Exploring Characters Who Are On The Edge Is Fascinating: Tomasz
Polish director Tomasz Wasilewski has his work cut out for him as a member of the India Gold Jury at the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival this year, with films exploring a range of themes and meaty characters. Having recently won the Silver Bear for Best Script at the 66th Berlinale Film Festival for his latest film ‘United States of Love’, Wasilewski seems well-equipped to deal with the challenges of ‘judging’ a film though, emerging as one of the most interesting voices in Polish European auteur cinema recently.
We catch up with him on a range of things, from the cinematic themes that excite him, to his favourite filmmakers and his expectations from his India trip.
Tell us a little bit about your background, and what you’ve been up to recently.
Well, I’ve been travelling with my film ‘United States of Love’ to various festivals around the world. More importantly, we’ve sold it to 38 countries. We’re really excited about this, as people from places ranging from Korea, Taiwan to China, Brazil and all over Europe will be able to watch it in theatres soon.
This is my third film, with my debut feature film ‘In A Bedroom’ premiering at the Karlovy Vary film festival in Czech Republic, about three years ago. It was an independent film, and as with most filmmakers, I struggled for a long time to get enough money to produce it. Since I didn’t want to wait, I decided to go ahead and make an independent film, and it really worked! After opening at Karlovy Vary, we travelled to all the important Polish film festivals, and the film was considered a breakthrough, especially since it was created on such a shoestring budget.
‘Floating Skyscrapers’ was my second film, a story of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, which premiered at the Tribeca Festival in New York. It received some great response, getting nominated for a few awards across festivals and being an Indiewire top pick for Best Narrative Feature. It also won the top prize in the East of the West section at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and we managed to take it to 12 countries.
I started working on ‘United States of Love’ after that, and things have been going really fast since then. The film won quite a few awards for acting, editing and directing at the Polish Film Festival, and getting the Silver Berlin Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival was amazing. It will be screened at the Indian International Film Festival (IFFI) after Mumbai. I’m currently working on my fourth film, which should be ready at the end of the year.
We are not familiar with independent cinema in India — it’s like a new wave, a new face of cinema for the generation
Who are some of your favourite filmmakers?
I really enjoy films made by directors who focus on human beings, and their emotions, and the state of their mind or soul. There are a lot of European filmmakers that I look up to who explore these themes. Some names that come to mind would be the Dardenne Brothers, M. Hanecke, U. Siedl, C. Mungiu, S. Loznitza, Sofia Coppola, and Aronofsky. I admire these filmmakers very much; I’ve watched all their films.
Have you had the chance to watch any Indian films? What is your general impression of the Indian film industry, and are there any filmmakers’ works that you’ve really enjoyed?
Not really, honestly. I don’t know many of the filmmakers who are screening their films at the Mumbai Film Festival, but I’m so excited to discover them. Everyone around the world knows Bollywood, and that it’s huge, but we are not familiar with independent cinema in India — it’s like a new wave, a new face of cinema for the generation. I don’t really know how similar it would be to European arthouse films, but I’m very curious and excited to find out.
I’ve heard that a lot of people go to cinemas to watch films in India, and I think this is amazing, crazy and lovely.
As a part of the India Gold Jury at Jio MAMI 2016, what are some of the qualities you will be looking out for in the winning entry?
I am going in with no preconceived notions — I don’t want to know anything about the films beforehand. No trailers, nothing; I just want to sit for the screening as an audience member, to keep a fresh perspective. When you read up about films, you go in expecting something, and I think it’s important to find your own way of understanding a story in a film.
I really enjoy films made by directors who focus on human beings, and their emotions
Are you looking forward to watching any films at the festival this year?
I’m hoping to catch Ken Loach’s new film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. There are a lot of films, actually, but I don’t know how much time I will have as I’m in Mumbai for just a week. Besides watching all the India Gold entries, it would be great to explore some other films being screened.
As a filmmaker, what are some of the themes that fascinate you and what makes them interesting to explore?
I always choose a character on the border, someone who’s broken and fighting. Tackling difficult topics to portray emotions is something that I find fascinating. For example, in ‘Floating Skyscrapers’, that he was a homosexual was the background, whereas his conflicting emotions took centre-stage. I want to explore my characters to the point of what they would do in a moment of crisis. I just want to make my characters’ world even more difficult than it is, because I think that the most difficult time for a person is when he’s on edge — is he going to jump or not?
This is the moment of truth for human beings, we never know how we’re going to react in a crisis. It’s a mystery, and it excites me. It helps me get inside the protagonist’s soul.
About ‘United States of Love’
How was it working with Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, and what was your collaboration process like?
It was a dream of mine to work with him; years before I even started making films, I was a huge fan of his work, especially with director Cristian Mungui and films like ‘The Death of Mr. Lazarescu’ and ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’. He has this talent of portraying emotions — somehow, he can go into the characters’ heads and hearts with his camera.
I wrote him an email explaining that I was working on a film, and it would be my dream and honour to work with him. He liked the script, called up a week later and we talked it over. He then came to Poland, shot a few scenes together, and said, ‘Yes, let’s do the film together!’
In terms of collaboration, I found a soulmate in him in filmmaking. What you see in the film is a combination of us both. He’s a great artist, and very importantly, a great person. You can see it in the film; he loves people and he loves cinema. He has this empathy for human beings. With the cinema that I make, it’s important to be able to depict the deepest of emotions.
It’s very interesting that your protagonists are four women. How easy was it to maintain this perspective while exploring the intricacies of each character?
It was not difficult for me; my next film is about a 60-year-old woman! For me, there is a certain mystery surrounding women. Since my films are about portraying emotions, it’s fascinating that there is no ‘black and white’ when it comes to women’s souls and hearts, it’s all different shades of grey. They are like an ocean to me, I can explore their inner workings from many different angles, and I never know where I will end up. That’s the best part. Men are very emotional too, but in a very different way.
I’ve heard that a lot of people go to cinemas to watch films in India, and I think this is amazing, crazy and lovely
When it came to depicting the collapse of communism playing out in the backdrop of the characters’ stories, how much did you draw upon your personal experiences?
I was around eight or nine years old when communism collapsed in Poland. I was a child, but I remember the atmosphere vividly. It was a difficult time for Poles, we were trapped in the Soviet Union for a long time. It was a very hard life for my parents. I wanted to go back to that time to show what kind of perspectives they had developed as people who grew up in an age of communism. Emotionally speaking, this film could take place even today, but the choices of those women would be very different from what they were around 1989-90. Communism took something from these people. An animal who spends its whole life in a cage doesn’t leave the cage even when it can, because it begins to think that the cage is its home; after communism collapsed, this ‘cage’ opened up but they didn’t know what to do with that freedom.
I portrayed my characters discovering this freedom, not knowing where to go or what to do with it. People who’ve lived like that their whole lives are still figuring out how to navigate that freedom — and that was really interesting to explore.