Never compromise, Polish director Joanna Kos-Krauze tells budding filmmakers
Art and Experience: In an interview with Mehr, award-winning Polish cinematographer Joanna Kos-Krauze said mark of a good filmmaker is ‘courage’, and the tenacity to never compromise on what needs to be shown.
Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan – three Iranian metropolitan cities – recently played host to a week-long film event dedicated to the most distinguished works of the Polish cinema. The event, organized by the Polish embassy and Iran’s Art & Experience Cinema, opened at the Iranian Artists’ Forum in downtown Tehran on December 1 with the screening of Joanna Kos-Krauze’s ‘Papusza’ (2013) – an award-winning, gripping, monochrome narrative of the rise and fall of the most distinguished Polish-Gypsy poet, Bronislawa Wajs, widely known as Papusza, and the turning point in her life where her talent was discovered by writer Jerzy Ficowski.
Ms. Kos-Krauze, who was present at the event as a special guest and later led a workshop on “Polish and Iranian Art Cinema and Co-production”, was kind enough to sit for a brief interview with me half an hour before the screening of her film.
A graduate of Polish and Hebrew studies, she is considered as one of the most important directors in contemporary Polish cinema. Meeting Krzysztof Krauze (whom she married later on) was a turning point in her cinematic career, which she continued to further expand on by collaborating with him on several highly successful projects, including the biopic ‘Papusza’ and the multi-level, emotionally-charged drama ‘Birds Are Singing in Kigali’.
She credits her venture into filmmaking to ‘accident’, with her dream job having been a surgeon, and still reminiscing about the loss chance with a wistful smile and in good humor.
“Surgeons are out there, being brave and making tough decisions,” she says.
But doesn’t that also describe filmmakers?
“What you really need when you choose this path, I think, is bravery,” she tells me when the interview is nearly over. “To have the courage to make what you really want to make, and to never compromise.”
Well, I think she agrees.
What follows is the full text of the interview:
Would you please give a little introduction about yourself and your career for our Iranian audience? How did you get introduced to filmmaking?
I don’t know. By accident, maybe. I always wanted to be a doctor, but my marks weren’t good enough – I guess I was too lazy (laughs). Even now, sometimes I find myself regretting the fact that I’m not a surgeon. Because they are brave and they make tough decisions; this is something real and tangible that you can do. Meanwhile, film directing is a very risky endeavor.
The starting point for me, I think, was a competition for writing a script for the TV. I took part in it and won the prize. Then I became the chief of the screenwriting department for one series. After that I worked on some short documentaries for TV, and was a casting director for quite a long time. Then, gradually I stepped into the realm of feature films. The turning point, of course, was when I met my husband, and then we started to work together, for almost twenty years.
What were your visions when you first started as a filmmaker and how many of those were you able to accomplish by now?
I can’t say that I started with any particular vision. The duty of the artist is to keep looking for questions, not the answers. I’m just trying in my own way to show something. Visions are for religious leaders, I think, not the artists.
Two of your films were selected for screening at the second Polish Film Week in Iran, ‘Papusza’ (2013) and ‘Birds Are Singing in Kigali (2017). Let’s talk about ‘Papusza’ first. What inspired you to work on this subject?
I wouldn’t really call it inspiration when I decide to work on a project. Usually, you have three or four ongoing projects that you’re trying to develop. But if you want to know how the film came to be, back in high school, I had a very good teacher, and one day we were analyzing Papusza’s poems. Then my curiosity led me to a book on the world of gypsies. The gypsy community, we could say, has disappeared from the Polish cultural landscape. Jerzy Ficowski, also a character in my film ‘Papusza’, wrote that book. One chapter about Papusza in the book stayed with me. After many years, when we were looking for some new ideas, I thought about this subject, and it took my husband and I some four or five years to develop just one movie because our style of working consists of doing a lot of research on the subject we wanted to work on in order to get fully acquainted with the world of it. For seven or eight years we couldn’t find a way how to show this vanished gypsy world. It wasn’t just Papusza’s poems that grabbed my interest, but also her story, which we knew nothing for sure; everything was like a fairytale, something very dramatic that we decided to work on. She is considered as the first established female gypsy poet in history, which in itself, was incredible.
And from what I’ve gathered, your ‘Papusza’ is the only film ever made on this subject.
There was one short documentary on her, but that’s all.
You worked both as a screenwriter and as a director on ‘Papusza’ and several other projects, a trend that is pretty common among some Iranian filmmakers who are trying to make a name for themselves out there. How do you find the experience, and what are some of its benefits and challenges?
I think working both as the screenwriter and the director on a project is much better. Because this way, you can have your own way and exert your own influence on how you want the project to progress. I was also the producer on my last film, which yielded further influence to me. It might be tough sometimes, obviously, taking over all those responsibilities, but it also gives you so much freedom, considering the current state of cinema, with distributors and digital platforms that want to have influence over everything. I think in the artistic cinema, this is the natural way of doing films. Many Polish filmmakers are nowadays producing their own films, because this way, they will have a lot of influence; otherwise, outside producers may push you into making a box office hit, or decide on which actors to cast, or even the length of your film. It’s a tricky process. There might be challenges, but it depends on how well you can handle the whole project.
Polish inventors have contributed a lot to the development of cinematography and television. As a Polish filmmaker yourself, with many years active in the film industry, how do you see the changes and developments in this field over the years?
A lot has changed for us Polish filmmakers, because nowadays we’ve got a good system – I think the best one there is – of public funds in Poland. We’ve got the Polish Film Institute, and now finally the cash rebate scheme. Generally, I think our cinematography is very artistic, and is based on the directors, not the producers. We don’t have a lot of private money, so everything is almost entirely based on the artist.
Polish cinema is more or less familiar to the Iranian audience. How familiar is the Polish audience with the Iranian cinema?
It depends. I think like all other educated people around the world, the well-informed Polish audience really knows the Iranian cinema. On the other hand, Polish film critics such as Artur Zaborski are doing a lot to introduce the Iranian cinema to us. To be honest, though, we wish to have more exposure to Iranian films, because we usually only have access to big names and blockbusters, such as Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’, or Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi; it’s too little; but I think things like New Horizons sections in film festivals with a special focus on the Iranian cinema will help a lot. I do believe that the Polish and Iranian cinemas have many connections; especially the contemporary Iranian cinema, which I think is linked through the tradition of Krzysztof Kieślowski. I think we have the same taste and the same concerns and problems when it comes to films.
The sense of alienation, loss, anxiety, and grief with central female characters feature heavily in two of your films that were selected for this film event, namely ‘Papusza’, and ‘Birds Are Singing in Kigali’. Was this something you considered consciously when deciding to work on a project?
No, I never start a movie like that, by thinking about the motifs and symbols. That would make the movie come across as pretentious. I’d rather the audience find something in the movie on their own. Of course, in contemporary cinematic works, you can see those issues being featured a lot, that sense of loneliness. But people have always felt lonely, so it’s not something I’d consciously choose to approach a project with.
As a writer, what kind of story do you find more urgent to be told given the current state of affairs in the world?
I’m not a teacher, or a religious leader or a politician, so I always worry that I cannot recognize what is truly urgent to talk about. To me, everything seems urgent, the situation of refugees, the ecology, the situation of women, or even how lonely people have become in this digital world. I really can’t say what is most urgent to talk about. I don’t think I’m qualified for that.
What advice do you have for filmmakers just starting out?
Become a doctor instead (laughs). I actually hate giving or receiving advice in my life. What I can say though is that you should realize that this path is both challenging and wonderful. It’s something you can do for the rest of your life; even if you’re 100 years old, they put you on a wheelchair or hook you up to a monitor, and still you can act or direct. What you really need when you choose this path, I think, is bravery. To have the courage to make what you really want to make, and to never compromise. If you feel like you’re being forced to cast this actor or take that cinematographer or work on that script, don’t do it.
Are you working on any new project?
All the time, to be honest (laughs). I have, like, three or four projects on mind, and it’s like a lottery which one I’d pick next. For one I feel like I’m better prepared but I don’t have the money, or for another I don’t think I’m prepared enough but they want to give me the money, so I have to decide if the funding should be my concern or the story I want to tell. This is my biggest challenge. But I also think that when you’re ready, everything will fall into place like pieces of a puzzle.
Interview by Marjohn Sheikhi; Photo by Box Office Iran