AN INTERVIEW WITH BARTEK KONOPKA AND PIOTR ROSOŁOWSKI – THE AUTHORS OF 'THE ART OF DISAPPEARING'
Audiences at the 13th T-Mobile New Horizons IFF, starting on July 18, will have the opportunity to see the latest documentary by Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosołowski – 'The Art of Disappearing'. Inteviewed by Daniel Stopa, the authors discuss their new film.
Daniel Stopa: They say that the idea for 'The Art of Disappearing' came from Piotr Rosołowski. So it is only natural that this question goes to Piotr – how did it all begin, how did you come across Amon Frémon?
Piotr Rosołowski: For many years I have been passionate about and inspired by non-fiction. One day I came across a book by an Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio - 'Lost White Tribes - Journeys Among the Forgotten'. One of the reportages introduced the history of the Haitian Polish diaspora, the Polish legionaries who, by Napoleon's order, were supposed to brutally crush a slave rebellion, but instead turned their coats to join the rebels and gained a legendary victory.
D.S.: A victory to which your protagonist – as he points out himself – owes a pair of his blue eyes...
P.R.: Yes, we wanted this underplot as well as the whole film to have a slightly humourous vibe to them. Orizio had managed to talk with Amon in the 90's and he described his mysterious, outlandish stay in the People's Republic of Poland. So I've already been familiar with the topic for quite some time, I've had an idea, but it was not enough. We got serious about it when Paweł Potoroczyn of Adam Mickiewicz Institute offered Bartek to make a film for the documentary series 'Guide to the Poles'. We did a little research, mainly talking to people associated with Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre, but the initial investigation resulted with more questions than answers. We still had no vision for the most important thing, that is how to tackle the story, how to tell it. Our trip to Haiti proved to be a breakthrough. There, we visited Cazale, Amon's hometown, talked to people who he lived with and who knew him. We realised that his outlook would be crucial, that we needed to show things from his perspective.
D.S.: You prove once again that it is possible to make an engaging documentary out of nothing, out of scraps. Orizio's reportage, incomplete and scarce accounts by witnesses and the only photograph of Amon taken by Marek Musiał from Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre. That's probably not enough for a one-hour film...
Bartek Konopka: We always start by letting our imagination run wild and the further it runs, the better. We invent a story of our own while loosely sticking to the facts. Then we take the quasi-fictional, imaginative construct and gradually peel it, try out different versions, remove or add something, make changes so as to render it more of a documentary. The trick is to fit your story into documentary conventions, while using means of expression in a limited way.
D.S.: However, both in 'Rabbit à la Berlin' and 'The Art of Disappearing' you play with conventions of a documentary, of a historical film...
P.R.: Historical films offer unique possibilities, because they tell us about events from the past. On the one hand, there are lots of sources, many films about the Berlin Wall have been made, on the other you need to face a reality that no longer exists, after all, there is no such thing as the Berlin Wall or the People's Republic of Poland anymore. So you need to somehow recreate it and hence questions arise: What did it actually look like? When you recreate the past like this, much room for free interpretation suddenly appears. You may investigate areas of your interest, you might as well go down the road of speculation rather than facts confirmed by piles of written sources. What matters is to let the viewer see some kind of truth in our story, let him understand that we are trying to get through to Amon's mentality, to penetrate into his culture.
D.S.: In the process of recreating the past you use a great deal of archival material. In one interview concerning 'Rabbit à la Berlin' Bartek has mentioned that you had worked with a nature film about Scottish rabbits just as you do it with an actor – it was necessary to evoke specific emotions. It looked like this in the case of 'The Art of Disappearing', didn't it?
B.K.: There is incredibly much fun one may have with documentary film, with archival materials. There are many different ways to edit a film, it is possible to create a whole new story, to tell it from a new perspective. Newsreel footage, plot and documentary citations, scenes staged and filmed in modern day Haiti all served the purpose of showing the PRL through Amon's eyes, look at the country from an individual's perspective.
P.R.: I think that the task was more difficult in the case of 'The Art of Disappearing'. Before, we at least had the rabbit footage and were free to use it to get the necessary reactions and emotions. Here, there is no protagonist, so we shifted all the stress, a poor substitute for identificaction, to off-screen commentary. First, we had to write the entire screenplay. Obviously, it was based on Orizio's reportage but also on accounts by Leszek Kolankiewicz and Marek Musiał – who witnessed Amon's visit in Poland. Ignacy Karpowicz helped us as well. There were many interviews, talking heads that we ultimately removed in post-editing and later used to create Amon's voice. We also had to find a good reader, one who not only speaks the language but also would be able to enter the spirit of the story.
P.S.: Other strategies that you've decided to re-apply include the slightly more subtle narration and introducing elements of humour, while maintaining a serious approach to the subject. One can hear people laughing during the film, and yet no one accuses you of mocking the PRL or our national romanticism.
B.K.: We form a good team with Piotrek because he is more of a mocker, he brings in the irony part, his perspective is reserved. What I care about, is to be close with a protagonist, to enter his intimate zone, to feel emotions that are hidden. We feel comfortable about this division. That way we are able to come up with absurd meanings, while maintaining a serious approach to our topic and our protagonist
P.R.: But both the People’s Republic of Poland and Polish romanticism are ambiguous. Both are blends of the fascinating, the mysterious, the dark, the sublime and the comical. We really wanted to knit together all of these aspects, to show the whole spectrum. This is a story about times of nonsence, but were there was still enough room for things that are lofty and touching.
D.S.: In 'The Art of Disappearing' you avoid giving specific dates, names, avoid speaking bluntly. At some point the audience have the impression that the world they are shown is in fact parabolical, filled with universal meanings...
B.K.: Parabolical, indirect narration is our Polish speciality, originating mainly from the literary tradition. For ages, we were not allowed to tell the truth about our reality, first there were the partitions of Poland, then communism. Authors resorted to parable, used Aesopian, figurative language. Readers were aware what authors were trying to say, knowing that it was about them, about the world they lived in. Gombrowicz, Mrożek, Lemański, Głowacki, Andrzejewski's new historical novel, Berezy – I grew up in this tradition. It influenced my attitude towards film and towards life very deeply.
P.R: For me, Kapuściński's 'Emperor' remains an unrivalled masterpiece in this respect. It’s a reporter's novel very subjective in style. Some time ago I read an interview with Haile Selassie's grandson. He was outraged by the fact that Kapuściński had left out many aspects of the emperors life, that he gave up on details. But he has done it on purpose, and it makes Selassie function in the book as a metaphor of authority and its decline, of an end of an era. This metaphor, its universal character is read by people all over the world.
D.S.: And what is the reception of 'The Art Disappearing'? Did you present your film both in Poland and abroad?
P.R.: I think audiences from abroad have a hard time reading into all the nuances. Mickiewicz, Dziady ceremony, everyday life in the People’s Republic of Poland, equating the Haiti tribe culture and that of our own, citations from film and literature – in order to notice these things you really need to possess a specific type of DNA, to be local, living in this part of Europe. Of course, a story of a Haitian coming to Poland is clear to everybody but seeing only that is a gross simplification of the film, it's worthwhile to look deeper.
D.S.: Thank you very much for the interview.
P.R. and B.K.: Thank you.