Interview: Malgorzata Szumowska On Her Latest Film, Female Sexuality And Poland

While attending the 2013 Transylvania Film Festival (full report here), I happened to meet internationally acclaimed Polish director, Malgorzata Szumowska. Malgorzata was at the time touring with her Berlinale Teddy Award winning In the Name Of (W imie...)

In The Name Of is the story of a gay priest wrestling with carnal desires while trying to help young orphans in the Polish countryside. Events start taking a dark turn after the suicide of a boy under his auspice. Skeletons start falling out of the closet, as well as the priest's sexuality. Szumowska has made a film not only about the church secrets and its approach to the subject of homosexuality, but also about her country.

In our chat Malgorzata also discussed the lack of female directors, her film Elles, starring Juliette Binoche (Jim´s full review here), the reaction on her latest feature in her home country and much more.

Twitch: I have met with female filmmakers who tell me that it is quite tough for women in the film industry. What is your experience?

Malgorzata Szumowska I started to be more conscious about the difficult situation for women in the film industry last year. You know, I am doing a lot of films, I did the first one when I was twenty-five and this is my fifth film, and you know I am doing one film after the other and I try not to think too much about whether it´s hard or not too hard to make them. It is my passion, my desire. Naturally, when I started to win awards, it was easier for me to find financing in Poland. But you know what I have recognized last year that the situation for women in the industry is more special. When you have successful female directors, it is unique and I see that sometimes, it´s hard for men, directors or producers, to appreciate this kind of success. That´s how I feel about this situation.

However, this is somehow underpinned by the fact that in the history of cinema only ten of the most important awards were actually given to female directors. As I have mentioned before, I was never thinking about women and cinema this way, but when I found about this curious fact, I was shocked, only four Golden Lions, four Golden Bears, one Oscar and a Special Jury award in Cannes for women filmmakers. So it is definitely hard for us, because you are recognized as a women director which is quite different than to be recognized as a male director.

Do you also feel this way?

I cannot say yes. I do not think about my work this way. I am doing film with small budgets, except the one with Juliette Binoche, and in Poland we have the Polish Film Institute and it is not so bad with money for films. Sure, sometimes the problem is that too much people want to make too many movies, but this year we are making around fifty films and this number is growing from year to year. It is harder now, because Canal+ has stopped financing films in Poland, which is kind of disaster, but hopefully HBO will replace this vacant spot as Polish National Television is not in the game. Still, the situation is not that dramatic. When I want to make a film, I focus on making it and the budget comes over, that´s the way of my thinking.

Lately, there's been a number of films focusing on the theme of women´s sexuality. You also treated this subject in your collaboration with Juliette Binoche, ELLES. Why the sudden interest and scrutiny?

It´s hard to say maybe because it is naturally a women´s thing. I have rarely seen in cinema any film about women´s sexuality and that could be one of the impulses why I made Elles. But also von Trier made a remarkable film about female sexuality. There was not a specific intention behind the film, you know, it´s about women, sexuality, growing-up, desire for love. The sexuality comes in the second place after the social aspect. The film is based on real events. I have met those girls, we discussed their lives.

Is there a hint of the masculine crisis in ELLES?


Everybody keeps saying this but it´s the other way round. The women were always in the back, but the situation is changing now and we can observe it. Finally, the men allow women to come up front, even if they do not want to. I do not see the difference between man and woman, for me, they are equal human beings, but from the historical point of view, women were always oppressed. Still, it´s not ideal, but the change is more visible, the women are more visible, louder because before, they were silenced.

Do you consider films about women´s sexuality made by men opposed to those of female filmmaker, as for example Seidl´s Paradise trilogy?

I like Seidl´s films. I think he is brave and very good director and I consider Love: Paradise very interesting. He doesn´t go against women, although it might be a bit misogynistic, but we cannot judge everything from the political point of view all the time. It´s also about love, human beings... So, I do not really care whether the film was made by a man or woman, what counts is that the film is well made. The good film does not necessary mean politically correct. That´s the way it is.

Recently, you have won Teddy Award in Berlinale for your latest film, IN THE NAME OF, the story of a gay priest. Why did you switch sides and go for the masculine stuff?


I wanted to say something about believing in God, faith, because I used to be a Catholic many years ago when I was young and I always wished to make a film about faith. I know a lot of priests, monks, they are very smart, intelligent, of course there are exceptions. I find it very interesting to make a story about priest which can simultaneously say something about my country, Poland. And again about love. We all are still making films about love, even if it sounds very banal, the loss of love. It´s very strong subject, because the priest is very lonely and constrained by the faith and the church. And that is a very oppressive situation. I also wanted make film about gay love because in Poland, gay people are not really appreciated, because of the catholic tradition. Certainly, not everybody is against them, but you know to label people as gay or Jewish is quite common in Poland. I intended to show that gay love is also human love. Polish people are very narrow-minded and secluded from new things. This is our history.

Considering the strong influence of the Catholic Church in Poland, is your film also a bit of provocation?


No, it is not like this. In Poland, we have also a lot of cinemas showing films about gays against the Church and similar stuff, it´s not hidden or rare to make films about this theme. Poland is very democratic country, despite the fact that country is split into two wings, left and right. People from lift wing might go to my watch, whether people from right one will strongly opposed it. But this is obvious. And we are not Muslim country, so to stand up against conventions of Catholic Church is common. People are expressing their negative opinions on religion in schools or other similar subjects all the time. After all, what can they say about my film...The discussion arising after viewing my film will be about gay and not gay and religion has nothing to do with it.

Do you hope your film will ease the situation in Poland, or at least provoke a discussion?

Sure, I hope. I would love to be my film some kind of support to sexual minorities in Poland. But it is still also about Polish faith, the Church, religion. I believe it will open discussions, but I do not give answers in my film. In the name of is a non-judgemental film. People from right and left spectrum asked why I did such a delicate film, because there are some people who would love to see something much stronger and most of all, judgemental. Just to clarify the point about provocation, my film is not controversial.

What about some feedback from your country?


Well, my film will be officially premiered in September, but so far I have received a good feedback, very good reviews and the Teddy Award also helped a bit. You know, there is not a lot Polish film in competition. In the name of... is the first film in official competition from director of my generation, no Polish film made to main competition in Venice, Berlin or Cannes for the last twenty years. That is why the publicity is also good due to film´s success. However, aggressively negative comments appeared on one forum despising the gay theme.

What about sexual minorities?

Oh, they were really happy, especially after the Teddy Award happened. They have this specialized LGBT magazine and I was on the cover. But in Poland, we do not have big LGBT society, it is really small.

Any projects on the horizon?
I have already finished one script. The shooting should be done soon.  And I am again preparing one script for Juliette Binoche, it is something based on my documentary I did earlier. That is kind of funny, the transition of documentary into fiction. The title is "Sisters"

Is there a big difference between working in Poland and somewhere else?


I enjoy working outside my country. I can take deep and fresh breath outside, so after I come back to Poland I can see my country from different perspective. I find the combination of working in my country and on international projects respectively great, although you cannot forget about roots. At home, it´s my territory and I feel there the most powerful. Even though, I do not see a big difference in working in Poland and for example in France. You know, all my films are kind of independent projects. You have a group of people who are crazy about making films, even Binoche. Maybe one, sometimes the producers in France want to be closer to the project, talking to you on regular basis, kind of controlling a project.

What is the difference between directing Polish actors and maybe a big shot like Juliette Binoche?


Well, we are close with Binoche and it was great working with her. She likes my style of directing actors. That is also another reason why we are developing next project together. And Polish actors are great to work with. My Polish actors are the best in country. I always try to work with the best. I do not like to work with somebody who is very fresh and they don´t know anything. The cast in In the name..., for example Andrzej Chyra (the main protagonist) is the best Polish actor, very famous, Mateusz Kosciukiewicz was awarded with prize for the best actor in Karlovy Vary.

So you wouldn´t do any film with amateurs?

That´s not true. In my latest film you have a lot of amateurs working along the professionals. That´s the combination I really like. I like to work with amateurs, because they are so natural and fresh. If you are working with not so much experienced actors, they are very fake and it´s hard to remove their masks compared to very experiences actors where you do not have to talk so much.

Does your country appreciate your work?


I think they appreciate my work, but maybe because I am a woman, they are bit startled.
 
So you can be kind of role model for young filmmakers?


Don't know... I am working with some of them, helped them. So, there is few young directors but also older ones helped me, like  Agnieszka Holland.

Speaking of Agniezska Holland, she recently did the BURNING BUSH miniseries for HBO. Would you consider making a serial narrative?

Well yes, it is a dream of each director...to work for HBO. But in general, I have heard about the rise of so-called quality TV. Sodenbergh did sort of exposé on the subject in Cannes, but I don´t completely agree, it depends. But I more appreciate cinema than TV series, even though for example HBO television production is very interesting, also the format itself. But I am more into arthouse films like Child´s Pose by Netzer. I consider it as very unique piece of cinema, which cannot be replace by TV series. Talking about series for HBO, like 5 episodes, why not...I think that it is very interesting. I am open to new things whatsoever.

Thank you for your time and we wish you the best of luck for your next projects.

Around the Internet:
  • Steve Austin

    Got as far as gay priest.... This will do wonders for the Catholic church.

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