Pawel Pawlikowski Masterclass: Between Documentary and Drama

By Doc House

pawel-pawlikowski.jpgPawel Pawlikowski

Ending the 3 day conference Crossing the Line: Between Fact & Fiction at London’s Rich Mix, Pawel Pawlikowski's early BBC documentaries were screened, followed by a Q&A with the director.

Angeli MacFarlane: Pawel. We might as well start with it because we’re going to end up with it anyway, this division between fact and fiction, one of the things that have driven these whole three days. How do you see your journey as a storyteller between those two poles as they were?

Pawel Pawlikowski: The main thing to say is that, because I started out as an amateur, I didn’t really know what documentaries were about, so I was never terribly aware of the dividing line and I suppose crossing the line was not such a big issue for me, to some people’s horror. So very early on when I started making documentaries I made them the best I could, about stuff that really interested me, certain type of stories, characters, paradoxes, landscapes, above all I tried to make films that under the skin of things and I tried to make them in a visual and layered way. It was all pretty far from vérité tradition. People were telling me “you should be making fiction” these aren’t proper documentaries”. Now I’m making fiction, everyone’s telling me they feel just like documentaries, why don’t you just go back to making documentaries? So I was always a bit of an amateur and kept muddling through, I evolved as I evolved – it was all trial and error.

Thankfully I started out working for television when television wasn’t such a highly commercial and political thing. So I could make trials and errors in the comfort that nobody watched these films much anyway. So I had a good field for experimentation early on, while getting paid by BBC TV a monthly salary. The downside of it is that now I’ve got all these films, documentaries, some of which I’m quite proud of, and these films are now dead and buried in the vaults of this corporation which is not even aware it has them. So when I was invited to talk here, I accepted quickly because I thought well that’s a good excuse to just trot out these old bits of furniture and see whether they’ve got any life in them. So I suppose at this point we should show one of those.

AM: Let’s do that. The first clip that we’re going to see is from a documentary called From Moscow to Pietushki. Which is about a poem and a poet really isn’t it?

PP: It’s about a Russian writer called Vyenedikt Yerofeyev, who hadn’t published anything at that time. It was quite a challenge to get the Commissioning Editors to commission a film about a guy who not only hadn’t been translated into English, but wasn’t even published in Russia. A great talent, a totally unique mind and voice and a great dramatic character into the bargain. When I got to him, he was on his last legs he was dying of cancer after forty years of non-stop alcohol consumption. I not only went into his world, but also used him to tell a bigger story about Russia, not entirely successfully, it has to be admitted. . Now I cringe at some things I did in that film to underline certain things about Russia, some bees I had in my bonnet, so it’s not an entirely successful film, but as it’s the only film ever made about Yerofeyev and his world, and the man was quite extraordinary, I like this film very much.

AM: Can we show the first clip please?

from-moscow-to-pietushki-pawel-pawlikowski.jpgFrom Moscow to Pietushki, 1991

AM: First of all, how did you come across this poem?

PP: The book was published in a samizdat version in Poland and I read the Polish translation, in fact my father gave it to me. And it was one of my favourite books ever written, so it was a labour of love – to find this person who wrote it, and also to convey the genius of the book, that mixture of surreal farce and total tragedy, of Immanuel Kant and methylated spirit. And looking for him was quite tricky. In fact there were rumours that he didn’t really exist, that Yerofeyev was just a pen name or pseudonym of a famous Soviet writer who was too scared write this wild anarchic stuff under his real name. So when I set off to find him I wasn’t even sure he existed. In fact finding him was quite a journey in itself. Nowadays you’d probably make a documentary about trying to find Yerofeyev, which was quite funny, involving KGB and all sorts of stunts and adventures. But I wasn’t really into that, in the end what I wanted to do was to make a film about him and bring to life the world in his head and his amazing past. When I met him he wasn’t in very good shape as you can see. So it was a bit of a challenge to convey his genius, his sense of humour, the richness of his language, of his imagination, given that he was dying and not making much sense. He was constantly drinking and he just spoke in these dribs and drabs… ambiguous and off target most of the time. So I really had to then start being like a screen-writer, drawing on the novel of course, but also looking around Moscow, looking at faces, places. And I started piecing together this kind of essay, quite digressive, around the themes of the book, using passages from the book.

The actual novel was structured around the journey from Moscow to Pietushki which was a town about a hundred kilometres out of Moscow, which becomes like an epic journey into delirium tremens. And the twelve stations on the way to Pietushki are like the twelve stations of the cross, so that gave me a structure for my film, so I didn’t need to construct it as a narrative or as an intellectual argument, I could just use what the book suggested as the backbone of the film.

But most of the time I was desperate, thinking ”this is so lifeless, Yerofeyev is really ill and not making much sense, the world of the gutter is so monotonously depressing, how am I going to bring it all to life, do justice to this genius. I’m just selling them short.” And then another thing was that being Polish I’ve always had ambiguous feelings about Soviet Russia. I couldn’t help using Yerofeyev to make a rather critical portrait of Russia, and that nowadays feels like a great impurity in the film. I cringe when I see these bits. The stuff in the vodka factory for example – a lot of it was kind of rhetorical, although these two vodka tasters were to the point and in the spirit of the book, these two grotesque angels of mercy.

AM: But on the other hand, the lady on the steps, she feeds us the line that’s so important. That he’s not a writer.

PP: That was Soviet petty bourgeois thinking, he’s not a proper writer. He’s not a member of the Writer’s Union, you can’t call him a writer. Anyway, the other writers did. [Laughter]

AM: Let’s have a look at the other clip From Moscow to Pietushki.

from-moscow-to-pietushki-pawel-pawlikowski-2.jpgFrom Moscow to Pietushki, 1991

AM: Would anyone like to ask Pawel anything about the film before we move on to the following one?

F1: I found it really difficult to decide where the documentary was. The two guys who get picked off the train, can you talk a bit about that? Was it for real or were you dramatising his poetry at that point but also making a comment about that’s normal anyway?

PP: The latter. These things used to happen. Teams of people or the police picked up drunks off the street and dragged them to these sobering-up units which handled them very roughly. The scenes in the sobering up unit happened for real, though we put our lights in here and there. But the man getting picked up on the train was that was actually staged as a link from the train to the detox place. I seem to remember it was a distant mate of Yerofeyev's, the man who lay down pretending to be drunk. And it is an awkward moment – looking back – but hopefully you’re so drawn into the whole thing, into the world of the book, that you don’t ask yourself is this real or staged.

F1: But if it happens all the time did you not consider perhaps trying to film a real even like that? Get the access to those rehab units?

PP: If I was making a vérité film, I would have just made a film about the train. [Laughs] That was another way of doing it. In the end, partly I’m too lazy and impatient to do vérité to be quite honest, but also it wasn’t my focus. I had a bigger game to play here, a story that couldn’t be told by just following my character around, and I just needed all these different elements to do a job for the film about Yerofeyev. So that’s why it’s not a proper documentary, and a lot of people have problems with these documentaries, to the point where the BBC were sort of embarrassed about them. Thank God this one actually won an Emmy so that shut them up and opened all sorts of doors, but they never knew how to handle this sort of filmmaking, and maybe rightly so. I was as I said before, quite naive. I was trying to cut to the chase, to do the most effective thing and get the viewer into a certain state of mind, to a certain space, and how I got there wasn’t always entirely ethical maybe.

M1: I wanted to ask about the kind of creative freedom you seemed to have to make that. Did you need to trick the people you were working for at the BBC into allowing you to do it? Did they know what you were up to? Were they surprised when you showed them what you’d done?

PP: Well nobody watched these films much so the viewing figures weren’t an issue. [Laughs] Through a lucky fluke I bumped into this great Commissioning Editor at the BBC – Nigel Williams – who happened to be editing a literary programme. We got on really well and I just had to come with some films ideas that had some literary connection. In Nigel I had a great accomplice, I could get away with murder. And at the time there wasn’t such a pyramidical structure, so the people at the top weren’t even quite aware this thing was being made until it went out. This situation caused some big problems later on when I tackled an overtly political subject, but we’ll talk about that later. But there was a good atmosphere at the BBC at the time. It was an amateurish place with some small pockets of money and autonomy and I was really lucky to have landed there at the time.

F2: Two questions really, one is the visual style. Are you very consciously influenced by Polish cinematography? The other technical, what kind of crew do you go out with? Do you do your own filming?

PP: This was a very small crew and I shot in two bites. I shot for about ten days, then I shot for another eight days, with a month and a half break in between for editing. So I had two different camera people, both Polish, first Wit Dabal and then for just a few days Bogdan Dziworski. And the style was trying to make reality as expressive as possible, trying to shoot things in the most interesting light, from the best angle – to bring to life reality and estrange it a bit. It’s not enough to just look at reality like vérité does often, just following people around. I’m more interested in hunting for the significant moment, making images and scenes lift off, be more than just observation. So I suppose that dictated the camera style and the use of sound and the use of editing. But again I wasn’t terribly influenced by anything in particular to be honest. If anything I’ve always liked the photography of Cartier-Bresson and this poetry of the street. The way the gesture, the light, the framing and different elements in the shot come together and it all looks effortless. It “just happens” as it were, but it is perfectly formed and timeless. So I always want to achieve these moments if I can, but there wasn’t a clear influence.

I’ve been lucky to work with some really good DOPs, and they tended to be Polish. They were not just good but they were ready to go on pretty mad journeys. There was also this great Polish documentary tradition, films I discovered in early eighties when the censors opened up their vaults, films made by people like Piwowski, Kieslowski, Lozinski, which I liked a lot but they were very specific, specific to their period, very formal, contrived in an interesting way, in a way which brought out some bigger truth about their subjects. They were often oblique and metaphorical to escape the censor, and that’s what often gave them more power, depth, making some of them quite timeless. They didn’t really help me find my way, but they did make me realise that with documentary you could not only look at society and people, but also make art, to use that horrible word everyone cringes at in England – I think art is a good thing, by the way. In Britain documentary tends to be treated as something second rate, a medium of information or voyeurism, but documentary can much more powerful and poetic that narrative fiction, richer and more layered and oblique, more open to beauty, to the mystery of the real, and not hamstrung by plot and needs of exposition. Nowadays you can see that in some films by Dvortsevoi or Kossakovsky, I don’t think I ever achieved such heights, but I definitely tried here and there, in my own bumbling way.

AM: One more question before we move on.

F3: What was that shot on?

PP: On 16mm

F3: Now do you choose that too if you get the chance?

PP: Film? I’ve never used video apart from one undercover film about Havel, where I couldn’t draw attention to myself. To be honest, I’m a bit insecure about video. I’d rather work with film just because I know how it works.

AM: Shall we move on to the next film we’re going to look at which is a bit closer which is Dostoevsky's Travels. And this is the story of the great grandson of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

PP: The only living descendant of Dostoevsky, who happens to be a tram driver by profession in St Petersburg. I was researching a different film in St Petersburg and I came across him at the Dostoevsky museum and I kind of fell in love with him as a character in a movie. So then I rang up Nigel Williams at the BBC and I said I’ve got another literary film for you, it’s got Dostoevsky in it, he said “Dostoevsky? Sounds good, no problem”. [Laughs] I borrowed some money and started shooting. You know it was the good old days. So Dostoevsky the tram driver in 1991 grew a beard to look a bit more like Fyodor, and was discovered by a German society for the Dostoevsky Appreciation Society in a castle in Northern Germany. And they invited him to hold an inaugural lecture for the opening of the society, and they didn’t realise that he wasn’t a poet, a writer or even an essayist so it led to some very funny situations. And his dream was to buy a second hand Mercedes.

AM: And he kind of looks like Oliver Reed doesn’t he, don’t you think?

PP: Buster Keaton at times. He had a very good face as you will see.

AM: Did you instigate the journey with him?

PP: No the journey was instigated by this Dostoevsky Appreciation Society in Germany. I just met him on the eve of his departure, he was very nervous. He spoke a bit of German because he had been in the Red Army based in East Germany, and he was reading up books and articles on Dostoevsky to collate a lecture of his own. He was also a very good drawer, a very pain-staking, realistic drawer, so he showed me these pictures that he’d drawn based on motifs from Dostoevsky, and he asked me whether 150 deutschmarks was the right sort of price. [Laughs] Basically it’s a one joke film, but the joke goes interestingly out of control. So have a look at it.

AM: Can we show the clip from Dostoevsky’s Travels please?

dostoevskys-travels-pawel-pawlikowski.jpgDostoevsky's Travels, 1991

AM: He’s a great character isn’t he?

PP: Yes. You can see what a bogus documentary this is. There’s no way the camera would have been in the bathroom at the right time, and showing things from that angle. Some of it was staged, I mean in the spirit of the truth but I can’t pretend it all just sort of happened in front the camera. I feel uneasy about this film now more than before, and possibly with new technology, light equipment, I would have done it differently now. But most of what happened actually did happen. And some of the crazier ideas and scenes in the film, like when he goes to Baden Baden to play in the casino and joins the Monarchist Society of Europe, they were his ideas. He said “why don’t we go to Baden Baden and try out the roulette method of Dostoevsky, my great grandfather”. So he was sort of partly written, partly vérité, it was a hotchpotch. And the stitching shows here and there I must say. But it did tell an interesting story about this mismatch of East and West. The way they tried to use him and the way he uses them and how they can never imagine how the world looks through the eyes of the other. It was quite revealing about many things. But it is an uneasy compromise, this film. I still like it because it’s funny and it’s says something truthful and to the point.

AM: What did he really make of that cast of high-minded intellectuals and Monarchists, and the various people that he met? Because there is a stellar cast and the film goes on and on in terms of ever increasingly extraordinary relationships.

PP: He was on the war path, using all these people and didn’t have much of a personal feeling for anyone around. In a way you could say I was exploiting this guy and being slightly cruel, but he was pretty much like this. If anything in reality he was even more single-minded about this Mercedes and how to use whomever he could use. For example, he was telling me about this Uncle of his, a Baron in Liechtenstein, who claims to be a relative of Dostoevsky’s – a totally bogus claim. But Dimitri said “Well I think we should visit him. Because if he is indeed my Uncle then I’m sure it would be a beautiful friendship and maybe I can benefit in some shape of form”. [Laughs] So we went to Liechtenstein, where Dmitri joined the Monarchist movement. Yes, he would stop at nothing, it was exhilarating, he was very, very single-minded. And I remember one German who was observing him said to me “now we know why the Wehrmacht had absolutely no chance against the Red Army”. Dimitri was totally focused and he never slept. And he got what he set out to get.

AM: I’m not quite sure quite what troubles you about the way the film’s stuck together. Is that a political thing in terms of the fact it’s focused on him?

PP: No the transitions are a bit awkward at times, and some things feel a bit too staged, or maybe I’m ultra sensitive because I knew they were. May be I should have covered my traces a bit better. But the real problem for me is that the film lacks another layer. It’s very funny, gets funnier and funnier and quite surreal at times, but it lacks another character, a more developed relationship with someone. There’s always a problem with these picaresque kinds of stories. There’s just one character and he or she is naively going through a chain of events. They only really work if there is another strong character throughout, a foil, some kind of Sancho Panza. Now I realise that in the case of Dostoevsky's Travels this other character should have been me. That would have been a really interesting film about me and Dostoevsky on the road, because some of the situations we had and conversations were quite were strong , but because I was in this mode of “I’m making a movie, I want to shoot it in a certain way, this is all wonderful what’s happening in front of the camera”, so I didn’t put my own neck on the line. And I probably wouldn’t do it even today. I don’t have the guts for that.

By the way I love Dostoevsky, the writer, so I wanted to get at something that would give me a whiff of the real Dostoevsky. Some kind of rebellion, some kind of gesture of throwing it all away or something, some sense of transcendence, but it never happened.

AM: Does anyone want to ask another question about Dostoevsky's Travels? No, well we can move on to the next film that we’re going to look at today, which is Serbian Epics. And you just mentioned before about the issue of getting into trouble making certain films, and I think you were particularly referring to this one perhaps. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how this film came about, and subsequently the noise that it created for you and for it?

PP: Well it was a film I made at the very beginning of the Bosnian war. It was a war that affected me, particularly because I’d been to Sarajevo and visited Yugoslavia quite a lot. And it was a disaster waiting to happen and yet you couldn’t quite believe it would happen. Basically it was a mystery. I really didn’t fully understand what possessed these people. There were a lot of really reasonable explanations: political, economic, anthropological, psychological. But in the end it was still a kind of mystery. I wanted to make a film that would be a journey of discovery for me, into this complicated landscape where history, politics, topography, psychology, religion, ideology – all interact in the most devilish way – I wanted to make a film that would reflect this complexity, these paradoxes.

I was always annoyed by the way Central and Eastern Europe, countries that I knew quite well and where I spoke the language, how they were flattened by the media in the West, especially by television. How for lack of space and because of mistrust of the audience’s intelligence or their attention span, everything was turned into very simple stories, all the characters were sold short, everything was uncomplicated, black and white, simple – and yet totally incomprehensible. Just mindless repetition of clichés, emotional and shrill, but totally self-serving and pointless. Journalism basically. I wanted my films from very early on to be a kind of anti-journalism. To work through characters, images, paradoxical situations, to muddy the waters rather than make everything flat and clear and the same old story.

So the Bosnian war can’t be just about some incomprehensible sadists who, possessed by some evil spirit, invaded a foreign country to slaughter innocent civilians, there must be more to it. So what do we do. How do we show the complexity of the situation, the layers, the paradoxes, how they see themselves, what they think they are doing, the subtext, delusions, the fear – without ignoring the fact that there’s murder and mayhem going on all around. So I went there and did a lot of research at home and started looking at it through many various prisms. For a while I thought of making a film about just one road-block somewhere, just like a vérité film. But I thought that doesn’t explain much, it’s too small a focus. I also started studying literature as well, specifically the medieval oral epics of the Serbs. These oral epics played a very big part in the national consciousness. Serbia like most of the countries in that part of the world didn’t exist for many centuries, almost six centuries. They not only didn’t exist, they didn’t even have any institutions apart from Orthodox Church. They didn’t have any historiography or any written record of anything, so their entire self-understanding was based on oral Epic poetry especially when their national conscience started stirring in the 19th century, during the Spring of Nations and these romantic folk poets started wandering the country and collecting epic poems and songs from folk artists and gusle players. The most important of these wandering poets, collectors of folklore, was somebody called Karadzic – like Radovan Karadzic, but not actually a relation.

So I started reading these oral epics which are now written down, and the key epic was the one about King Lazar, the last Emperor of Serbia, when they had this magnificent Medieval Empire, who fights one last ditch battle against the Turks, against the Ottomans at Kosovo Field. And the oral epic tells how on the eve of the battle King Lazar was preparing fight, but a dove arrives from Jerusalem and sits on his shoulder, a dove being the symbol of the Holy Spirit, and asks him “Do you want to win this battle or do you want to lose it heroically and turn Serbia into the kingdom of heaven?”, a kind of metaphysical entity. And he chooses to lose the battle, become a martyr and to turn Serbia into a mythological entity, and that’s the key oral epic poem of the Serbian tradition. It’s a key to many things and it’s a strange reworking of the New Testament. It’s a bizarre re-working of Christ’s martyrdom in terms of the national myth.

So I thought well that’s interesting, it confirmed my feeling that there was something self-destructive about what the Serbs are doing. They’re clearly not going to win, the Cold War is over, Russia’s not going to bail them out. The whole world is going to sooner or later just punish them badly, so although at the time they looked like these unstoppable aggressors, at other level what they were doing felt like some mad, mad journey into self-destruction.

So I went to that area and started making contacts. After some lobbying I managed to get a meeting with Nikola Koljevic, a member of the Bosnian Serb presidency who was a Professor of Literature at Sarajevo University, but was now camping out with the Serbian Nationalists in the hills. And he was very impressed that somebody had read the oral epics, clearly not a journalist and also we talked about poetry, history and other high-minded things. And through him I got access to some things which journalists who were swarming round the place couldn’t get access to. Of course it was a long process and a long struggle, but what I wanted to make was a film not about the war in the obvious TV sense, the running around, the shooting, the victims, the murderers, TV at the time was mainly massacre reporting, endless images of massacres, victims, no explanations about who, why, the bigger picture, it became a kind of pornography. I tried to deal with it in a more specific but also more universal and timeless way, I also tried to explain the imagination behind what was going on. What is the self-image of the Serbs, what are the myths that propel them? And by doing that I also wanted to make a film which was not just about Serbs, but about all sorts of Nationalist myth-making, and may be even the very notion of a Nation state, a dangerous concept in many ways, especially in what was a fantastically complicated historical and geographical context. Anyway it sounds fantastically high-minded. [Laughs]

It was a very complicated undertaking and because I couldn’t find one good story that would convey these things, I just made it like a mosaic of scenes and images and edited it not like a story or an illustration of a thesis, but in a freer, almost musical way. It is by far the best, most original and truthful film I’ve ever made, but at the time it was a liability, it really exploded in my face. Because when it was advertised that there would be a film on BBC television which featured Radovan Karazic as a performer of oral epics, all hell broke loose. There was a parliamentary debate, the BBC got a terrible bollocking for letting this happen. Suddenly they realised there’s this guy making films that we never even noticed and he got something that got to the heart of darkness and we don’t even know about it.

So in the end the film went out on television with a long warning: this is a very complicated film. There was a five minute preamble that explained the issue, so the film wouldn’t confuse the audience, it was really embarrassing. Also it made me realise television is not the right medium for me in a way, because it is a political arena. It’s an arena suited to the rhetoric of journalism and debate, not for film-making and when it does drama it’s usually the sort of drama that spells everything out, with too many words and political correctness. What Stephen Frears said earlier on about getting away with things in cinema that you can’t get away with in television, that’s true. And also it’s a medium where people don’t really watch things. They listen to things, they need to be spoon-fed by words, by voiceover, dragged by editing, prodded awake by thumping sound effects, noise. Whereas I was trying to make people watch things properly and engage with the film on its own terms, feel the reality and complexity of the world and then come out somehow more illuminated by the end of it. But that’s not how television works. So it was for me, one of the early warnings that I’m not going to last long in television. Especially after Birt came along and TV changed, becoming this corporate brave new world run by politically correct soulless committees, that double-guess what the masses are thinking, and by armies of accountants and lawyers. Anyway, have a look at the clip.

AM: Let’s have a look at the clip of Serbian Epics.

serbian-epics-pawel-pawlikowski.jpgSerbian Epics, 1992

M2: I was just wondering how you got that kind of access to those characters and did they need to see the footage before you were allowed to use it?

PP: No [Laughs] that war cabinet meeting was something, how they let me film it is a mystery. The man to the left of Karadzic is General Mladic, the main protagonist of the war. In this scene he twice over-rules Karadzic, making it quite obvious that he is the one running the show and Karadzic is just a bumbling windbag. No, I didn’t have that much access, it looks more than it was. The film is a lot of different scenes, that’s part of the wider picture it was a kind of mosaic, but in the end what did help was that the fact that I was interested in oral epics. So actually by some fluke I got to film some amazing moments. For example before the war cabinet meeting there is a scene where Karadzic recites a poem that he’d written about Sarajevo twenty years earlier. He remembers this poem vaguely, and he says without any irony “God my poem is about Sarajevo burning, being destroyed and I wrote that twenty years ago, how prophetic of me”.

But he was very touched that I’d bothered to read his poetry so I became his friend for two hours. [Laughs] So then he said “I’ve got to run to the War Cabinet meeting, sorry” and I said “can I just do three minutes just to show the War Cabinet meeting in action?” So he let us in and suddenly all the doors were open because we were with him. Then I quickly asked, we had this guy with a battery light, and I said put the light behind them and let’s put camera here and then see what happens. Karadzic thought he was doing this innocent photo-opportunity talk about nothing in particular, show that they are respectable politicians at work and then I just threw in this question, “so could you tell us exactly which bits of the conquered territory you want to keep and which you might trade off?” [Laughter] And that got the scene going. It was absurdist theatre. I thought I’m dreaming - this is so embarrassing for them, they’re going to take me out and shoot me [Laughs]. And they forgot we were filming because we didn’t move the camera. It was all from one angle, on a longer lens, great focus pulling. Suddenly all the faces stars of the war were there in one row, uttering these embarrassing exchanges. That smoking woman who says “this was our Annual Aviation Day", that was Biljana Plavsic also known as Dr Necrophilia. She was more extreme than Karadzic at the time. So suddenly we had this scene and they weren’t even aware we were filming. Most of the days we didn’t film anything. We could have run around shooting the war, but because I wanted to make a film which wasn’t about that, which was focused on very specific things, most of the days we didn’t shoot anything. The shooting ratio in this film was more or less 2: 1. May be I’m exaggerating but we had very few cans of film with us and it was hard to re-supply, so we only shot what would really work for the film.

M3: Just a slight follow on from that. You’re filming a guy shooting down on Sarajevo. What’s going through your mind when you’re recording it, watching it?

PP: I couldn’t believe he was doing it. I couldn’t believe they were letting us film all this. Even Karadzic on the phone to his wife in that absurd cable car, it’s so bad for their image. But one major bone of contention was Limonov, the fascist Russian writer who went to fight on the side of the Serbs, he wasn’t shooting while Karadzic was on the phone to his wife. I inter-cut that to enhance the sense of the absurd, and the surreal idiocy of it all. So I took liberties with the editing. As I said before, I was just feeling my way towards a film that I wanted to see and maybe ethically it wasn’t quite right. Especially since then they used this clip in the Hague to prove that Karadzic is a mass-murderer. And when they said to me “well he was on the phone while this guy was shooting”, I said “not exactly. And, to be honest, if this is your only proof that he’s a mass-murderer then we’re in trouble!” [Laughter]

M4: Can I follow on from that? As you mentioned, Mladic and Karadzic were prosecuted for war crimes for their involvement in the war, and many filmmakers might feel that their responsibility at that point in filming those kind of scenes, was actually to ask a direct question, to step in. And it seems from what you’re saying that that wasn’t the treatment. So more than what was going through your mind, my question is didn’t you feel a responsibility in that situation to actually ask the direct question?

PP: To achieve what?

M4: Well to ask the direct question.

PP: And then? Just so I feel nice about myself? Like one of these heroic on camera journalists? Come on. People such as Karadzic reveal much more by not being confronted with these standard questions. If I asked a question, he’s got the answer ready. He’s used it 15 times before that very day. It’s just back to journalism, the verbal ping pong, the posing. You can reveal so much more by just learning how to observe and listen and create the framework for things to start to mean something. And that’s filmmaking as opposed to showing off on television. [Applause]

AM: I think there’s something really important there as well about the nature of the enemy and how your role in this particular film doesn’t focus on that, but more so the situation. And it is absurd in many, many ways. There is something very apposite today particularly, in terms of the various wars that we are involved with, where demonising of people allows us to feel very simple, clear-cut emotions, where the truth is obviously much more complex.

PP: The film wasn’t really about Karadzic, but it did show him in the flesh here and there, doing things, saying things in English, he was a human being and not some incomprehensible abstract evil. People in the West, the media, also resort to myth-making when it comes to explaining complicated historical realities out there. I tried to hold a mirror up to all sorts of things… It’s good to know that when you start a war horrible things happen and you don’t have to be a complete demon to do that. I asked him off camera, “do you realise that you started this war?” and he said “Yes I know but we had no choice”. And myth-making is a currency of most politics. I wanted this film to hold a mirror to the Croats and other self-obsessed little nations, but also to the big nations, to the West. Just because Tony Blair has a wonderful smile and speaks fluently, and works within a democratic context in a country with democratic traditions, it doesn’t absolve him from the fact that he lied to us all and started a war which he couldn’t control, a war which is absurd and which has led to war crimes. Maybe that’s what happened with Karadzic. A populist politician working in a context of nationalism. The guy started a war and he should never be forgiven for that, but I am not sure he quite knew what was going to unleash. From my observations I think he was scared half the time. He was a psychiatrist, not a very good poet, nineteenth century romantic Nationalist from the tradition of nineteenth century European Romantics, who had these then innocent ideas, from Herder, of folk roots, of liberation from big multinational empires. A hundred years later these same ideas were no longer so innocent, they were murderous. In late 80s communism was collapsing, there was a ferment in the air, Nationalism was the order of the day, that’s how you could mobilise the masses, so someone like Karadzic used his nationalist beliefs, became a leader, started a war against other nationalists, and then I don’t think he was any longer in control of a lot of what was happening. Mladic on the other hand was an all-out soldier, a patriot, but also a ruthless pro, he knew exactly what he was doing.

You wouldn’t have the same sort of access, but you could make a film like this about politicians that are currently around, and the problem is that their PR operation is so slick and so good very often that you can’t get anywhere near them. Unless you make a film like Michael Moore about yourself trying to get near them. Anyway, I tried to make this film about more than just the conflict, and maybe that was a bit ambitious. And I think on that front I failed. I remember they showed this film in Croatia on television and they had a big debate afterwards, with twelve bearded intellectuals gathered around a table in a TV studio who were discussing the film. And half of them were saying “It’s unbelievable how the British media portray the Serbs, make them seem almost nice and don’t show the terrible suffering of us Croats.” And the other half were saying “no, no on the contrary, it’s a deeply sarcastic film and it shows what primitive idiots they are”, adding “thank God we Croats are so different and civilised.” The truth is I could have made a very similar film about the Croat siege of Mostar, rather than about the Serbs. The situation there was as gruesome and the myth-making no less absurd. So obviously the idea of holding up a mirror didn’t quite work.

AM: Any more questions about Serbian Epics?

F4: I was going to ask a more general question. Can you tell us a bit about how you work in the cutting room and your relationship with your editor? Do you work with the same editor? Do you work very collaboratively? Do you hand your rushes over and let them look at stuff and then come back later?

PP: It depends. Usually I’m in the cutting room all the time and with documentaries I used to pre-cut the films even sometimes before I went into the cutting room. Because I knew where the good bits were, and I’d tried things out on an off-line just to save time. So I like working with an editor but I don’t let them just do their own thing. I like being in the cutting room and I am very aware of the material I’ve got.

AM: Has that been a very different experience on your two features?

PP: Not a hundred percent different. It’s a bit different of course because there’s a story, there’s a narrative so you know where the bits fit. But I’m very hands-on in every department.

AM: Any more questions?

F5: This links on to the last question. I just wanted to ask how you work with your cameraman? To what extent do you brief them and what kind of control do you like to have? I liked some of the really tight shots and I don’t know if you can see that, I’m guessing you don’t have a monitor on the shoot, so could you tell me a bit about that relationship?

PP: Well I’ve worked with really good cameramen – Wit Dabal, Bodgan Dziworski, Jacek Petrycki, Ryszard Lenczewski – all strong personalities, people from whom you could learn a lot too. And I’m with them all the time, next to their ear or at the monitor. Usually I want to work with collaborators who are on my wavelength, who are tickled by the same things as me and who are generous, who can occasionally challenge you to do things more interestingly. Who want to contribute and have good ideas. So I’ve always tried to work with cameramen whose work I liked, who were mates, with whom every evening we could just talk about the film. When you make a film you’re in a bubble. You just talk the film the whole time and discuss scenes that you’ve shot and try and hone it down. The whole thing is a mad, mad journey together. So I’m very close to the camera person.

F5: Do you always work with the same people or does it depend what film you’re working on?

PP: They’re different, like Serbian Epics, I shot it in two bites so I had two different cameramen, because the first one couldn’t do the second bit of filming. So I got another one, who was very good. I try to work with Polish cameramen because we have this shorthand. I find them more collaborative than British ones, open to adventure. And I don’t have to be worried about over-stepping my mark. In Britain everyone knows what their competences are and people don’t like it when you step into their territory, whereas in Poland, if you assemble a good team then you’re basically taking the same trip.

I’ll never forget I was making a film at the BBC and had to use a BBC cameraman for this film. And he kept himself to himself. And he was telling me about this horrible director he’d just worked with who was totally incompetent. He was doing a film that was set at night, but he was shooting all the night scenes in daylight. And I was immediately tickled and said “who’s this director, he sounds like a guy after my own taste?” And he said Alan Clarke. And this guy had been shooting Road, which is one of the great films, and he seems to have hated the experience. [Laughs] I’m not saying it has to be like that, but in Britain people do divide very strictly, you know “I’m the editor, I’m the writer, I’m the camera person. Leave it to me. I know what I am doing”. And I like getting involved in everything, including moving into my composer’s house and torturing them into the night. [Laughs]

AM: I think we should just open it up to general questions now. Unfortunately we don’t have time to show the last clip which is really sad. Your film Tripping with Zhirinovsky, but I’m afraid we’ve only got five minutes. So does anybody have any questions regarding any aspect of Pawel’s work that they’d like to share with us?

F6: It’s more of a practical question in terms of having come from that relationship with the BBC and that freedom, and where you are now. How easy is it for you to make your films and where do you go now to get your money and to get your backing?

PP: I still go to the BBC for my backing. There was a period where the BBC and all television became very corporate, and that coincided with some other things. The territory which I liked for making documentaries, Central and Eastern Europe, a world I knew well and was obsessed about because I came from there, that became over-familiar and a lot of stuff had been shot and suddenly it suddenly wasn’t such virginal territory to operate in. And then television became a bit more boring and unadventurous. Everything became reduced to ratings, pounds per viewer per screen minute – total accounting. I had this office at the BBC which suddenly two accountants moved into. One day I arrived and all my things were in boxes, so I knew I had to start something else.

So I went through a couple of years where I didn’t know what to do. I was just thinking well I’m not going to make documentaries about stuff I don’t know or care about, about cultures where I don’t speak the language, where I don’t really understand all the ins and outs, where I am a total outsider. So then I decided to make films about other unfinished business. About youth, first love, exile, arriving in Britain with my mother. Last Resort was a result of that. So I started thinking what else is interesting, what else will give me the energy to actually make a film? Because the main thing with filmmaking is to actually have this impetus to make something. I’m too lazy to treat film-making as just a profession, I have to be really excited. So I got myself psyched-up to make some films about personal stuff, things that strike a deeper chord, or touch a nerve. It’s always difficult to invent a film that will really carry you, something with interesting characters and layers, so that was a laborious process. But once I had an idea, I went to the BBC and then got a small budget to do it, and I tried to do it like I did my documentaries, in two bites always. Just to shoot for ten days, edit for a while and then add things, elaborate some things, scrap bad ideas. And that’s how we did Twockers, which I did jointly with a good friend of mine, Ian Duncan. But my fiction writing and ideas, I stick to what I understand in my bones, characters I can inhabit or fall in love with. So I try not to get sucked in by plot mechanics. I once wrote a generic thriller which just kind of wrote itself, and I became a victim of this script I wrote, so I thought never again. I have to build the world of the film, slowly from elements I understand, that not only ring true, but that are also expressive, create some relationships and situations that have layers. Try and create some kind of world that has resonance with all different elements somehow gelled together. So it’s very much like a cottage industry rather than an industrial process. But that’s very time consuming and scary for financiers. And now BBC films, the feature film wing of the Beeb, have just been scrapped or lost their head, so I don’t know who’s going to finance my next film.

twockers-pawel-pawlikowski.jpgTwockers, 1998

AM: Just one more question.

F7: I know we’ve run out of time but I’d really like you to talk about Twockers. I saw it this morning and thought it was amazing. Such incredible realism. Is it scripted? Can you talk a bit about the process, how you went about with those young actors, and in a way is it a world you know? Because I can’t imagine that it is.

PP: Being young and unhappily in love, stuck in a loveless world – of course I am familiar with that, and how, although my youth happened in Warsaw and not working class Yorkshire. It started as not much of an idea. Ian and I thought there’s an interesting landscape, this estate, criminal kids, lost souls, bored out of their heads, addicted to dope, American TV and designer clothes. It really started with the idea of let’s just make a film, which is unusual for me. We thought we’ve got to make a film that doesn’t cost much so we can prove we can make fiction that’s not boring and doesn’t feel scripted and plotty in an obvious way. Where the reality can breathe and has some poetry about it. So we set off to make this film. We had some kind of half-baked story, twelve pages, it wasn’t very original. And then while looking for locations for characters, I realised what I didn’t want this film to be. I didn’t want it to be a slice of life at all, with lots of sociology and attitude. Because these kids that we were seeing for casting were all incredibly predictable. They’re all just like you’d imagine them to be, criminal kids and dead keen to be in a film and show off. And all the social problems, Of course they’re there. You just look at this place and it’s obvious. But the film can’t be just about that. We’ve seen so much of this in all these limp, by-numbers, self-regarding films by middle class directors, who latch onto the working classes out of self-loathing or not having much to say. So we thought there has to be something more than sociology, something universal and existential. What was really striking about this estate outside Halifax was the utter lack of love or any kind of transcendence.

While casting we came across this one kid who plays Trevor. And he was special. He looked different, he had a very original way of thinking and speaking. He wrote poetry. He was also quite good at street-life as well, not to put too fine a point on it. He showed us how to burgle a car with a tennis ball. But he was complicated, at odds with the world around, certainly there was more to him. He was a lovelorn creature, he wrote poetry, he had a Hungarian pen-friend which to me really proved that he was special. So I thought, well that’s a good beginning. And then how do we shoot this place, not like one of these gritty realist films that authenticate the obvious by striking documentary poses, shaking the camera a lot. We didn’t want that. Ian and I decided to use the landscape like a kind of stage and shot the whole thing in static locked off shots, which made the landscape like a character in each scene. We estranged things even further by eliminating all the grown-ups and most life out of the shots. And it became not just very realistic, but also expressive and the kids too were not just real but also expressive. For me, that’s the essence of cinema: photographing reality and making it mean more. Not going with the flow as realism is supposed to do, but on the contrary looking at reality against the grain, discovering its strangeness. And this applies to both documentary and fiction. Anyway, Twockers was a film we discovered in the process of making it. There was the theft of the dog, the corpse in the burgled house and the love interest. It was a pretty predictable plot actually. The plot wasn’t what the film was about, it was more about the texture. And some of the dialogue between the kids, we wouldn’t have scripted them quite like that. We knew more or less what they’d be saying, but we made them say it over and over again until they got into some kind of rhythm where all the words came at the right time and it felt totally fresh and totally real, yet it had a literary ring to it. So that’s the hunt we were on. How to find expression and form in reality, and some surprising angles on something that you think you know very well, show it can be beautiful, mysterious and disturbing.

AM: We’re going to have to stop now I’m afraid. Pawel Pawlikowski, thank you so much.

PP: Thank you