the centre of Moscow and suggested that we watch these films together. Eventually, it turned out that these tapes contained footage of experiments on humans and animals that had never been broadcast before. It was a very upsetting experience. Having gathered all this material, I decided that my film would tell a story about the price that humankind is paying for this never ending dream of transcendence. Sometimes it's a huge price, but it doesn't really matter because you always have this need to look over the horizon, to see what's there. At that point I stopped regretting that I didn't have the Krikalev story because I had something completely different on my hands.
The thing I was most curious about was the reaction of the cosmonauts themselves because they were convinced that it would be another film about space exploration. During the screening, one of the cosmonauts just couldn't keep still, he kept talking and I was scared that he was going to jump on the stage and say, "Just stop the screening! Stop it now!" He waited until the screening was over, but then he came up on stage and started screaming: "Everything you saw in the film is true! This is how it was! Even the things that don't make sense are true!" It was the shortest review I’ve ever had.
State Of Weightlessness, 1994
A Russian, a Soviet journalist said he spent his entire career writing about space exploration. And this was the same journalist who I got in touch with the first time I went to Moscow and asked to help me find the cosmonauts. Back then, he told me that he'd meet me if I gave him $5,000. So I said no thank you... After the screening, he asked me, "Where did you find all this stuff from?" I said, "Well, times have changed, my rate is ten times higher than the rate you suggested some time ago." They were really shocked that a foreigner could come to their country and dig out all these things and get through to the cosmonauts themselves and talk to them directly.
But I'm not telling you all this to show you what a clever man I am, it is just a long digression about the essence of my method, and how it's basically based on patience. It's got nothing to do with a super talent, a super feeling for documentary filmmaking. It's just about the everyday archaeological toil, digging pebbles out day after day after day. And I'm allergic to dust, so every year I need to go through a treatment to enable me to continue to work. I cry, I cough, but I just can't touch the archival material with gloves on. In the Polish Institute of Remembrance, there are tons and tons of files of the secret communist police, all the researchers work with masks and gloves on, but I just can't do it, because then I can't feel the material. I believe that if you want to find out the truth you need to pay the price, even if it's a physical price, crying and coughing. Touching the truth wearing a pair of white gloves just doesn't agree with my emotions. It's not my world.
OK, so this was the answer to your first question!
MG: When researching, when trying to understand history, we often rely on people’s memories. But people seem to forget, or seem to have a really strong desire to forget, especially things that would reveal history. Why do you think people prefer to forget? Why do people en masse simply forget? And what effect do you think this has.
MD: I believe that human memory is a strange instrument, a strange tool. We often deliberately forget about things that we don't want to remember. We tend to remember the most beautiful moments about our lives and we rapidly forget things and situations that cause us a lot of pain or involve making very complicated decisions. And sometimes we forget things because we just grow old. Humans are not perfect. I believe that this forgotten memory is still there in us, somewhere. And it depends on the quality of your meeting with this other person, whether or not you're able to activate this forgotten memory.
Very often I meet people who will treat me like a journalist; they will prepare for the meeting and only talk about the things that they want to talk about, so it's very difficult to get through to them. I've cut out the word "interview" from my dictionary, and this is what I keep telling my students, "Don't use the word interview. When you meet a person, meet them for a conversation, not an interview." The most important thing when talking to someone is the ability to listen to them patiently. So I don't write a list of questions and I don't tick them off. I just follow a person's history.
And I try to create the atmosphere so that it is actually a conversation and not an interrogation, or an interview. Sometimes it's very difficult to achieve that. I remember one situation that I think was the most difficult conversation of my life. I was preparing a film script for a new project about life in the post-war city of Łódź straight after the Second World War. I met a man who was the son of one of the biggest factory owners in town; they had several huge textile factories and were insanely rich. And this man was being groomed into eventually taking over these factories, but after the war the political system changed and everything fell apart. I wanted to talk to him about that, and I wanted to project his life story onto the story of Łódź which was a strange city. Łódź was not destroyed during the war, unlike Warsaw, so a few years after the Second World War it became a very central place on the map of Poland. So the man kept relaying this story to me as if he had a bird's eye view perspective. He was talking as if he was reading from a history book and I wanted to break through into the story of his life but just couldn't do it. I spoke to him for a couple of hours and I had this feeling that we were somewhere 100 miles above the city.
State Of Weightlessness, 1994
Then in an act of desperation I remembered that when I was a little boy on my way to my nursery school, I would go past his palace, a building that belonged to the family, before the war. So I decided to enter the palace, together with his memory. I asked him about this palace and yet again I heard a general story, that it used to be a beautiful building that belonged to his grandfather etc. But then I had that idea, and asked him to visually take me to this building and show me around, show me the inside of the building. I wanted to bring him down from this bird's view perspective, down to Earth, onto the detail. I asked him, "Do you remember what the front door looked like?" And he was a bit surprised, but then he managed to describe it to me. "What about the knob?" And then we opened the door. "What came next? What did the corridor look like? What was hanging on the walls?" For an hour, this man kept answering my questions about all these details, and then we started talking about the dining room, he started telling me about this wonderful dinner set made of Fabergé silver, which his grandfather got for his fiftieth birthday. And then once we started talking about this silver Fabergé dinner set, I started asking him questions about every single shape of every single teaspoon. Only then he came back to Earth and he started talking about himself on this basic level.
It turned out that during the Second World War he was sent to the countryside to make sure he’d survive because he was supposed to become the owner of this huge textile factory after the war. So he was tucked into this world where the Second World War just didn't exist. He went through it seeing one German soldier cycling and one Polish partisan and that was his entire contact with the war. He had no knowledge of what had happened and the world he found himself in. Straight after the war he took his little suitcase and he came back to Łódź to live in his palace. Outside there were some strange looking Soviet soldiers who told him that he was not allowed to go into the palace. He said, "What do you mean I can't go inside? This is my palace, I was born here, I want to live here." The Russians said, "Well it's our palace now and we won't have anyone living here." And he started quarrelling with them and demanded to see some kind of a lieutenant, some superior. He started telling this officer that this was his palace and that he wanted to live here again. The officer broke into laughter, but somehow he was taken by the naivety of this man, so he let him inside the palace. He showed him that now a lot of the soldiers just slept on the floor and there was no room for him. The officer said, "Just leave this place as soon as you can and go and speak to the authorities and make them give you a flat. Go now – I don't want to see you again." Only after he left the palace he realised that he actually came across the most terrifying Soviet army division called SMERSH, who were moving up to the front preparing the world for communism and part of the job was to cleanse the world of guys like the son of the factory owners. He should have got a bullet into his head, but his naivety simply disarmed the soldiers, and they let him go. Obviously, the man never returned to his palace.
And I'm telling you this story because you asked me about people’s memory. It's very difficult for me to decide whether he did not want to talk about this because his story was so private or whether he forgot about it or whether he decided it was insignificant. What was important to me was that after a few hours of talking to this man, I managed to unblock his memory and I think I was only able to do this thanks to my patience. When you talk to someone, you can't act like a journalist; you can't be straightforward or demand too much from a person.
This is the second type of archaeology that I deal with. One part is looking for tangible materials, tangible archival evidence, and the second part is looking deep into people's fate and people's histories, and reminding people about their memories or switching them on. It's similar to what happened in my conversations with the cosmonauts and that after several meetings or hours of conversation I was able to switch on something that was hidden deep inside these people. There is nothing I find more fascinating than this certain truth about the world and about life. And the truth is made up of these little crumbs. When you connect these crumbs and put them together you form some kind of structure from it and that’s the first step to what becomes my own piece of work. Once I have built the foundation, made out of these crumbs, I can start my own creative process. And I can set this world alive but it will be the world that's been filtered through my own experience and through me. I create work that is very much my own.
MG: Histories gained from a journalistic perspective are the dominant form. We're all used to seeing documentaries about the factual elements, about the statistics and this kind of thing. And it strikes me that your work concerns a very partial kind of history; it's just a slice of history. Certainly, it's evident in State Of Weightlessness... what really struck people at our screening was seeing something familiar in such a new light, in such a personal light, in a way that was personal to the cosmonauts... I was wondering if you could comment on that gap, in history, in recorded history.
MD: I often find my initial inspiration in the world described by the media, which very often turns out to be a lie. I have tons and tons of these stories but obviously today we don’t have time to talk about them all, but there's this road, this search I follow from the untruth to the truth. I think we live in a very strange world ever since information became a commodity, that now we are surrounded by a virtual world and that the world that we see in the media is only a tiny fraction of the actual world around us. I was very surprised by the calculations made by the very famous Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuśćiński. He summed up the percentage of the world that was involved in some kind of a war – this was before 9/11, so it has probably changed now. But he did it because every time we turn the radio on or the telly, there's always information about some kind of a war going on, permanently. And watching it you get the impression that the world is on the way to self-destruction, it's just insane. So he came up with this very precise calculation on a piece of paper which showed the percentage of the world’s population that was actually involved in some kind of a war, or a conflict. It turned out it was actually 1.5% of the entire world population. It's such a paradox, what he said was that the world has never been as safe as it was when he wrote his little sum. It’s is a perfect way to illustrate the world we live in.
Since then I spent quite a lot of time in the desert, in Sudan, I completely simplified my life. Obviously here in Europe my life was a lot more complicated, but when I came into contact with the people living in the desert, in Northern Sudan, I had to slow down, because that is the only way that you can live there. When I returned to Europe I realised that it is very difficult to find one's place in Europe after I had this experience in the desert. I don't really want to admit it, but the first thing that I did was to stop reading the newspapers. And if I have a problem with something, I examine it empirically to see what it really is. If there's something really important going on in Poland, I try not to read about it in the papers, I try not to watch the television, but I try to be there myself. It might not even take a camera with me; I'm just there. To feel the pulse of Poland, to understand what my country is going through. For example, after the plane crash in Smoleńsk, when the Polish president and the whole political establishment died, the media became divided, depending on which political party, which political spectrum they support. They would show the people queuing up in front of the presidential palace, from one or the other perspective. They were either saying that it is absolutely absurd and people are just being a bit stupid to be queuing for 14 hours, paying tribute to the late president or, on the other hand, they were saying that these are the greatest heroic patriots of our country. I decided to go there myself. I queued for 14 hours. I didn't manage to get to the front of the queue because I left the queue by 3am as I had to be in Łódź the next morning to teach. But through these 14 hours queuing I talked to people, I interacted with them, and tried to take the pulse and understand life in Poland. I tried to experience everything myself, empirically. I didn't want to hear anybody else's perspective on the situation. And I learnt a lot, it was a very important emotional experience for me.
State Of Weightlessness, 1994
This is something I love to do, just moving through places, meeting people and listening to their stories about their lives. Maybe one day scientists will know everything about the human body and find out that there's some kind of a chemical substance being emitted by our bodies because wherever I go, if I stop and stand still, three minutes later there is someone next to me talking about their life. Recently I took the bus – I don't take the bus very often – and a woman was sitting opposite to me looking at me, two seconds later she was telling me her life story, for two stops. The same thing happens with all the drunks in my area, they always flock to me and they always tell me their life stories.
I really like travelling by train because there's always the time for a story. It's a very strange place because you're there only for a certain period of time and you're completely anonymous. So when I'm on the train, I listen to all the stories around me and I keep telling my students not to read books or not to sleep on trains. For a number of years I had a series of lectures in Toruń and I had to travel by train. We would get on the train at 6am and I was checking up on my students, and if anyone was asleep I'd give them a little slap on the ear. When we met in the lecture hall my first question was, "What did you hear on the train?" Many of the train stories they remembered became the inspiration for something we might call a piece of art. So I think the empirical gathering of things and stories is one of the most important tools of this profession. And if you don't like other people then you should think about a different career.
MG: Do you feel your subjects come to you?
MD: The starting point is always this piece of information that comes to me, that I snatch from the world, from the news for example. The first time I heard about Ryszard Siwiec was by accident. When I first heard about him and found out that in 1968 there was a human torch out there, burning in front of 100,000 people... I asked myself, how come I don't know anything about it? So I started asking around, I started talking to older people who may remember this act of self-immolation and when I learnt more about it, I decided that something really tragic had happened and we needed to bring it back into life.
So I started my own investigation. I started looking for Siwiec's family and I found his wife, his children and I also started looking for people who were there at the stadium on the day. At some point when my work on this film was quite advanced, I sent out a message through a television channel to the people who were the actual eyewitnesses of this event. And many people got in touch and started visiting me. I had a plan of the stadium and I would go from town to town, from city to city to meet the eyewitnesses of the burning Siwiec. Going back to our conversation about human memory, I then realised that memory is completely unreliable. There were about four or five different versions of this self-immolation, as told by the eyewitnesses and none of them matched each other despite the fact that all of these people were at the same place at the same time.
In Poland we have this saying that you lie like a witness. And I realised that after a number of years, because people are not retaining the story with their thoughts, they see it in a completely different way. Some of them made the whole story look really theatrical, so there was this burning Siwiec running through the stadium with a banner in his hands saying "For Our and Your Freedom", towards the stage with the First Secretary on. After I had heard a number of stories, I started to ask my interlocutors whether or not they ever thought about this story again, "Did you talk to anyone about it?" I asked the journalists about it and their answer was "No". I asked them, "Why not?" and they all answered in a similar way, that it's a professional deviation in the sense that you're no longer sensitive to all the things that happen around you and that you don't talk about them anymore. So I asked them, "How many times in your life did you actually see a human torch?" They said once, but they simply did not talk about it because they were scared, because they had a censor inside them.
One person who was really, deeply moved by this protest was the fire fighter who tried to extinguish the fire on the burning Siwiec; a man who sees people burning every day. He told me that each night when he met his lady, they would tell each other about the important things in their life, it was kind of a confession of lovers, and he told her that the most important thing in his life, the most important moment, was at the stadium in Warsaw, stopping the fire on the human torch.
So coming back to your question, about my subjects – whether I find them or whether they find me – at the beginning, when I start my research on the topic, I go out there, I look for them. But on the other hand, I just love listening to people's stories. And so whether I want to or not, I just listen to tons and tons of stories in all sorts of contexts. I remember when I was in Moscow in the middle of the winter, I saw a man lying on the snow and he was completely drunk. And I have this problem: I always try to help the drunks. I always pick them up. I just can't stand the sight of a person lying in the street. He was like an icicle, it was minus 30 degrees. So I picked him up, woke him up but because it was late at night the tube was already closed. I carried him on my back across Moscow to his flat. I half-carried, half-pulled him and, on the way, he kept telling me about his life. By the time he got to the 1950s and the beginning of the Stalinist era, we found his house. And he just shook his head and said, "Oh, you're not Russian are you?" I asked, "Why do you think that?" He said "A Russian wouldn't have carried me like this."
State Of Weightlessness, 1994
In my life and my job I think that things fall into one place and I manage to turn what I do into my life. I always try to retain the way of looking at the world as if I was a child. I don't have this journalistic drive in me thinking, Oh, maybe I'll listen to this story because maybe I'll be able to write a film about it. I'm more like a little child who looks at this world, surprised by every little leaf I find. If I listen to a story for three hours and then nothing much comes out of it, I can't blame myself for wasting my time because I'm at work after all, as I live and work at the same time. And it also often happens that stories that turn out to be untrue, after digesting them over and over again, become a point of inspiration for something completely different. In life, everything falls into place and everything makes sense. One time I read something in a newspaper, a piece about four sentences long, that there was a trip from Russia to Poland for people who used to trade in this stadium. The poorest people would come over to Warsaw to sell their stuff for $100 and this $100 would last them six months back where they came from. In this short note about these people coming over from Russia to Poland, it said that one man had died on the coach. Because they were very close to the Polish border, they decided to cross the border with this corpse on the coach, sell their stuff, go back to Russia and bury the man. But they were unlucky because they were stopped by customs officers at the border, with his body. It was literally five sentences in the newspaper and I thought it was a magnificent story, that could be a metaphor for describing the end of the 20th century, and I decided to find these people. I did not want to judge them, I didn't want to accuse them of anything because I saw what they did as an act of desperation. Because if they’d told somebody that this man had died, there would be a prosecutor, there would be a coroner, there would be police, and they wouldn't have made it to Poland, they wouldn't have sold their stuff, they wouldn't have earned the $100 and then they would have struggled in their lives.
What I actually wanted to find out is how it felt, how it really was. I wanted to find them and I wanted to go on the very same journey, be on the same coach with them. The Polish newspaper that printed the story told me that it was a translation of another article from a Russian newspaper. But I was not able to obtain more information as the person dealing with translations was away. So I went to the border and I started looking for some information, but no one on the Polish side had heard of it. So I crossed over and started looking on the Eastern side, but nobody there had heard about it either. Two months later, the journalist on the Polish newspaper had returned from leave and he told me that this was taken from a small Russian newspaper called Dnieproprietrovskie Viesti. I phoned up the Russian newspaper and asked them about the journalist who wrote the story. I heard a long pause and I was told that this journalist was not working there anymore because of this story that turned out to be a lie: the guy was just on his way to work and he was thinking of a story which could end up on the front page of a newspaper. It was an example of the complete lack of any responsibility for the truth, which is very typical of Russian journalism. And this man would have kept his job if it was only me who was trying to find out more about this story, but there were also people from the BBC researching the occurrence. They wanted to make a documentary about it. So I spent three months researching it only to find out that it was a fake story.
On my way to the border, I saw this strange world; it was still before Poland joined the EU, so we were the last frontier, before the West, before Europe. All the representatives of the poor world poured into Poland to move forwards the West and spread out in the EU. There were hundreds and thousands of people trying to cross the Polish border illegally, to get to Germany from all over the world, from Africa, from Asia, from Russia. I met a group of refugees from Afghanistan who were being retained at the border and I witnessed a very dramatic situation with the border police. I witnessed the interrogation of a woman called Qudsja Zaher, she was an Afghani lady and she was interrogated because she was trying to cross the border illegally. The border police would conduct their interrogation but they granted me the right to ask one question.
They were asking her about all the technicalities, where she came from, how she got there, etc. etc., because they wanted to target the group smuggling people illegally into Poland. I asked her to describe the world that she was running away from. She burst into tears as she started telling me about her life, and how she and her children wanted to commit suicide. She told me how her entire village collected enough money to pay the Mafia to smuggle her into the free world and that she'd travelled to Poland for four months with 60 other illegal migrants. Then I thought, OK, the coach story was not true, but yet again I have found another exciting story, about this border life; this untruth brought me to this absolutely brilliant truth, and I wanted to make a film. I even had a carte blanche with Canal +, after State Of Weightlessness, but then it turned out that they didn't want to do it and no one else in Europe either. I was told that if I wanted to make a documentary about the hardship of the work of border police then, I could do it. But if I wanted to look at the poor people, people with problems, the migrants – no one would want to watch it. So I just put the whole story into my drawer.
Then a few years later, the composer Paweł Szymański, who always writes music for my films, got in touch with me and asked me whether I could write a libretto for an opera. Because I had never written a poem in my life, I said, "Yeah, OK! I'll write a libretto," because I really like doing things for the first time. I sat down and started to think what I could write this libretto about and I returned to this border story. I wrote it for a year and a half. The story begins with a ship full of migrants from Afghanistan, full of refugees, a ship no harbour wants to let in and the main character, a woman, jumps into the water and commits suicide. Everything takes place on the Baltic Sea. She jumps into the water and she finds out that the bottom of the sea is full of life. So I had the entire opera taking place at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The title of this opera is Qudsja Zaher, after the name of this interrogated woman at the border. She disappeared in this world not knowing that a year and a half after I met her, there would be an opera bearing her name.
I'm telling you this because I want to describe the state of my spirit and how I feel about things and that I don't force anything; everything falls into place and there's nothing more important than keeping in touch with the world and communicating with other people and gathering experiences. And then it can come back to you, but in a completely different form. It can be a film; it can be a radio documentary, which I also do. It can even be a libretto for an opera. I also want it to take the shape of a book, because I dream of writing a book, in which I would use something that starts off from a detail, a little piece of fact, or truth, which then builds up within a creative, artistic process into something I eventually call a piece of art.
MG: There are a few things you've said today in our conversation, for example, that you like to think of things as a child, you like doing things for the first time and, in State Of Weightlessness, you went into it without having a real interest in science fiction or space beforehand. What does this perspective of newness, of looking at things in a fresh way bring to your films?
MD: I try to steer away from trying to build up a premise, a thesis, when I start working on something. I try to see my film as a kind of trip or a tour that I take my audience on, along with myself. And I say, "Come along, come along, let's go on a journey together," and that we will move in a certain direction, but I also tell them, "Look around and see the places that interest you, things that you find interesting too. And you can stop and look at things that you want to look at and we will meet somewhere at the end, because reaching the top of this mountain is not as important as the journey up the mountain." So I try to do the opposite to tour guides in museums. I hate going to museums and doing a tour because the guide tells me what to look at, they narrow my perspective, they don't allow me to look at things that I see. And I just want my audience to follow me on this journey, and then I like to leave them an open door for interpretation at the end of my films. So the film might have ended, but something will start up in you as a viewer, or not. Or it will make you reflect on the self, or not. So I try to hide away when I construct something, despite the fact that I do realise that all these little bricks and pieces are put out there by me. So far, in all my documentaries, I never did anything that you might call "observations". So far, I've brought certain worlds to life, which were made up of these found "bricks" of documentation. I try to steer away from presenting my point of view to the very end. I want to leave this door open for interpretation by my audience.
In a way I call it viewing the world from this naïve perspective of a child, just like I learn when taking my little son for a walk. He'd stop in front of a tree – to me it was just a horse chestnut tree – and saw a leaf, but he didn't ask me about the name of this tree, or about this leaf, because kids, they have this fantastic naïvety, this fantastic way of looking and observing the world. And I want to retain that. And if I do have it, I try to look after it.
State Of Weightlessness, 1994
MG: You mentioned the film that you've been making in Sudan. Could you tell us more about your new film?
MD: It's another story I came across, just by accident. I was driving my car and had the radio on... I heard the very end of the conversation with a Polish archaeologist. He said something about Sudan, "deep blue waters" and about Polish and international archaeologists trying to dig things up before the whole area becomes flooded. I looked it up online and I found out that they were building a new dam on the Nile, and I thought that this perspective of the world – being dug up soon before it all completely disappears in the water – would be a good idea for a film. I also thought, I feel like an archaeologist, and now finally I will have a chance to mingle with real archaeologists.
The first time I went to Sudan I moved into this tiny little village called Abu Haraz in the middle of the desert, and I started to observe the archaeologists at work. But then, I stopped doing that and instead started to look more at the inhabitants of this little village. My whole plan changed, step by step. The film I'd been working on for the last five years will eventually not contain the archaeologists' world, because for the last five years I've been observing this tiny community of about 80 people quite closely. I observed their life, their work, and their world that will soon disappear.
It was a groundbreaking moment for them; they had to move away from the place where they used to live for generations, and this new place is an entire city built for all the people who had to move out from the area that was flooded. From being farmers they would be turned into something... God knows what. Instead of going out to work in the fields in the morning the women now sit and watch Egyptian soap operas. And today, the village that I first came to is 35 metres under water and "my" people miss this place terribly. I always struggle to explain them what my job is and what I came to do, because I've been trying to explain that I'm actually making a documentary about them. From a linguistic point of view, it's very interesting because in the Arabic word for "Film" means both "to make a film" and " to lie". And they just couldn't understand why people would think that they're so interesting? Why a bunch of European guys would come over year after year making a film about them? And then I started explaining it to them, I told them that I am their memory, that I am the only one with a camera in this desert, whose job it is to document the world that will soon disappear and this is why they are so special; because now this village will not only exist in their memory but it will stay in my memory and I will be their memory too. When I went over to Sudan this year, they had moved to the city, everybody welcomed me with tears in their eyes, because they finally understood what I meant by being their memory, because they dream about Abu Haraz, because they left their best memories in this village and they'll never be able to return to it. But despite the filming, the other reason for my stay in Sudan is this human dimension. Being in their world is such a profound and important experience to me that at some point I find that a camera is an obstacle. The relationship that we have is much deeper, much more energetic in metaphysics than anything that can ever be recorded on film. That is why it is my dream to finally stop making films. Because I believe that we can only transpose this delicate matter through literature, not through films. Every time my cameraman and I go to Sudan, we take pictures of everybody, and they love having pictures taken of them, maybe because the whole idea of icons and iconography is cut out from the world of Islam.
At some point I brought them the actual photographs, the best shots that I took, to show them what a good photographer I am. They looked at the photos I selected and said, "Hang on a minute, where's the picture you took of me under this palm tree? Where's the photo you took of me in front of my house?" Ever since then, I've started to bring all the photographs that I took, even the ones that are a bit blurred. So I always carry about a thousand pictures with me and I promise each person I photograph that next year I will bring them a picture of them. Whenever I go back, I start my journey looking for the people I took pictures of the previous time. Sometimes I find them at the edge of the desert at the point where I thought I would never be able to find them and it's always an amazing encounter. Every time I promise to bring them a picture, they treat it as something sacred. In Europe, in London for example, if I told someone, "OK, next year I'm going to bring you a picture of yourself," it would sound absurd. But in Sudan, the whole idea of time is completely different.
Once the word had spread across the desert that we were this bunch of photographers, people started flocking to us, asking us to take a picture of their dying mother, because they’d never be able to do it. So we'd take pictures of entire families, in all possible places, and the next time we'd search for these people again, but in the meantime they'd all moved because of the dam. These are just extraordinary experiences and you don't even have to know a lot of words. I know about 100-200 words in Arabic and sometimes we talk for hours on end. It often turns out that between the words there's always a lot of space for this really important energy. You can tell quite a lot only by looking at the other person, a small gesture or a small smile. Because, as you've probably noticed, my problem is I talk so much and in the desert, when you are a wise person, you keep quiet. A wise person talks very little. A wise person keeps his mouth shut, but this silence is always about something, about the topic. During my visits to Sudan, they've taught me how to reconstruct my world, you take joy in the things that are not really that important in Europe any more.
And at nightfall when we sleep out there in the open, we sleep in the open only to be able to look at the stars, because the stars in the desert are like the stars that the cosmonauts told me about. They are amazingly close and amazingly alive. Every time I lay myself to sleep, I don't want to fall asleep because I want to keep this image of the stars in front of me and close to me. And this is the most wonderful documentary I've ever seen in my life. Because you learn that by simplifying your life, and by slowing down the time, or even stopping it, you completely change the quality of your life.
It's very difficult when you have to come back and enter this whole bustling Western world. I always go a bit berserk the first week after I return from Sudan. I eat everything with my hands, and in my flat there is a staircase to the roof, so I sleep on the roof. Well, the stars are of a lesser quality than the ones you see in the desert but they're still there,. I very clearly remember this one day that completely changed my outlook on life. The first time that I went to Hartum, everything just pissed me off. You can't get things done straight away, just like that. The basic word that you need to learn is bookrah, which means tomorrow. You can't make an arrangement or an appointment with anyone. If you need some kind of document, it takes days and days on end. And this terrible heat. I remember being so completely and utterly frustrated because I knew the archaeologists were waiting for me in the desert but I just couldn't leave the city without the papers and all the things I needed to do. Finally we were moving towards the desert a few days later, running out of time so we wanted to get quickly to places because we knew that people were waiting for us. Then we arrived at the Nile. We were to cross the Nile on this old, rusty ferry from colonial times but it turned out that the ferry was on the other side of the river and that it was broken. But the man who knew how to fix it was on our side. And the boat which was supposed to take him to the other side was on the other side. It was 1pm and it was absurdly hot. I was so angry. I looked around to see what the other people were doing. And I noticed that everybody just sat down, they spread their arms and just sat there. So I sat down as well. I looked around. I looked at the river. And I thought, my God, what a beautiful river. What amazing trees. I looked at the other people's faces and thought, what beautiful people. I sat there for three hours waiting for the ferry to get fixed, and it was the first time that I'd actually felt the taste of this world, because I killed the ticking watch inside me. I quickly learnt my lesson: that you need to live in a completely different way. Physically you need to slow down, you need to walk differently. You need to move differently. And you feel the respect, the humbleness for the sheer power of nature, especially in the desert. And when you actually find yourself in the middle of the desert and you see the sand and rocks until the horizon parts, you feel so tiny. I think this is the right proportion between nature and us, because we are not the apple of the eye of the world. I realised that this had to be changed because when I spoke to one of the men I wanted to film and I tried to make arrangements for the next day to go and film him while he was working the fields he said, "Well, when you wake up tomorrow and the sun will be above this rock, come and see me for a cup of coffee. We'll have our coffees, we'll have a little chat, and we'll see." I'm a very lucky person because I'm also the producer of this film because no other producer would be patient enough to wait such a long time as I never stick to the schedule. I really don't know whether the day after tomorrow I will have my footage or not. One day I made an arrangement with this man. It was after the area was flooded and I wanted to rent a boat from him and we arranged to meet the next day at 6am. He came three days later, at 3pm. If you're trying to rush and then there's a sandstorm, you can't turn your camera on because it's full of bits and pieces of sand. And then I understood that the most wonderful time lies in these moments of waiting for something. And the time you spend waiting for the bloke with the boat has such an amazing quality to itself. You see so many things and meet so many people while you wait. This is why the camera is becoming an obstacle that is bothering me now. So I'm hoping that I'm now working on the film of my life, which nobody wants. I never before had a problem to find funds to make a film. Not in Poland but in Europe, no TV channel wants to give me money to finish my film. Because they keep telling me they're not interested in this little, peaceful Muslim village and that if I'd go to Dafur and make a documentary about it, then yes, the money is there, but they're not interested in the village.
I wanted to make a film that tells us about the world that is disappearing before our eyes. I hope it will serve the metaphor and that it will make an impact on us as well. Every person misses something. Each one of us has lost something that's irretrievable. I promised my team that the world premiere of this film will be in the city in the desert. I want the first screening to happen by the dam, by the Fourth Cataract, in the middle of the desert.
Again, this is part of my way of looking at the world as a naïve child. And there is nothing that is more important to me than moving from place to place and meeting people who live in these little places. And the fact that I'm now sitting here and talking to you, and I've been talking for such a long time, also has a new quality for me, it's a different world. Today the roles have swapped and it's me talking, not listening. I believe that life is about taking and giving, so I thought people tell me so much about their lives, that for me today, being in this really special place, I can tell you about my life.
Endnotes Drygas's first documentary Hear My Cry depicts the story of Ryszard Siwiec, a Polish accountant who set himself on fire in public as a protest against the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Despite thousands of witnesses present in stadium, any report of Siwiec's tragic protest was successfully suppressed by the communist machine, including the live television commentators of the event who did not report what was happening before their very eyes. Drygas's film focuses on his miraculous discovery of seven seconds of Siwiec burning, found among reels and reels of tedious footage of this festival.
Translation by Natalia Janota.
We would like to thank Joanna Krzyzewska for her invaluable contribution.