By Alex Ramon.
As the place that produced the likes of Wajda, Polański, Kieślowski and Skolimowski, and that, under the current Rectorship of Mariusz Grzegorzek, continues to nurture new talents in cinema and theatre, Łódź Film School remains the most storied and prestigious of such institutions in Poland. It’s the place where, in the late 1990s, Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek met as students, beginning a personal and professional partnership that has resulted in a number of acclaimed plays and short films (such as the London Film Festival-featured BEASTS). Recently, the duo have completed their first feature, the striking “fictional documentary” My Friend the Polish Girl, which has competed at festivals including Rotterdam, Edinburgh, New Horizons and Gdynia, and which won the top prize at this year’s “Młodzi i Film” Festival in Koszalin. Filmed around the time of the Brexit vote, the film focuses on the dynamic between Alicja (Aneta Piotrowska), a Polish actress in London, and Katie (Emma Friedman-Cohen), an American amateur filmmaker, who is creating a documentary about the aspiring actress. By turns playful and disturbing, the film interrogates artist/muse dynamics in ways that are provocative and unexpected, boldly incorporating Internet aesthetics into its form.
Now based in London, Banaszkiewicz and Dymek returned to Łódź to present My Friend the Polish Girl at their alma mater, where the film competed in the Munk Debut Feature competition. Our conversation took place just before the screening.
Ramon: What was the inspiration for My Friend the Polish Girl?
Banaszkiewicz: Originally the idea was to explore the issue of inequality within relationships. I have a very affluent friend who I’d sometimes spend time with in New York. We were together once; she was feeling down and wanted cheering up, and said: “Ewa, pour me a glass of champagne.” And she didn’t say pour yourself one. I tend to turn really polite in a situation like that so I did what she asked but there was a weird feeling about it. It’s a strange situation in which you’re a friend and yet there’s a hierarchy based on wealth and privilege.
Dymek: We were also inspired by a number of different films, from Persona to Man Bites Dog to Foxcatcher.
Ramon: I get the first two as reference points, but… Foxcatcher? How so?
Banaszkiewicz: In that film you have someone who’s powerful, and someone else who’s talented and an object of desire in a way. We loved that relationship, the tension of being involved with a person who has power and can make or break you. Katie, in our film, doesn’t have that, but she does have power over Alicja, and increasingly so.
Dymek: Power in relationships is something we’re always interested to explore, and we were drawn to do that in the context of the film world, a world we know well, and to think about the dynamic between a documentary-maker and their subject.
Banaszkiewicz: The relationship between actor and director, or subject and director in a documentary, can be a very complicated one. People often see the arts as a noble cause, but I think that sometimes they’re not so noble, particularly when it comes to documentaries and the way people can be used or manipulated. In that way the film is just as much a critique of ourselves as it is of others. We’re not pointing fingers. There’s a lot of self-irony in the film.
Ramon: Part of the fascination of the film, and its unsettling quality, has to do with the way you play with tone, keeping the viewer off balance, with a combination of humour and disturbing scenes.
Dymek: The script as written was a bit funnier. There were scenes with Katie that were obviously comic relief. But when we were editing those moments felt jarring, less real and nuanced, and made the film become more about Katie than Alicja, when the balance between the two characters was very important to us.
Banaszkiewicz: It’s hard to get the pure kind of naturalism we wanted with comedy. Even things like The Office, which we love, have a certain heightened quality which we were keen to avoid. With moments like the masturbation scene, which we wanted to be very unsettling, it was hard to get there with too much comedy.
Dymek: A lot of our work with the actors was about reining in certain things, such as their tendency to “punctuate” a scene. They can do that brilliantly but it wasn’t what we wanted here. It was challenging for the actors, and counterintuitive for us, but necessary.
Banaszkiewicz: Yes, we encouraged mistakes, looks to camera, going with it if something went wrong. Mistakes were good.
Dymek: That said, everything was scripted. We had a trial improvisation which was interesting as an exercise but in the end it became too meandering, and either too exposition-heavy or too hard to get to the point of a scene.
Ramon: How was the casting process?
Banaszkiewicz: We auditioned people for the smaller parts and wrote with people in mind for the main roles. They’re all very different from their characters in each case but we knew that they could pull it off. So it’s definitely not written around their specific personalities.
Ramon: You describe the film as a “fictional documentary” and it’s presented as Katie’s film. Has there been any confusion from audiences about how “real” what we’re seeing is?
Dymek: That’s happened on a few occasions, but we’ve been as open as possible and have never attempted to deceive people about what the film is. In part that’s because we’ve started to feel quite uncomfortable about the mixing of categories when it comes to fiction and documentary. In some cases it feels like films that would traditionally be classified as fiction are called something else for marketing purposes. We liked Michał Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights but there’s no way that it’s a documentary. It’s ADRed, situations are built… How is that so different from Harvey Keitel improvising in an Abel Ferrara film?
Ramon: How do you see the film in relation to debates about immigration and the whole Brexit landscape? How important is it that Alicja is a “Polish girl” and that Katie is an American?
Dymek: We filmed before Brexit and a bit after. When the vote happened we did think for a moment about re-dubbing Katie as British; since she rarely appears in front of the camera, it would have been easy to do, and Emma, who plays Katie, can do a great British accent. The idea of a British person using and discarding a foreigner seemed a perfect Brexit metaphor. Technically it would have worked, but ultimately we felt that Katie being British would have made her less lonely as a character, and that loneliness was central to our conception of her. It was important that both she and Alicja were outsiders, connected, in a sense, through their being foreigners in the UK.
Banaszkiewicz: We’re both children of migrants ourselves, and I feel foreign in England and foreign here in Poland too. What I hate about the representation of migrants is that we’re often shown as “an issue” rather than as people. In terms of Polish characters in British drama there’s not much progress beyond ‘the plumber’ or ‘the cleaner.’ So it’s vital to us that character comes first. As important as context is, though, I don’t necessarily see Alicja as “typically” Polish. One article discussed her as a “Woman of the East” archetype but if you see her as overtly sexualized, then I think that’s a projection and not the whole story. She’s not just a hot girl who’s up for it. Her psychology is something we wanted to explore, ensuring that she’s not a stereotype.
Ramon: The film’s formal play with visibility and invisibility is striking. You contrast the exposure of Alicja in front of Katie’s camera with Katie hiding behind the camera yet revealing herself, in a way, through the voiceover and the way she presents Alicja. Were these moments that were in the script or ones that you found on set?
Banaszkiewicz: From the script stage we were always looking for moments where we could bring Katie in briefly via reflections and other means. Another thing that inspired the script is that, as bitter and twisted filmmakers [laughs], we would always watch films and find ways to critique them as a reflection of the filmmakers’ personalities. So we were interested in making a film that exposed the filmmaker, without her being fully aware of it. There are documentary filmmakers, like Nick Broomfield, who become such a part of their films. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but it can become overpowering when the film is more about you than your subject. We pushed that to an extreme here.
Ramon: The film is very much about challenging the idea of the “objective” documentary. It reminds us that there’s always a presence behind a film – controlling, manipulating, judging, desiring. How does the incorporation of web 2.0 culture, emojis and animations contribute to that and why did you choose to add those elements?
Dymek: We were inspired by the work of vloggers and microbloggers, generally American women of Katie’s generation. Their work is often very interesting but sometimes it can also seem like a cry for help.
Banaszkiewicz: We wanted to find interesting ways of having Katie reveal herself to the viewer and all those elements like the animations and emojis enabled us to do that in what is, hopefully, a fresh way. You could view the film as Katie’s confession, or even as her “coming out,” and I think it enables a more sympathetic reading of her. She’s aware of what she’s doing – to an extent – but she can’t stop doing it.
Ramon: How do you see the film in relation to current debates about gender and #MeToo?
Dymek: Some people have responded positively; they’ve appreciated seeing women interacting in complex, central roles. Others have questioned the representation, since it’s not entirely positive….
Banaszkiewicz: I feel strongly that we all have a bit of both, male and female, in us. In the film we show a woman in a predatory role, something that we all know can happen but which some people prefer to overlook at the moment. The debate has become very divisive and it feels that certain films are praised simply for having a female character in a “positive” role. To me that’s not art anymore; it’s a propaganda piece. Characters, male and female, need to be created with a full range of qualities and emotions. We wrote characters that we liked and found dramatically interesting. Grey areas fascinate us and we like characters with light and shade.
Dymek: We also experience the gender dynamic very differently here in Poland to the West. In many ways there’s more togetherness of the sexes here. Women also have very high positions.
Banaszkiewicz: Superficially Poland may seem more sexist but if you look closer I don’t think it is.
Ramon: How do you feel about My Friend the Polish Girl as a specifically London film? You start in a tourist fashion – with an image of Big Ben – and then go deeper into the city. Then there’s your satire of the Guy Ritchie-esque “metaphysical gangster film” that Alicja gets involved in.
Banaszkiewicz: While New York has often been portrayed in a gritty way on screen, London still frequently gets the picture-postcard treatment, so it was important for us to get a sense of the real London in the film. And to give a diverse representation too: as an actress, Alicja would dip between worlds a bit, and we wanted to reflect that.
Ramon: As in the very funny Groucho Club scene.
Banaszkiewicz: When I moved back to England from Łódź there was this whole obsession with private members’ clubs going on which was totally alien to me. I’d been more “rave generation” and suddenly people were hanging out in these private members’ clubs, where everything was opulent and everyone seemed a bit of a wannabe.
Dymek: Londoners who’ve seen the film definitely recognise and respond to it as a London film.
Ramon: What’s your next project?
Banaszkiewicz: We’re working on a few things. Last year we had a play on BBC Radio 4. It’s called The King of the Flat White as Narrated by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and it’s about another Polish immigrant to the UK: a guy who’s working in London, is handsome, successful, assimilated. On the night of the Brexit vote, he’s beaten up and overnight becomes unattractive, develops a strong Polish accent, and his life changes completely. It’s exploring issues about how you see yourself, how others see you, and the idea of the “acceptable immigrant.” We’re keen to adapt it for film.
My Friend the Polish Girl is released in UK cinemas on 19 July.
Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson. His current projects include a study of novel-to-film adaptations. He writes for PopMatters and British Theatre Guide and blogs at Boycotting Trends.