“The power was in the conversations, so I knew I had to help the audience hear them”: Tomasz Wolski about his debut doctor in 1970.

1970 (Posted by Grasshopper Films)

Tomasz Wolski 1970 is a fascinating work of ingenious art. (And one of the highlights of the November IDFA, where it was featured in the Best of Fests section.) It was in that chaotic title year that food prices skyrocketed, and striking workers’ shipyards in Gdansk sparked nationwide protests across Poland that ended in triumph. the Solidarity movement ten years later – but not before the then communist leaders decided to suppress the threatening uprising with a deadly force, calling in army units, tanks and militias with guns.

None of which we actually see 1970. Indeed, the Polish documentary veteran decided instead to turn the history textbook over, focusing not on the righteous protesters but on their bureaucratic torturers. 1970 takes as a basis the rare audio recordings of the actual communist crisis group, which is tasked with figuring out how to avoid a repeat of Prague. And these return phone calls – equal parts of crazy and completely inappropriate – are made visual not with the help of any archival images, but with the help of realistically made by hand, animated in the mode of stopping dolls.

To learn all about the process of turning your country’s shadowy past into a high-stakes drama with humanoid models, Director reached out to Volsky at Film Week (North America) Doc Fnight premiere. (1970 continues view virtually until March 10 and IRL in MoMA on March 1.)

Director: Logline movie calls 1970 “A story of rebellion, but told from the point of view of the oppressors.” So what inspired you to give these ruthless bureaucrats screen time?

Wolski: In Poland, important events are told in cinema mainly from the point of view of victims. This is understandable. They have suffered damage, they need to be celebrated for them and their families.

However, I have not seen a documentary that would take the perspective of criminals, trying to bring us closer to them, already at a great distance, the audience. Perhaps to understand, and perhaps to affirm our beliefs. What prompted me to do it 1970, first listening to 16-hour telephone conversations of politicians controlling the events of December 1970, was that they were surprised by the scale of the protest. There was fear and anxiety in their voices that they did not know how to react.

They are usually portrayed in the Polish media as ruthless thugs who, without batting an eyelid, decided to use harsh tactics against the protesters. But the world is not black and white, and people’s decisions cannot be explained so easily and quickly. Also, for me as a director, but also as a person, I am very passionate about diving into a lion’s mouth or an aspen’s nest. From a safe distance look at the negative aspects of human nature.

The main inspiration for making this film was disagreement with the actions of politicians who stop listening and talking to the public that elected them. We watched the women’s strike against the abortion law in Poland, the events on the streets of Belarus after the illegal presidential election, and the protests in the United States after the death of George Floyd. We realized that this topic is universal. The sources of events are different, but the mechanisms and reaction of the authorities are similar.

Director: Between stopping animation and creating realistic models and dolls from scratch, this is a really carefully crafted feature film. So what did the process look like? How long did it take to complete?

Wolski: My previous archival film, An ordinary country (2020), took four years. And four years later, I’m still working on my next film about the complicated story of a very special Jew – the head of the largest spy network during World War II, who was not allowed to leave Poland after the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign.

I spent three years trying to get by 1970 done, but due to personnel changes in financial institutions it was constantly postponed. In June 2020, our producer was finally called that we have the green light, provided that the film is ready for the 50th anniversary of the event. That meant we had to do it in six months.

So after a few sleepless nights we decided to take on this crazy challenge. Interestingly, at that time there were no plans for animation or creating dolls and models. The film was to be based solely on archival footage – film and sound. However, I quickly realized that, limited to these resources, it is impossible to make this film. The shots (protests) and audio (conversations) themselves were so interesting that their combination actually reduced the emotional content. The viewer would not know what to focus on, what story to follow, because both will be presented to them simultaneously.

The power was in the conversations, so I knew I had to help the viewer hear them. I couldn’t stop him. Thus, these conversations were accompanied by images in which not much happened, which put him in a trance. I imagined a non-existent photo of these rooms at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the events. Politicians with phones, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes. The camera gently brings them closer and magically drives inside. He looks at these motionless figures from all sides. That’s when I invited Robert Owl, a great animator, with whom we agreed that the dolls should be as authentic as possible, despite their size (about 20 cm).

Fortunately, Polish Television has also agreed to additional costs. We have collected significant photo and film documentation on the numbers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our heroes. And we started the crazy process of building models and dolls, which took about a month and a half. In the meantime, I edited archival footage, both film footage and phone calls (leaving the picture space blank).

Finally, in late October, we filmed live animation for a week, choosing specific moments for the animation. I then edited these scenes, supplementing them with animations sent to me by animators. The next stage was another fierce struggle for sound and composition (for which Martin Lenarchyk and Bartash Titinsky were responsible). Then the film was ready – 50 minutes before the anniversary screening, which we committed to. It was definitely the greatest movie madness I have ever taken.

Director: How did you actually purchase these audio recordings? Did the Polish government just release them to the public?

Wolski: I came across them while digging in the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance for Ordinary country which tells about communist Poland through the eyes of the camera of the communist security service. I was immediately interested in the telephone conversations of the Interior Ministry politicians, and at first I thought I would use them An ordinary country. However, I quickly realize that this is a completely different topic. An ordinary country it is about invading our privacy; while materials from the events in 1970 for me it is a story about the inability of politicians to engage in dialogue with society and what it ultimately leads to. These materials, like others, are in the archives of the Institute. They can be used by both victims (to a limited extent) and journalists and researchers. I only needed to define the scope of my research, which I outlined quite broadly, to gain unrestricted access to film and audio archives.

Director: For me, the most memorable moments of the film were everyday, like a guy chewing bread during a busy phone call. You really come to the fore not only “The Banality of Evil”, but black humor in this horrible situation. So how did you choose which recordings to animate?

Wolski: I love black humor. He is present in almost all my films. It doesn’t matter if I tell stories about surgeons in the hospital, about entrants at the registry office, employees of the Palace of Culture in Warsaw or old people in hospital beds. It’s an element that eases the load of issues I take.

It is similar with archival materials. If I come across black humor, obviously I will try to use it. The politician from the bread pudding was interesting to me for two reasons: the first is that it’s funny that he answered the phone while eating. Unfortunately, this indicates a lack of culture. And secondly, it created a contrast to the problem that people on the street were fighting for. They had no money to buy food. And if so, the store shelves were empty. Politicians never complain about food shortages.

At the same time, such scenes were an addition – important, but only an addition. Listening to these 16 hours of audio, I searched for excerpts that would make up the story. Those who do not have additional translation (because there is no voice and interview in the film) will acquaint the viewer with the events. So I built a whole, fairly long sequence around government officials who could be burned in a building set on fire by protesters. I wanted to bring a certain emotional dissonance to the audience – for the audience to start cheering for the culprits, for them to succeed, for their people not to die. I wanted the audience to activate the human impulses that the politicians in the film lacked.

Director: The Institute of National Remembrance, which is considered a co-producer, has also been politicized in recent years by the Law and Justice Party. Did it affect the film in any way?

Wolski: The institute is not entirely satisfied with the results of our work, as they prefer more standardized production, which can be shown in schools. However, they did not affect the final version of the film. So it seems to me that no matter what, they are quite happy.

Moreover, the film is co-produced by Polish Television, which is also heavily politically influenced. They decided to broadcast the film in prime time, so we had a huge audience. I have a feeling that we made a film that will appeal to fans of “Law and Justice” because it condemns the communist regime. But it also appeals to opponents of this party, people with leftist views, those who have participated in recent strikes against tougher abortion laws. We met many of them during the questions and answers. They see a direct parallel to the events of 1970, which was our intention.

By the way, it should be noted that in Poland, perhaps, there is no institution that finances films that are more or less politicized. Unfortunately, this is a process we have been witnessing for many years, even under previous administrations. Now, however, it has intensified tremendously.

“The power was in the conversations, so I knew I had to help the audience hear them”: Tomasz Wolski about his debut doctor in 1970.

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