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Agnieszka Holland: the veteran director takes on modern Poland in her award-winning new film

Agnieszka Holland: the veteran director takes on modern Poland in her award-winning new film
Still from Spoor (2017) (image: Robert Pałka)

Exiled from Poland in 1981, Agnieszka Holland has since carved out a rich career in cinema and television. For her latest film, Spoor, she returns to her homeland with plenty to say about its resurgent right-wing politics. Michael Pattison spoke to her at the Berlinale Film Festival, where Spoor won a Silver Bear award

23 March 2017

Agnieszka Holland’s A Woman Alone (1981) — the bleak story of a middle-aged outcast in suburban Wrocław and her doomed romance with a miner — was characteristic of the critical and politically engaged style that defined the Warsaw-born filmmaker’s early career. So much so, in fact, that it was subsequently banned. On 13 December that year, the same government responsible for this censorship introduced martial law to the streets of Poland, hoping to quash growing political opposition. Holland, fleeing to France, couldn’t have known it would be two decades before she made another film with Polish funding: even then, Julie Walking Home (2002) was co-produced with German, Canadian and American money.

In the intervening years, however, Holland was able to develop her craft by directing comparatively mainstream pictures — in Germany, France, the UK and the USA. Along the way, she picked up two Oscar nominations, for Angry Harvest (Best Foreign Language Film, 1986) and Europa Europa (Best Adapted Screenplay, 1992); a third, for In Darkness, followed in 2012.

A lot can happen in twenty years. Or in four. When she set out to make her latest feature, Spoor — which won a Silver Bear when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February — Holland couldn’t have foreseen the ways in which the film’s pulpy plot would grow in allegorical significance alongside the changing landscape of Polish politics, speaking to the burgeoning cultural conservatism of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government, in power since 2015.

Spoor, an adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 bestseller Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, was shot for the most part in the Kłodzko Valley, in Poland’s Lower Silesia, not far from the Polish-Czech border. Part detective thriller, part eco-warrior action film, it concerns mysterious deaths within a small-town hunting community, as seen through the eyes of the benign and eccentric Duszeijko (Agnieszka Mandat), a part-time school teacher and animal rights activist.

Holland, speaking to me in Berlin, explained how the meaning of her new film morphed in response to the increasingly fraught situation in her native country: “the political reality today and the political reality four years ago, when we started, are very different. A different idea of the state, and of society, prevails now.”

“I will not change Polish politics, it’s not within my power or ambitions, but I would like to fight for this space of freedom”

In Spoor, we are encouraged to identify with Duszeijko’s frustrated attempts to address poaching through legal institutional mechanisms, and to view as villains the local authority figures who treat her with apathy and ridicule. Despite its appreciably literary origins and heightened, soap-opera furnishings (Holland has referred to it as equally psychodrama, black comedy, thriller, anarchistic, environmental and feminist), the film’s anti-authoritarian bent is unmistakable.

“Before, the film was some kind of little niche fairytale about outsiders and the anger of those who are not heard. Of course it’s still the same subject, but the context changed and suddenly this or that minister can consider the movie as a direct attack on him. I read today that a correspondent of the Polish state media, a guy who’s very close to the Polish government, said I made a pagan film promoting eco-terrorism!”

Though she doesn’t reject such readings, Holland is quick to champion and defend her right to artistic freedom. I ask her to elaborate on this specifically in relation to Poland: what has and hasn’t changed in this regard since 1981? “The problem in Poland, which is not specific to this new regime, is that [those in authority] have very strong ideological views on what is right and what is wrong, and they don’t really accept diversity. They openly say that the only good Pole is a Catholic man with nationalistic beliefs, that Poland is the most important place on the planet.”

And the differences? “The difference is whether it’s authoritarian or not. I still hope it will not be authoritarian. If they are open to people disagreeing with them, especially in art, it will be better. The problem is also that the leftist side and the liberal centre have also begun to read artistic statements as ideological statements. [Now if] you do something that is innocent in some way, you are in a space of freedom, and this freedom allows you to explore things which in normal life you don’t have the chance to: in normal life I would not go with a weapon to kill the people I don’t like. But they don’t understand it.”

Given the explicitly politicised slant of her early features, and the political reality that catalysed her decision to emigrate in 1981, it’s perhaps surprising to hear Holland identify artistic freedom as something “innocent”, above or separate from politics. She is nagged by the idea that, in Poland at least, the press is so quick to interpret artistic expressions as political testimony. “Poles have lost the intellectual ability, which they had during communist times, not to receive artistic statements literally,” she says.

“I was always closer to European than American cinema”

“For example, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), which is a wonderful film and very subtle, was attacked from both sides. The left attacked it for being anti-Semitic, and the right attacked it for being anti-Polish. Between those stones of ideology the bird of art will crash and die. I will not change Polish politics, it’s not within my power or ambitions, but I would like to fight for this space of freedom.”

There’s a learned pragmatism at play here. I ponder the extent to which Holland, who began her career as an assistant director to Krzysztof Zanussi (a producer on Spoor) and the late Andrzej Wajda, equates artistic autonomy with a kind of apolitical purity as a result of her relatively recent delve into high-end television shows, such as The Wire, Treme, House of Cards and the US version of The Killing. With these, the director must factor in the show-runner and the writing team’s collaborative vision. Is her fight for personal freedom at all costs a response to working in such production contexts?

In fact, Holland would invert this reading: it was her attraction to American cinema that informed her storytelling from the beginning. “In my youth, when I started to think about making movies, I was always closer to European than American cinema. American cinema was attractive to me but not so close. What made me closer to American cinema, I realised, was my way of storytelling, which is pretty clear and linear and efficient. Americans are sensitive to this narrative skill, but for some European critics it was too foreign. It’s why I think they started to invite me to go there and gave me some interesting projects.”

I question the extent to which her pragmatism is informed by an increasing dependence, as a filmmaker, on European and international co-productions. Does she feel particularly or consciously Polish in these situations? “European co-productions are necessary, I think, because it’s very difficult to finance a film if it’s a little bigger and from only one country and one source. With the Czechs it’s quite special. I feel a little Czech because I graduated from the film school in Prague. Czech cinema was more important for me during this time than Polish cinema.”

Agnieszka Holland (image: Malwina Toczek under a CC licence)

One advantage of working with co-productions is the funding opportunities it opens. “A few years ago I did the mini-series Burning Bush, produced by Czech HBO, written by a young talented scriptwriter and produced by young Czech producers, who are now the producers of Spoor. It’s great to have partners who are close and intellectually interesting and economically ambitious.” Here too, Holland must be practical, considerate, pragmatic; Spoor was funded with money from Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden and Czech Republic. Which brings its own obligations: the score had to be recorded in Slovakia, the sound in Sweden, the special effects in Czech Republic. And each company had its own calendar and schedule: months became years.

“The economical and artistic logic are not always preserved,” Holland explains. “The local funds ask you to spend the money on a certain territory. So you have to sometimes shoot in places you don’t have to shoot, because you have to spend the money there. Or your crew grows bigger, because you have to employ some talents from different markets. And although we had to shoot practically everything in Lower Silesia, except for some days in Berlin, we had to do all post-production outside of Poland. So instead of taking four months it took nine or ten months. So suddenly it was four years of my life. But I’m for this in general. I think good producers know how to make it organic.” Time enough for mainstream politics in Poland to drift right — a process that seems only to have sharpened, as these things often do, Spoor’s sense of timing, its dark humour, and its anti-establishment prickliness.

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