Interview

 
 
Place: New York

Uncertainty As Possibility

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

In our early 20s, away from home with the feeling of having our own space and time, and new opportunities without responsibilities, we experience an expansion of capabilities both physically and mentally. It’s the moment to explore a new identity before becoming part of the inevitable modern system. Polish filmmaker Michal Marczak’s “All These Sleepless Nights,” which received the World Cinema Directing Award for Documentary at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, follows real life characters Kris and Michal as they navigate that fleeting period of life. Roaming the streets of Warsaw, they dance as if merging into the music, happen upon random people, and encounter ephemeral love. Everyday is new discovery. The sense of belonging is ripe.

 

What makes “All These Sleepless” Nights” exceptional is the style of the film. Even though it was shown in the documentary category at Sundance, the line between documentary and narrative is blurred. Is this really documentary? Is this narrative like French New Wave? When presenting a film like this, the highlights of discussion tend toward the clarification of what genre it belongs to. However “All These Sleepless Nights” snuggles up to neither genre nor suggests whether the characters are acting or not. The film itself is impromptu and able to chameleonize with our preconceptions. “All These Sleepless Nights” embraces ambiguity and therefore refuses to tolerate the limits of the current film market; it is a new idea.

 

Poland has been democratized since 1989, and Kris and Michal belong to the country’s first post-communist generation, so, to them, the taste of liberation isn’t something to savor. But director Marczak, who grew up in communist Poland, and those who acknowledge the country’s history, still see, through their own filters, an essence of communism floating in the background. The past does not disappear; it is always living in the present. Yet the youth, like Kris and Michal, will take their turn to lead the country or even the world, eventually. Who they are, what they can do, and what they want to do are all fuzzy. And yet, we find this vague quality beautiful. Nothing is certain, we don’t know what will happen, but, like the vast sky rising over Warsaw, the future is so open.

 

 

COOL spoke with Michal Marczak to discuss “All These Sleepless Nights” during his visit to the US.

 

“Much more feeling like you’re part of the world,

that you’re part of this whole globalized community”

 

What inspired you to make a film in Warsaw?

I love walking around cities at night, especially Warsaw. I’ve seen how things change in observing the people, and then, all of a sudden, this new energy arose with this new young generation. It was a special time in Warsaw. Many countries have had freedom for a long time; Poland has been free only since ’89. But since ’89, it took another twenty years for the freedom of thought, for the freedom to feel equal. It was a beautiful time in our history, and actually we also felt to the tips of our nerve endings that it was a time that might be ending. And it did, because the right wing government took over. Nobody really thought that that would happen, but it happened. For Polish people, the fallback was always, “If something goes wrong I can always go to England to work,” and now with Brexit… So if I was to shoot it now, the film would be a little bit different.

 

Kris and Michal are great characters with captivating expressions. What quality were you looking for in your subjects?

Of course, the magic, that ephemeral quality for which we always seek in characters in films. It’s so hard to put into words, but once you see it, you feel it immediately. They have that quality. Also, I was looking for people that are a little bit outsiders, people that have a strong dynamic that they could build off, that would allow themselves to be vulnerable. I told them you are going to be playing versions of yourselves and I would love for you to experience all these states as deeply and as sincerely as you can, with all your body, all your past and everything in you. So they were aware, that was the whole point of the adventure we were embarking on together—to live through these moments.

 

Kris and Michal are the generation that has not experienced living in communism. They probably don’t remember their first time eating a banana, or it’s impossible for them to imagine something like getting chewing gum as a Christmas gift.

I remember that my dad, as a present, got me an empty Coca-Cola bottle. I was very happy to have an empty Coca-Cola bottle at home, and I think it was another two years before I actually had Coca-Cola.

 

What do you see in this generation? And what’s the difference from the older generation?

It took a lot time for me to become sure of myself in my identity, and I think these people, because they are born after ’89, they are completely free, more open and less shy, too. It really comes down to being much more sure about themselves, much more feeling like you’re part of the world, that you’re part of this whole globalized community, which sometime is good and sometimes is bad. Everything feels closer. There’s much more access to information from an early time. I remember it was really difficult to get access to certain things. When you have that from the start, it changes your mind.

 

 

“People want to be moved:

people don’t want to be told things”


There is a line “Maybe all of us comes down to acting? An ability to create a more spectacular version of yourself?” I believe this is one of the themes of the film.

It’s a bigger question of who we are. So the character is at the point where he’s trying to understand how to be ok with who you are, and how much you can push it, how much you can be somebody else. And through this running around and roaming the streets, which might seem like drunken fooling around, that’s actually the time in your life when you’re experimenting. You are throwing yourself into different social situations and seeing what works: are you the type that likes to dance, or are you the type that rather stands by the wall and observes? Once you know that, then it’s easier. But when you’re still unsure of who exactly you are, those can be big problems for somebody.

 

When a camera is on you, you become self-conscious in how you behave. I see that in many documentary films.

Of course. Many times, films that are considered documentary never question the authenticity of the situation. I feel that they are completely inauthentic because the people are acting inauthentic. They’re skewing the way they behave because of the camera. Even if I’m creating a situation that the characters wouldn’t be in because I’m connecting them with other people, and I’m even giving the start of the conversation to them, but if they react in that moment naturally, and they’re really in moment, lost in the space, and not thinking what to say or how to react or “how will I come off onscreen,” I think that’s the most important. I’m after capturing those people lost after certain high intensity moments or emotions. I spend a lot of time without the camera, so I can compare how people act when the camera’s on and when the camera’s off. So that is one of the most crucial aspects of working in this kind of cinema.

 

You’ve created a film that is not restricted by genre. It’s organic and spontaneous. Even so, society will try to put it in a box and category. What do you think about our tendency to do that?

It can be annoying sometimes. Sometimes it works and sometimes it’s valuable, but we live in very complicated times. And the definition between documentary and fiction —there’s such a huge gray area in between. These art forms should be open to experimenting and trying different things because sometimes a very highly aestheticized and stylized scene actually tells you more, or gives you more truth, about your subject—in this case, the subject is youth—so what do you feel? Something is very stylized and you’ve got the music and everything in it, it has more truth about being young than just someone telling you that. So, I’m definitely more for films that appeal to the heart, and are authentic, that speak to you directly. It’s really about taking into consideration the audience’s intelligence. People want to be moved; people don’t want to be told things. People want to come up with answers by themselves. They want to see images and they want to feel how the character feels, not be told how the character feels.

 

 

“To really be open to everything

and not to close myself in a bubble”

 

The film’s atmosphere and flow also allow it to not be restricted by genre. What were your ideas or references for the atmosphere and flow?

I’m a cinephile and I definitely devour a lot of films. A big inspiration was the French New Wave, with the playfulness and with creating new rules for each film. The rules were written in the style of and very much chosen in accordance with the story. It was really the style that was the character in propelling a part of the story forward. And then a lot of documentaries from the ‘60s and ‘70s in Poland, where they just connect realities and always try to a find strong cinematic language, and tell, by use of image rather than voice, of certain emotional states and characters. But of course, you know, everything; somewhere in there is definitely Terrence Malik. When I started the work, it was about being in tune with these characters and what I can do, what are the locations, and what would be the best idea. One of these thoughts, for example, was that the camera should be an extension of the motions of the character, so that it could move in these weird ways that resonate with the main characters. It should be a dance between me and the characters, so the camera has to flow and be elegant. It has to have that nostalgic feel in the framing, the colors, and the lights. It builds on this notion of the memory within the memory.

 

Things are already happening in the film, and it doesn’t tell you exactly when and where or who, but just takes you right there.

This whole notion of reminiscence came up: what you remember and why you remember. I started analyzing the way the brain really tricks us sometimes, and how very much fragmentary that memory is and not accurate. And how certain things can be completely obliterated from the memory. That was an inspiration for the structure of the film: to make it feel like its one long memory, either of the character or a cumulative memory, a collective memory. And that was also the through-line: to combine the theme and the sequences how memories are combined. What I had was this really weird collection of random events, although in my memory, they had a strong emotional through-line.

 

I see many young, interesting Polish filmmakers emerging these days. So I think people want to express more and more. What’s in the air in Polish filmmaking now?

A really good time is coming. We had a big down period in the late ‘90s and early 2000s when the old masters passed away or stopped making films. The country felt a little bit lost, of course, the transition, and there was just chaos everywhere. Now, we’re focusing again on the simple stuff, on the stuff of the everyday, and on the stuff that is universal because we are not anymore entrenched in the problems of communism and post-communism. We can’t play the historical card anymore. We can’t play the oppressed country card anymore. Now we have to play just in the field of pure storytelling and emotions. People have beautiful sensitivities, and really nice stories are starting to come out. We have this amazing documentary tradition from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the short film format, now you see a revival of that in long form.

 

How was the experience of reliving your early 20s by following and filming Kris and Michal?

It was a good way to cheat reality and expand my youth. In general, it’s super important to hang out with people of various ages. To really be open to everything and not to close myself in a bubble. The editor of this film is over 70, and she is my best friend. But definitely, it was a huge burst of energy. The film embodies that energy, and I think I picked up on the energy. I wouldn’t want to do this film when I’m 40, you know? That would be just a little bit sad, and feel out of place. Whereas now, it was a goodbye, I guess, like a long goodbye to a beautiful time of my life, and also a way to capture it and show it maybe to my children—how it was. I think I’m completely now ready to move on to something new and mature. So I think I had a good run on that style of living.

 

But please keep making films that have free spirit.

Yes. Of course. And it’s constricting, you know? I never want to lose this feeling that we are all really one big passionate family that wants to set out and learn about the world, and throw our vision of reality on to something. So I think I’ll always be trying to get a group of people that have that in them, and to maintain that spirit. I hope that never fades. Although, age is brutal, but we will see. I hope to keep going for a long time.

 

 

Text and Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Photo Courtesy of The Orchard

 

All These Sleepless Nights” opens in limited release on April 14.