15th ÉCU Film Festival | 2020
"It is extremely bad. The air is toxic. We have 3 kids and it hurts to go outside knowing that it kills us slowly."
Michal Zadara & Barbara Wysocka
Films From The Smog Years
European Dramatic Short
All pictures © Krzysztof Bieliński
The air in Warsaw, Poland is extremely polluted. A director tries to film the poison that we inhale every day, but the obstacles are institutional, emotional, and practical.
Hi Michal & Barbara thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?
Barbara Wysocka: We are lucky to spend this time in the green suburbs of Philadelphia in an empty College Campus. Though working and creating via zoom is challenging, we are happy to develop new ways for our work. We are really happy to be able to come to Paris at this time - even virtually.
Michal Zadara: It is really difficult not to go crazy, whatever your situation is. I don’t think humans are meant to communicate through media, I think something in us gets very upset when we don’t have contact with large numbers of people.
As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative inspirations?
BW: The world has changed very quickly. I always had an impression that art is not fast enough to race the world's tempo. But now the situation is different. We are now working on a kind of slow theatre and slow performing arts. The lock down determines our tools and our productions.
We have to learn how to observe reality from a different perspective, we have to learn different ways of watching.
MZ: For me it’s really demotivating me, because everything is now filmed or transmitted through 2-dimensional screens, so now everything looks the same, all of a sudden.
Your film Films From The Smog Years has been selected for the 2020 ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?
BW: It was the best news of 2020! I wish I could be there in this great place with great people. If our film was chosen — that means that there are people thinking similarly, who see the problem of smog and think that it is worth it to speak out loud about it.
MZ: It is such a pleasure to see our work in the context of other independent short films. I can’t wait to see them all — except we won’t see them because during the lockdown kids don’t go to school and all you end up doing is taking care of them. But I will try to see as many as possible.
"Stop making art that pretends that the air is not polluted, 90% of the world’s children are growing up in areas with excessive air pollution."
Can you tell me a little bit about Films from The Smog Years, how did this film come about?
BW: We were supposed to work on a theatre performance for a special festival in Warsaw but we wanted to create something more durable and more important. We try to make art that not only shows problems but finds solutions, so we used the budget for the theatre performance to create a movie and to start the work on changing the laws and fighting for clean air in Poland.
MZ: We sat down for a week at the theatre three of us — Barbara Wysocka, Wiktor Loga-Skarczewski and me — and we came up with scripts for some 10 short films that deal with air pollution. Then we chose the seven that we could actually make, and then we chose three of those to put into our submission for the festival. So we have four more Films from the Smog years - for the future!
Climate change & pollution within cities is very much an important topic, for those who might not know how bad is the pollution in Warsaw?
BW: It is extremely bad. The air is toxic. We have 3 kids and it hurts to go outside knowing that it kills us slowly.
MZ: Taking walks outside in the winter isn’t good for you but bad for you. It’s very strange. It feels like depression.
What was the experience for you making Films From The Smog Years compared to your debut film?
BW: My first film was an experimental short with a simple story, without real influence on politics. It took some time to realize how art could really change the world.
MZ: I made several artistic amateur films before, but this is my debut film!
How important is the collaboration between directors when working on a project like this?
BW: It is very difficult and very effective — we have been collaborating for many years in theatre and opera, and the more we fight the better the art is. Exchanging ideas and experiences, taking work shifts and tasks can help organize the work. And we are both very critical of each other.
MZ: It is really difficult to let go and understand that someone else’s opinion might really help the film. It is a painful moment when you realize that you might be totally wrong about something. So you grow every time. I really believe in dialog and deliberation as a way of discovering the best solution. It’s just not very pleasant.
Did you get much support from the authorities/organisations in Warsaw when you started making this film?
BW: The film is a co-production of CENTRALA, our independent foundation, and Teatr Powszechny, a city theatre.
MZ: The money for this film came directly from the city of Warsaw, so their support was fundamental.
Looking back do you think there is anything you would have done differently?
BW: Of course, I never feel completely satisfied with my work. I always would change many things but it is the charm of movies - once it’s done, it’s done.
MZ: I am amazed that we made several interesting films on such a small budget.
During the making of this film what did you discover could be done to address the air pollution in Warsaw?
BW: We are working intensively on changing the law and actually that is the most important part of this process - the law should be changed so the air can be cleaner. I could imagine living in a clean city where breathing is not killing me.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
BW: Yes! I made my first movie long before I started my theatre studies for acting and directing. I was 20 and I won a prize for my script. I could direct a short movie in the school film in Łódź. I think this experience put me on my way from music to performing arts.
MZ: Making films has always been really tedious for me. I’ve never had a passion for it. I hate choosing the right shot so I try to only shoot each scene once, so that the editing won’t take as long. But it takes a long time anyway, so I like it most if everything is done in one shot.
BW: I love the whole process - the preparing, the acting, the shooting, the editing, choosing the right shot, I even love the smell of the dust burned in the lights on the movie set! I can't wait to make more.
How much has your style and approach to your films changed since you started making films?
BW: We changed, the world changed and times they’re changing.
What has been the best piece of advice you have been given when you started out?
BW: The more you act, the better director you are. The more you are directing the better actor you are.
Given me by the best professor ever, Bogdan Hussakowski. He was after a stroke, barely able to speak, using only a few words to communicate the essence.
MZ: After I showed my first amateur film to Andrzej Wajda he said, “Mr. Zadara, you should only make a film if you have something to photograph.” I thought that was really good advice so I didn’t make any films until I had something to photograph.
Do you have any tips or advice to offer filmmakers about to make their first film?
BW: Follow your inner voice. If something’s important for you, say it to the world.
MZ: There are too many films already. Don’t do it unless you have to.
BW: Do not listen to him, he is so cynical only because we are in another time zone and it is very late.
What are you currently working on?
BW: Non existing theatre performance, Hamlet- movie performance with my students, operas for Berlin and Warsaw, I want to write a script for a feature film about my traumatic experiences as a woman in the theatre. It is time to deal with that and I can not see a better way to talk about it than via personal movie production.
MZ: Getting ready to direct a theatrical adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Films From The Smog Years?
BW: Not only the knowledge that Warsaw is polluted but also the idea of art changing the law and changing reality. This is a form of political art.
MZ: Stop making art that pretends that the air is not polluted, 90% of the world’s children are growing up in areas with excessive air pollution. This is not an acceptable situation.