Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ryszard Bugajski mini-interview re: Clearcut

Ryszard Bugajski had been told, after the Polish censors reviewed his film The Interrogation - made during the early 1980's, while the Solidarity movement was keeping the authorities distracted - that, short of becoming a government informer, he would never be allowed to make a movie in Poland again. Though this turned out not to be true - he would eventually repatriate to Poland, and continue making films there - these circumstances ended up being to the benefit of Canadian cinema, since he made one of the most remarkable, provocative political thrillers ever to be directed in Canada, after he relocated here. That film, Clearcut, screens tonight at the Vancity Theatre. Here are some excerpts from my interview with him, for those interested in coming to tonight's screening. Mr. Bugajski and I spoke on the phone in late 2013, on a long distance call to Poland. 
AM: Was it difficult to relocate to Canada?

RB: It depends what angle you want to look at it from. At the time it was difficult to go abroad, because when martial law was introduced in 1981, me and my wife, we had wanted to go abroad for awhile. But we were not allowed to - we didn’t have a passport. Of course, we could have emigrated right away, if we wanted, but my wife didn’t want to emigrate. So we waited a few years before we decided to leave Poland forever, permanently. And then the security police agreed to let us go – and so we did. From this perspective, it was not of course easy, but on the other hand they encouraged us to go. It was also difficult from the Canadian side – like, coming to Canada, and being for the first time in North America for me, it’s another story...

AM: It’s a story I’d be interested in!

RB: First of all, we may ask why I chose Canada Рand not the US. And it was just by some coincidence, because in Warsaw I knew the American cultural attach̩ at the American embassy, and he discouraged us from going to the US. We had a two year old son, and he said we would not be able to get help, that it would be very difficult for me to get a job or an apartment, how would I support my family, and on the other hand, I would be applying for an immigration visa and it can take a very long time before they answer, and the answer, of course, could be negative. And then for a long time I would not be able to go to America at all. But he said, I have a friend in the Canadian embassy and he said, there is a special program for political refugees. And he said that you can apply there, and I did, and I got a Canadian Visa in two hours! And we decided to go to Toronto. I had never been to Toronto. I knew a lot of people in New York РI had many friends who had been to New York, but Toronto was a completely unknown territory. So I first flew to New York on my own and I spent about a month in New York, making contacts in Canada. Some friends gave me addresses and phone numbers and gave advice Рwhat to do, where to go first, and so on. And at that time I went to Toronto, rented an apartment, and then my wife arrived from Poland with my son. So we started everything from scratch.

AM: How was your English?

RB: It was quite good, I think. It wasn't perfect - it's never been perfect - but it was sufficient to communicate and to be understood, so it was not a problem.

AM: Were you subject to any degree of culture shock?

RB: No, you know - the US, generally, in Poland, has a special place. First of all, we know American literature quite well - old stuff, Steinbeck and Hemingway and other things, but I also read Jack Kerouac as well. So I knew American culture theoretically, just from books and the movies. For example, when I was a student of the film school, it was 1969, my first year, and the American ambassador to Poland brought Midnight Cowboy. It was not released in Europe yet - it had already been shown in America, maybe it had already gotten an Oscar. But it was a completely unknown film here, and we were so shocked by this picture - not only how New York looks, that there are poor people, poverty and drugs addicts and stuff like that, but that the American ambassador actually brought a film that shows a negative picture of America to a communist country. We thought America must be a wonderful place, that films that Americans make about themselves can be shown anywhere and Americans are not ashamed of that. It was just the opposite here in Poland, where the image of Poland and how Poland was perceived abroad were still touchy subjects. They would never actually show a negative film about Poland abroad. 
AM: On that topic - it's leaping ahead a bit, but your two most recent Polish films, General Nil and The Closed Circuit, both are quite critical of the Polish government. Were they subject to any sort of censorship?

RB: Well, censorship as an institution does not exist here, it was abolished in 1989. It was changed after the free elections in Poland. But there are other forms of pressure - for example, General Nil is a true story of a Polish general and war hero and so on, and his daughter was still alive when I was making the film. And she tried to pressure the producer of the film, saying that she didn't like my previous films for some political reasons I would assume - I never found out exactly what she didn't like about me. But she was a pious Catholic woman, y'know, and I'm openly anti-church, I'm an atheist and I'm not hiding it anywhere, and probably she had read about it and she didn't want me to direct this film. She wrote letters to many places, the minister of culture and so on, and the producer got really scared and said he must actually accept some of her demands because there could be a court injunction, they could stop the movie in production, and it would be a catastrophe for him, a financial catastrophe. It's too complicated to tell you the whole story right now, but it was actually a turning point in this production. But I made a compromise - I actually accepted some of the pressure, because otherwise I would have blown the film out completely. There would be no movie. And another form of pressure was here with the latest film, The Closed Circuit, but of a different kind. Because when we applied to the body which is called the Polish film institute, they give perhaps 50% of the total budget for feature productions, and there was no reason why they wouldn't do it in this case, because there were some good reviews from the same institute. People read it (the screenplay) and they had a positive reaction. But they nevertheless turned it down, and it was difficult to figure out why, what happened...
AM: You mentioned that you were surprised to hear that Graham Greene has said that Clearcut is his favourite of the films he's done - that he wasn't very happy with the experience of making it. Can we talk about that?

RB: It's not a secret - people noticed that. When I was in Toronto [in 2013], I met with Ron Lea, the guy who plays the lawyer, when he quite incidentally came to see my film The Closed Circuit. [The composer of the film's music,] Shane Harvey" [who also scored Clearcut] invited him, and it was a nice meeting after so many years. He was quite surprised to hear about the development that Graham has changed his story. I checked with Ron if he knew what had happened, and he didn't! I remember being in this hotel - a comfortable hotel - in Thunder Bay, where the production office was set. We were sitting on a room with the windows facing a forest, and I was speaking with the actors, telling them what I expect from them and how I direct actors. I asked them to imagine an actor playing something, some feeling, saying that he loves a woman, say, and he makes a proposition to her, but on the other hand he looks outside the window and he sees a naked man running through a meadow. And yet he is into this confession, so he doesn't change his story, but what he's seeing is changing the way he says 'I love you.' I explained all this to the actors, and then we started reading the script, and at one point Graham is reading his part, his lines, and he says something about the mill manager - and then he says, 'oh, I'm seeing a naked man!' And I said, 'whoa, Graham, it's not that you have to say this, what I meant was, you see him and you react to him but you don't say that.' And he says, 'no, but I see a naked man.' And we looked out the window, and there really was a naked man running from the hotel into the forest. And he was so stunned, completely. And Graham said to me, 'Ryszard, you are a magician, you made it all up - you conjured him!' And he started respecting me very much - he treated me like a sorcerer, like a man who does magic.
AM: But it didn't last?

RB: It passed after two or three weeks. It changed completely to the opposite, you know, like he started criticizing my way of shooting, like I started shooting a scene from the last set up, for example, someone enters the room and then exits the room, so I shot those two things together, which is logical, you always do it. And he said, no, you have to do it one-by-one in a chronological order, and we had an argument about that. Once the film opened, I don't exactly remember, but he gave an interview and said it was bad work, the film is bad - something like that.

AM: I'm glad he's come around. I think it's the best thing he's done, the strongest thing. I was discussing this with Tom Charity, and the adjective that came up in regard to his performance was, "indelible."

RB: His personality is very important, because he's a guy that - you don't really know who he is. On the one hand, he smiles, and he's a nice Native man - but the smile changes into some vicious grin, and he becomes very menacing, a very dangerous kind of guy. And Graham realized that, he knows that - he's an intelligent guy, I think - and he was very good at using this switching between a docile nice guy into a monster, someone who is ruthless and cruel. I think now he created he created a great character!

AM: How did it feel to revisit the film again? (When we spoke, Bugajski had recently reviewed the movie, in preparing a broadcast master for German TV).

RB: I was actually quite satisfied with the results, I think, because it has some spiritual elements, which I never did anywhere else. All my films are realistic, you know; none of them touch on this magical and spiritual side. The next film I'm preparing right now, for the first time since Clearcut, is actually touching on this metaphysical side of life, so it resonates. There are some similarities between them. It's a Bergmanesque story of a woman, who was a real person who lived in Poland, a very high officer of security in the 1950's. She was considered a very important and very cruel person. She was Jewish, by the way - she came from a middleclass, secular Jewish family - and of course a communist. And towards the end of her life, at 60, she converted to Catholicism. She got baptised and died Catholic. And the story of my film is actually about the process of becoming Catholic, becoming a believer, which is all the more interesting to me, because I'm a non-believer, myself.
That's all I have time to transcribe, folks (and I have no idea about the status of Bugajski's current project, for the record). I'll be at the Vancity Theatre tonight to introduce Clearcut - a remarkable, seldom-seen film. Read Adrian Mack on the screening here (a trailer for the film is included!). And don't miss the chance to come out; you may never get another to see this film on the big screen! 

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

A very satisfying screening, if poorly attended (kind of to be expected for Vancouver, alas). Thirty-two people in all, looks like, a few of whom were guests whom I comped in. Everyone seemed to love the movie, though - I heard no negative feedback - and a few people were pretty excited to discuss it afterwards. Got to see some really good friends for the first time in a long time (hi to Chris Towers and Marina Sonkina especially, hadn't seen either of them in months and months). Thanks to those of you who gave me gifts (A Creaking Planks T-shirt! A DVD of Mitchell!), and special thanks to David M. for making all us armchair revolutionaries squirm with his Christmas-themed Squamish Five piss-take, "Gerry Hannah's Coming to Town." I actually like Gerry a lot, but I have to admit that David's performance added some balance to the general tendencies of the film (which does a fair bit to endorse and encourage direct action outside of legal channels).

Anyhow, it was fun, but a lot of work for little reward, so it might take awhile before I try to concoct another of these. Meanwhile, though, the March 23rd screening of Bruce Sweeney's Dirty at the Cinematheque is a must-attend event, and a small gaggle of us from last night might turn up there...