WOJCIECH STAROŃ TALKS ABOUT HIS LATEST PROJECT "BROTHERS"
"Brothers" is the latest documentary project of Wojciech Staroń. The premiere is scheduled for autumn 2013. Even now, we invite you to read the interview, in which the author tells us about the protagonists and the secrets of making this peculiar documen-tary. The interview was conducted by Daniel Stopa.
"Brothers" is the result of your long-time observation of Mieczysław and Alfons Kułakowski. Always, when I watch the documentaries by Helena Trestikova, the action of which takes place over many years, I wonder, how are such films made? Is it the result of a patient eye? Could you prepare for the recording in such a situation? How did it look like in the case of "Brothers?"
Wojtek Staroń: In case of "Brothers" we simply went with Małgosia [film producer and director's wife] to the protagonists for some time and we observed carefully everything happening there. The things about which we knew in advance happened rather rarely. The exhibition of Alfons's paintings in Brussels was such a situation. We were lucky to be in Poland at the moment and we could go there. However, we usually went there without any idea of what to expect, without any screenplay and strictly delineated set. When you make a decision to start such a project, you cannot expect that it would be enough to come, set up the camera and shoot everything within two days. In order for something unexpected to happen, you have to stay much longer, only after two, three days life began to go by in the normal way, and we felt that the film crew does not interfere with the natural life rhythm of Mieczysław and Alfons. For the first two days the protagonists constantly behave as if they were quizzed, and later they get used to it. It is also important to get well acquainted with our protagonists. We feel as a part of the family in the house of the Kułakowskis, no one is embarrassed by our presence, all barriers were broken long ago.
And how does making of such a project look like in regard to production?
It is really difficult to get funds for such a film. For a long time we spent our own money on travelling there. Polish Television and Polish Film Institute have recently expressed their interest in the project, so we have some kind of a basis now. All the time, Małgosia goes abroad with the trailer and looks for co-producers.
And now, a question of the "obligatory" kind - introduce your protagonists? Who are the eponymous brothers?
The story of Mieczysław and Alfons Kułakowski is really amazing. The brothers were born before the first world war in a fairly wealthy Polish family, who lived on the Polish-Ukrainian border in Osiczno near Winnica. After Polish-Soviet war, when the borders changed slightly, Mieczysław and Alfons ended up on the Ukrainian side. Though most Polish families decided to return to their homeland, the Kułakowski family stayed behind, not having any premonition about approaching Stalinism. When NKVD entered into the territories where they lived, Mieczysław was seven, and Alfons five years old. Four of their uncles were murdered, and the brothers were separated and sent into exile in Siberia. There, they found each other. They found also their parents in a prison camp nearby Tomsk. The family began to organise its life in the prison camp, parents worked hard, and children lived so as to survive yet another day. When the brothers were teenagers, they decided to escape. For the mother, it was a dramatic experience, because she did not know, whether the sons would manage and where they would go. After numerous perturbations Mieczysław and Alfons separated again. The first went to live with his uncle, who one day was taken by the NKVD and never returned. Then, Mieczysław got a family address from his wife, and again there was the exile, searching for the brother and struggling to survive together.
After what you have just told, we can appreciate all the more the fact that in spite of such traumatic experiences, the brothers found strength to study, or , like Alfons, develop his artistic passion.
They were sixteen, seventeen at the time, return to Poland was impossible, so they decided to study. Before II WW, Mieczysław graduated from the institute and became topographer and cartographer. Anyway, it was his education that saved his life during the war, because he made maps on the site and did not have to fight on the front line. In turn, Alfons was finishing his school education, he was too young to fight. When the war ended, he enrolled for Academy of Fine Arts and became a professional painter. Together they settled down in Ałmat, Kazakhstan. In 1950s they managed to take their mother there, father died in the prison camp. Initially, they led a very modest life in Ałmat. Mieczysław often went on research expeditions with Alfons, who was his helper and at the same time painted his landscapes there. In this way, they travelled through the entire great Russia, and it was then when Alfons was born as a landscape painter. They both were and still are very hard-working. After all, they built this amazing house in Ałmat on their own.
And it was in Almaty where you got acquainted with Mieczysław and Alfons?
It was in 1994. We went to Kazakhstan then, we were still students with camera, without any video camera. For me and Małgosia it was a totally new experience. The brothers showed us round the Tian Shan mountains, where we got acquainted with the Kazakhs. During the expedition, we were shown the astronomical observatory and what we saw there could be the subject of several films. There were two astronomers there, totally forgotten, who did not get their food rations and salaries. The locals fed them a bit with milk and similar products, they still had their own reserves of aubergines. It was a difficult period for them, Kazakhstan separated from Russia and nobody knew to which country this base belonged and who should look after these people.
Going back to the brothers' house, what was so amazing about it?
They built their house from scratch. It consisted of various plywood, old post-communist posters and was obviously filled with Alfons's paintings up to the ceiling. He has always believed that a house is ready when there is no blank space on the wall. Nearby was Alfons's workshop with glass roof, where he painted his landscapes in peace. But the appearance of this place is one thing, another is the atmosphere dominating there. In the house of Kułakowski brothers, artists of various kinds met: musicians, poets, painters. They spent the evenings, playing the piano and the guitar. There was artistic aura in the air. Also, cultures mixed there, Russians, Kazakhs or Poles came.
In spite of this, Mieczysław and Alfons left Kazakhstan and returned to Poland. Why?
Return to Poland has always been their dream. They came here in 1996 in foursome: Alfons and Mieczysław with his wife Nina and daughter Wanda. I remember how Alfons visited us in Warsaw for the first time. He brought a large map of Poland with him and asked us to mark the places where he could paint landscapes. Alfons spent their money from the sale of the house in Ałmat on buying a large camper and he began to travel around Poland, painting. They had a plan to bring as many family members as possible here. It did not succeed, because most of the relatives was too attached to their land there. In Poland, they settled on the province, far away from urban life and artistic environment. But in Ałmat it was totally different.
It had to be a difficult experience for them, since from what you say it appears that the dreamed-of Poland turned out to be a lonely place for them...
In some respects they are here like on some kind of banishment. Sometimes Alfons goes to Olsztyn, where he has a group of friends, but this is not the same life, which he had earlier. This is what they miss most. In the village, where they live, they have virtually no contact with anyone. Though there are people greeting them on the street, you go for milk and eggs to the shop, but on the level of artistic communication, there is no spiritual contact. Now, they have only themselves. And this is a difficult situation, in which conflicts appear. Firstly, Mieczysław and Alfons have always lived in a state of great symbiosis. They supported each other and both had a common, clearly delineated enemy, like for instance the totalitarian system, poverty or lack of home. In Poland they do not have to fight with anyone, so problems appear between them. Secondly, there is the unstable financial situation. Their life depends on the paintings by Alfons, who manages to sell something from time to time. It happens occasionally, because Alfons is a very demanding seller, who deliberately discourages a buyer, for instance, by overpricing. He simply does everything in his power not to get rid of the paintings. Thirdly, the old age. After all, Mieczysław is almost ninety years old. He tires easily and cannot keep pace with Alfons. Imagine that until recently, every day at six a.m. they both walked 3 km in the forest. For Alfons, who was an acrobat in his youth, body is incredibly important, so he forces his brother to exercise, he does not want him to succumb to the old age. It also leads to conflicts. Alfons laughs at Mieczysław and sneers at him, reproaches him with words that he is old, too lazy and he will die soon. He simply cannot understand his brother, since they spent their lives fleeing from death together.
However, the house fire, depicted in the trailer, was perhaps the biggest blow for them?
Since we first met them, I do not remember them experiencing such a dramatic situation. It was like this: Alfons got a proposal of an exhibition in the Committee of the Regions building in Brussels. We were very delighted and together with Alfons, Mieczysław and Wanda went to Belgium, to film this great success. And that is when the Kułakowski’s house burned down. Nina stayed at home, as well as Wanda's husband, who was to take care of everything. Together with a neighbour he put too much wood in the old fireplace, and a fire broke out. Everything burned down, including about 6 thousand paintings by Alfons and all belongings brought from Kazakhstan in containers. Luckily, the ill Nina, who could not walk and was lying in bed, was saved. She was carried away from the burning house.
How did you survive this?
Together with Mieczysław and Wanda we returned earlier from Brussels. Alfons was transporting the paintings by bus and he was to join us in few days' time. We received a phone call that the house was burning. We went there immediately and we saw everything with our own eyes. We were most afraid of Alfons's reaction. On the day when he was to return, we waited with the entire welcome committee. There was a doctor, psychologist, family and the closest friends. When he learnt about it, he did not break down. He said only that life had burned down and decided to begin it anew. And this new beginning became the central motive of the film, but also of the late life of Mieczysław and Alfons. I began to track their re-building with my camera, I saw how they search for a new house, how Alfons re-paints his paintings, I looked upon various incidents, sometimes it was not easy, since the brothers accused one another, looked for the guilty one, Alfons asked his brother, why they had to live in that house. In this way, the good and bad characteristics of the brothers came to light, and I recorded them.
What was their fate after they lost the house?
They built a new house in the place of the old one. Unfortunately, they did not manage to buy a parcel of land anywhere else, though Alfons insisted that they should change surroundings. He wanted to live closer to other people, in a bigger town, while Mieczysław, Nina and Wanda did not want to change anything. In the end, the marshal of the voivodeship, in return for the brothers giving the paintings from the Brussels exhibition to the museum, gave them money for the rebuilding. Then Alfons began to work very intensively on re-paining the paintings, because, as I have already mentioned, for him a house does not exist unless every place on the walls is covered by paintings.
In the trailer, which you showed me, it is clear that Wanda plays a very important role in the film. Her character develops the story...
At one point, Wanda became an important protagonist. Earlier it was not like this, because she lived with her husband. By the way, her guy is a great subject for a film. When Nina fell ill, Wanda moved to the brothers' house, and after the death of her mother she remained there. An interesting triangle appeared: the brothers and Wanda. Apart from this, she is an artistic soul. She writes poems and plays the piano, but she has not realised herself in this respect. Alfons constantly tells her that she would have achieved something if she had painted. Anyway, he has the same grudge against Mieczysław. According to him, art can save the world and everyone should be an artist, especially a painter. This is how the conflict was born, because Alfons constantly urges Wanda and his brother to leave everything and start to paint, and they simply do not want to, they do not have any strength or inspiration. The problem is that Alfons has realised himself as an artist, and Wanda has not.
In the trailer, there is an interesting scene when Wanda decides to paint a self-portrait.
Wanda has always dreamt about it. I asked her if she had any photos from her youth. She showed me some photographs and I was speechless, because she looked like a goddess. After a longer conversation I learned that when she was young, guys killed themselves for her. But she was looking for kindred spirits, and was not interested in men who desired only her body. Lady's and male relationships have always been difficult for her, and she has never experienced happiness in this sphere of life. However, the longing for the lost beauty remained in her. All the time, she tries to be young, beautiful, she feels as if she was this sensual woman from the photograph. Yes, time does its thing and you can see the passing of the years, but in her soul and the way of living she is still that girl. It was thanks to Wanda that I can show the brothers' struggle for immortality, for spiritual and physical beauty. Most of all, they cannot come to terms with the fact that old age has come, the end, so one has to exercise the spirit, because, as Alfons says, death comes from there.
At the beginning of the conversation you mentioned that the first meetings with the Kułakowski brothers were still without the video camera. Exactly when and why did you make the decision to visit them with the video-camera?
I wanted to make a film about them from the beginning. When I visited them, I felt that one day I would grab the camera. When Mieczysław took out an old suitcase full of films, which he made as an amateur, I saw what a wonderful world these materials depict and what kind of life was recorded there. These were 16- and 8-milimetre tapes, shot since 1960s, which depicted family scenes, the birth of the daughter, expeditions and various kind of parades, because Mieczysław filmed on the order from the army, thanks to which he learned to be a cameraman. These materials inspired me very much. I decided to make some kind of a mix, a peculiar puzzle of what I shoot myself and what is in the archives. This is how I started to go to them with a video camera. It was at the turn of 2004 and 2005.
Do Mieczysław and Alfons watch these materials often? How do they react then? Are they moved?
All in all, they return to these materials only when I am with them. This causes some trouble, because one has to spread and turn on the film projector. But they have some part of the materials copied onto VHS cassettes. They also have materials from 1980s, recorded on this medium, and they watch these ones more frequently. The recordings show the brothers' birthdays or meetings of artists. I have a scene of them watching the birthday in Ałmat, everyone there is dancing, singing and they are very moved by it. Mieczysław cries immediately when he sees it.
Have you already decided about the scene order? Will the archival materials be interwoven with what you shot? What is the ratio between them?
I have not decided about the final arrangement yet. I work in such a way that I do not know until the last moment how the scenes will be ordered. Of course we are talking about the construction level, because there is already a general outline. In what order will I put the shots, whether the archival ones will be at the beginning, or interwoven with what I shot myself - it will turn out on the paste-up table. I am still learning this story and today I cannot give an unambiguous answer, what kind of film it will be. Every scene which I shoot and every archival material which I discover pushes me in a new direction. I plan to visit the brothers again with the camera.
Have you shot your material on a tape?
Precisely, I shoot "Brothers" on a video camera and this is because of two reasons. Firstly, when I began to film, I had no funds and recording on an expensive tape was out of the question. Secondly, I want to differentiate my material from the one by Mieczysław. This is totally different period and world. The difference in the film texture emphasises this.
Most documentary films are preceded by documenting without a camera. It is incredible that in the case of "Brothers" the documenting period was equal to the one spent with the camera.
But this time without the camera is often more precious than that when the camera is on. For me and Małgosia it was an ideal moment to get acquainted with the protagonists and to think over what to film. Sometimes being together, eating, watching TV, going for walks, help to notice interesting rituals. One has to collect information about such curiosities and then lie in wait for them. I know from my experience, that in the documentary genre spectacular things happen rarely, but most of small rituals, which build the film, can be seen and got back to. We do not always have to have the camera on. It is important to be vigilant, watch and collect all stimuli.
It resembles preparation to take a shot, doesn't it?
Exactly. You walk all the time and look where the protagonists move. You have to know when they will be in a given place, when they will be back, where you should set and finally you shoot. When you are prepared with an adequate attitude, you have a chance to take a good shot. It seems to many documentary film makers that it is enough to capture a given event in any way and the film is ready. I think that it is a disastrous attitude, as there is no room there for author's interpretations. Such films do not include any opinions and they bore the viewers. What is the most interesting is the subjective reflexion of the author. Therefore, when we first observe with our eyes, document and collect the stimuli, the shots show our thought process during the filming. Whether we stood on the right side, whether we took the shot in the right moment, from the right angle, whether the temperature was appropriate, what was our mood - all these things can be read from the film frames and these are also the elements which influence the intensity of the message. Of course, one must have quick reflexes to capture significant moments, but what is more important is how you record them, and also how you interpret them. I always try to transfer the reality to the screen in a creative and interpreted way. I build a scene of such shots, and I build a film of such scenes. Only then the film is inherently strong, interesting and atmospheric.
And then one does not have to sign the film with his surname, it is clear who is the author anyway...
That's right. This is the quintessence - each frame should be like DNA code, which is ascribed to every human being. When the recipient reads this code, he or she can learn a lot about me. But the DNA code says more about biological matters. In case of a film, I try to convey information on the spiritual level, I speak about things which interest and move me, talk about my artistic sensibility, what kind of a person I am, what I feel when I am filming. I always repeat to my students that by watching their films I see what the cameraman thought and felt, whether he was interested in the subject, whether he applied himself to the job and so on. This functions like X-Ray machine and every frame can be x-rayed.
Do you intend to include in the film some element exposing your presence to the protagonists? I mean something of the kind like the memorable sentence from "Argentinian lesson:" It is not easy, Mr Wojtek...
We have not planned it yet, anyway, such things cannot be foreseen or planned. When we visited the brothers, we did not film ourselves. There are several situations when the protagonists address us, but we avoid this. Such a modest element like in case of "Argentinian lesson" can possibly appear in the film. In a documentary, we always struggle so that the truth is our additional asset. Of course, story is the basis upon which the entire dramaturgy is held and guarantees that we empathise with the protagonists. I take care so that these elements are included in my films and I lead the viewer using the film's language and structure. In addition, I want to tell the viewer that apart from the fact that the story is interesting, it has really happened. And this is how the documentary beats the feature film. Naturally, some kind of sudden twist must be present in "Brothers." The house fire is such an event. I do not know yet where I am going to put this moment; all in all this decision will determine the entire dramaturgy line.
Have you made a decision about the film's length?
We try to make a longer film. The problem is that many festivals created the fashion for long documentaries, and films shorter than one hour are assigned to television. I am not a supporter of such an attitude, because I know how hard it is to make a full-length documentary which keeps in suspense and does not draw out so much it is difficult to watch it. We have such a secret plan, that the material, which we gathered, will allow us to make a 70-minute film, so that it would be a cinema standard. We want it so much to try and make the cinema distribution. But we certainly will not stretch the story by force.
You have mentioned that Polish Television and Polish Film Institute are involved in the project. So there are certainly some first decisions about the premiere?
Yes. We plan the premiere in autumn next year, at the turn of August, September 2013. "Brothers" should be ready then.
Thank you very much for the interview.
interview conducted by Daniel Stopa