(Ania, one of the three protagonists of Warsaw Available. Images courtesy of the Polish Film Festival in America.)
Chicago’s Eastern European émigré community is one of the largest in the country. It makes
for some lively cultural activities.
The Polish Film Festival in America is one of the highlights. I’ve been doing some lecturing and director interviews for the festival. It connects, in a way, to the recent post about 1989. The moral authority registered by the Polish-born Pope John Paul II and the birth of the Polish Solidarity movement augured the end of the Soviet totalitarianism. The transition to open market has been no less complicated, particularly following the closing of the state’s collective farms in 1991.
One film that caught my eye is Warsaw Available. It’s a very impressive, visually assured and emotionally open hour-long documentary about the intersecting lives of three young Polish girls—Gosia, Ania and Ilona—who were recruited by a state social service agency from the poverty stricken rural countryside and villages to come to Poland’s largest city and learn job skills.
The movie had its international premiere at the PFFA and is set to have its Polish broadcast premiere on Jan. 3rd. I spoke to the movie’s accomplished young directors, Karolina Bielawska and Julia Ruszkiewicz. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Light sensitive: How did you decide on these three girls?
Julia Ruszkiewicz: We traveled all throughout Poland to find the most interesting characters for our movie. We would like to find the most determined person who knew what they wanted to achieve in Warsaw. We wanted girls who had some goals to reach and really wanted to change their lives. In our opinion, these three girls were the most determined ones we found.
Karolina Bielawska: These are girls from very poor societies. These people have the problem of not knowing what they want. This area the girls are from, these villages were these state-owned collective farms; people lived there as if time had stopped, and that way of thinking is still the same. They don’t think they’re responsible for themselves. They are socially handicapped.
Light sensitive: What brought you together for this work?
Karolina Bielawska: We found at a similar time the subject in the newspapers, and we had a small conversation. I knew she wanted to do it, and I already had some contacts. I knew that one character was not enough. We agreed that she would take one character and I would take one character and we’d work together. Julia had Ania, I had Gosia and we split Ilona.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: We knew each other from the same film school in Katowice. We were studying there.
Karolina Bielawska: We appreciated the work each had done before so we knew that would not be fighting too much. There is something she could give me and I could give her, and it would be something.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: We already knew at the same time many things would happen to each character, so it would be possible for one person to be with three characters. That’s why we decided to collaborate.
Light sensitive: The movie’s a documentary, but the formal structure at times feels closer to a fiction work. At the very least, it feels like a hybrid of forms.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: The way we did this movie was the Polish traditional documentary school, where the directors were the watchers. We were following with the camera through the characters. We didn’t create anything; we didn’t direct the characters. The way we made the movie was similar to the fiction way of making movies.
Karolina Bielawska: The view was very important. We are talking and showing these girls through pictures. The power is in the picture, like a drama or fiction film. I like very much this way of working, so did Julia.
Light sensitive: The Polish documentaries I know, like those by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Andrzej Munk, were kind of seriocomic looks at Polish life and cultural institutions.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: We believed the picture would show so much it wasn’t necessary to comment. The viewer can go on the same trip with the girls, like we did.
Karolina Bielawska: I think for Kieslowski and the same as us we are thinking about one individual person. We didn’t know where the film would go. We were just following these girls and went after them. I think Kieslowski was doing that as well. The meaning comes out. When you’re working, it’s important to be conscious of the characters.
Light sensitive: Do you think because you’re women it was easier to gain the trust of the different girls.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: Maybe somehow, but I think the most important thing is that we spent a lot of time with them. It was the most important thing we did because we worked with them for two and a half years. We weren’t necessarily shooting all the time, but we were spending a lot of time together so the girls trusted us. That’s why you can be so close with the camera. Some people asked us how did the girls know we were shooting. They were always aware. We didn’t do hidden cameras or anything surreptitious like that. We didn’t hide the crew.
Karolina Bielawska: I had this experience before in doing a film about prisons in Saint Petersburg. I had time to listen to what they had to say. You have to be a person. You have to be your character. You don’t watch them like you are better than them; you have to understand. You have to always be very curious about your characters.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: We’re describing a social phenomenon. It’s not only a problem with these three girls. There are a lot of characters like our girls in Poland. It’s a global problem. For us the best way of describing the social phenomenon is to be focused on the individuals.
Karolina Bielawska: The main problem with our girls is that they don’t have any mental tools to change their life. It’s not a matter of poverty, that they don’t have money. They’re just not informed. They’ve never been to a cinema; for Gosia it was the first time on a train.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: The reason they cannot change their lives is that they are not educated at all. They’ve only gone to primary school. That’s why these girls give up, not because they didn’t want to change their lives but they didn’t know how. It’s too much for them to start everything at the beginning when they are nineteen years old.
Light sensitive: Were you fearful at all of the girls, knowing they were filmed, that it changed or altered their behavior.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: At the beginning it was like that, but when you spend a lot of time with your characters and you know them, you can feel and you know when they behave in a natural way or when they try to be someone else.
I think the fact that they’re in a movie helped them somehow. Because for the first time they start to ask themselves the question of what they want or what they need. It was the first time they were really asked to think about things like that. Somehow this movie changed them. They saw a different way of living and thinking.
Karolina Bielawska: This is not a problem of how to help the people who are very poor; it’s not that you just give them money because it doesn’t solve the deeper problem. They could talk with us and they could think about their lives and maybe something could change in their lives.
Light sensitive: Are you in contact now with any of the girls?
Karolina Bielawska: One of the characters was the premiere two weeks ago in Poland and we’re still in contact with the other two.
Light sensitive: Your movie is powerful, but there’s an underlying sadness. The story of each girl ends with a question mark. We don’t know exactly how their lives are going to turn out, it’s difficult to feel anything but pessimistic.
Karolina Bielawska: That was the reality. We don’t want to show people what to do. We didn’t want to make an education movie.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: At the same time we don’t feel we can tell anyone how to live. It’s a bit irresponsible to tell people what to do or how to change. We wanted to ask why is it some people can change, can do something with their life and some don’t.
Light sensitive: How did you each discover you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Karolina Bielawska: I always knew I wanted to be a director. I had a sister and she lives in Los Angeles. She’s much older. I was in love with her, and I thought she was a director. As a small child I wanted to be just like her, so I said I wanted to be a director. When I was a teenager, I found out she was a producer. It stayed with me. I had this focus on that. It’s incredible in that it came to me, I didn’t choose.
Julia Ruszkiewicz: My story was different. I was eighteen years old and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or who I wanted to be. I was watching movies all the time. Then it just came to me, one day I was in the cinemas, I don’t even remember what I was watching, and I realized this is what I wanted to do. I completely fell in love with the movies; I went to the cinemas and tried to meet some people in the industry to see how they work. I decided to go to the film school. I tried three times.
I was very curious about people’s different relations, and how they lived, what did they think. I was a very calm child. When I finished high school, I told people I was starting my directing study and they were surprised of how it’s possible such a calm and quiet person could be a director.
Light sensitive: The artistic direction of your futures: are you likely to move into narrative fiction films or stay in documentaries?
Julia Ruszkiewicz: I think we are going to do both. For me making the documentary movie prepared me the best for making the drama. I think the best stories are the ones based on actual stories.
You get the experience, and you couldn’t write it because life is more irrational and full of surprises than our imagination.
Karolina Bielawska: Our documentaries are like fiction and our fiction films are like documentary.