Communion’s director Anna Zamecka

Will Communion be EFA’s best documentary 2017?

Interview by Anna Zamecka to Dimitra Kouzi

Communion is your feature-length debut – what was the driving force that kept you going?  Most probably the fact that this story is related to my own experience and inspired by my own childhood. The main protagonist is a fourteen-year-old child with adult responsibilities – just as I had been. In Ola’s family, roles are turned upside down: She is the one who cares for her parents and for her disabled brother. Her own needs are pushed to the background. Such ‘grown-up children’ aren’t rare, and not just in Poland, but they rarely become the subject of conversation. One can’t expect that a film will change the world, but if it provokes discussion, that’s something. I decided to talk about things that are important to me, and when I realised that the film was also important to its protagonists, I felt a kick of energy to push it and never ease up.

Could you describe Ola, Nikodem, and Marek in your own words?
They are like characters from a fairy tale. The father is like a widower from the Brothers Grimm world: kind-hearted but completely helpless. The evil stepmother is replaced by the mother – a big girl who escaped from her children (‘Because I’m sad,’ she explains). And the son and daughter who have to cope with that. Ola decides to be an adult to fill the role others fail to deliver: She cleans the apartment, rebukes her brother, and tries to foster him and her father. She wants to organise Nikodem’s communion at all costs – so it would be ‘normal’. And she only breaks sometimes. Nikodem sees himself as a chimpanzee, or a horse. He hides inside a poetic world of his own – and from its depth, he makes the most acute comments.

Why did you choose to tell the story through Ola’s perspective?
Because she feels closest to me. I could understand her feelings perfectly because I know them from my own life, just as I have experienced some of the situations presented in the film. However, it’s more about emotional images than specific events.

How did you earn your protagonists’ trust?
The hardest thing was to win Ola’s trust. In her eyes, I represented the adult world from which she had suffered many wrongs. From the very beginning, the most important thing for me was to make sure that Ola and Nikodem felt safe with me. It was essential that they knew my intentions. Of course, I am aware of the fact that they didn’t really understand what they were taking part in. I had ethical dilemmas because of that: I was filming children, one of them autistic – I had a head start on all levels. I knew they were unable to defend themselves from me, to mark a borderline. Because of that I had to accept full responsibility for all that could have happened while we were making the film and after that.

A woman director, a women’s crew, a women’s point of view, a girl protagonist. Does this make for a different perspective? ‘A woman’s point of view?’ I don’t know what that is. Moreover, it wasn’t until after the premiere that I realised that almost only women made Communion. I’ve had to explain that in interviews and at meetings with viewers. But there was no conspiracy, no manifesto. The editor, Agnieszka Glińska, and the cinematographer, Gosia Szyłak, are both amazing artists and personalities, and that is why I invited them to work together on this project. Gender was of no importance at all. It turns out that men in film are something natural, while women are still perceived as an aberration. I can’t fully agree that Ola is the main protagonist in this film. Ola and Nikodem are both the leading characters; they are equally important. I wouldn’t decide to make a film about any one of them. They function together – one leads to the other, and one cannot exist without the other.

You once said, ‘It is easy in Poland to judge and blame a woman.’ Why?Motherhood is perceived as a mission in Poland, not as a woman’s free choice. The society expects much more from mothers than it does from fathers. But in Catholic Poland, 8 out of 10 men leave their families when a disabled child is born. Almost half a million fathers avoid paying child support for their own children, and it is socially accepted. It’s been years since anyone tried to tackle this issue in a systemic manner. But there is no social acceptance for women leaving their homes and children. They are judged very rigidly – with no regard to the circumstances that led them to their decisions. Ola, our protagonist, told me that she feels stigmatised, not just because she comes from a broken home, but also because her mother ‘abandoned’ her.

In another interview you said, ‘I was listening to their needs – not to what I wanted’. What decisions did you make while directing the film?What I meant was that I didn’t try to forcibly arrange certain situations, if I felt that this was contrary to what Ola and Nikodem actually wanted. It wasn’t only about ethical issues and not crossing borders: Without listening to their needs, there would be no truth on the screen. That is why the preparation period was so important. I spent a lot of time with them – without the camera. I watched their reactions in a number of situations. That enabled me to predict their reaction to certain events when I was writing the script.

What was your ‘scripted’ intention, and what happened ‘magically’ during shooting? The film was – to a significant extent – based on a script. At first, I had trouble telling the story. There was no starting point, no foothold. I didn’t know where to begin, or where to end. When I came up with Nikodem’s communion, everything seemed easier. It wasn’t even because the protagonist was about to go through a process; the communion turned out to be a good metaphor of Ola’s growing up to be an adult – it served as a pretext to tell about her situation. In Poland, the first communion sacrament is a very important ceremony. It is an occasion for the entire family to meet and integrate. I knew that Ola, who lived in the hope of bringing her mother back home, would use this event as an opportunity for a family reunion.
I wrote many scenes related to the ceremony using my own memories from my communion. Of course, I hoped that Nikodem would begin an interesting dialogue with the realm of religion – and he did. I wanted to show that he was very thoughtful when it came to spirituality – much more than I was, more than most children are. The scene with the priest leading Nikodem through an examination of conscience in church was my idea. But Nikodem’s brilliant lines about virtues and sins, as well as his performance at the altar, obviously happened, as you said, ‘magically’ during shooting.

How does the story unfold through the use of portraits?
Camera motion wasn’t necessarily following the action. Camera movement was mainly used to provide an emotional interpretation and describe relationships between the characters and their complicated dynamics. But by insisting on getting as close as possible, we ended up being able to create a narrative through intimate portraiture. There is no need for, or reliance on, exposition, verbal cues, or any kind of reverse shot to what or whom Ola is reacting at any given moment. You can see this, for example, in the scene when the social worker comes to visit. The camera rests only on her face. In that face, we know everything. In this, we can see the system failing this family, time and time again. The girl is forced to lie in order to keep them from doing any more damage. At such a tender age, she has learned how to protect herself and her family.

How did you manage to track emotions without betraying the characters’ trust? I did my best to be cautious, not to cross certain lines, not to invade potentially painful situations with the camera. We decided on fixed lenses, 35mm and 28mm, to help us achieve both a specific approach to the characters and to acquire as much intimacy as possible. Closing the distance was difficult, but very important, as it meant overcoming barriers. Honestly, at the beginning of the shooting, we both felt very ill at ease, like intruders. It was difficult for us on many levels – as it was for the family, too.
On the one hand, this makes it seem as if the camera is ‘invisible,’ but we were the ones evoking these emotions sometimes just by our presence and by how close the camera was to them. The emotions we see are sometimes a precise reaction to this, not necessarily to what’s going on. So, while there may be anger at the situation they are finding themselves in, there was also aggression because of the camera’s close proximity. The tension apparent in the film was with us throughout the whole process. At the same time, a true emotional bond developed between us – the crew – and the protagonists. At a point, we may have become a family, and everything is allowed in a family. No one held down.

I know you edited for quite a long time (how long?). How did you go about editing the film? I was lucky to work with Agnieszka Glinska, a prolific master editor working in fiction. I learned so much from her. We were working together for seven months and after that, Agnieszka had to start another project, so I edited on my own for another four months. It took this long to find the smoothest way of telling the story. But just to be clear, I did shoot with a script, so this is not a film constructed in the editing room – but it was still a lot of work to find the rhythm and the way the scenes needed to flow together.

What is not in the film? The process of Ola and Nikodem growing up as a topic made it necessary to limit all other threads of their story. The documentary genre carries an ethical dilemma that troubles me: As you decide to make a film about one person, everyone else remain just a sketch. Other people are not shown in the way they might deserve. I mean Marek and Magda, the protagonists’ parents. They are very interesting characters who deserve a complete portrait.

What element is it that makes your film universal? I made a film about the strength of unconditional family love. But I also wanted to talk about growing up and the association of growing up with disappointments, sometimes painful ones – especially when dealing with our parents. We see Ola growing up – from a girl who believes that, despite all obstacles, her family can be united, to a teenager who accepts the fact that it will never happen. Accepting one’s limitations is a necessary prerequisite for maturity.

What changed in your life after completing this film? Making something so close to your heart obviously has cathartic power. I felt that I wasn’t looking for the goal on the outside, but inside me. It was an urge to work through something of my own, something very difficult. Communion cleansed me. I went through a long process alongside the protagonists.

Why should EFA members vote for your film? I don’t know if they should. But one thing is for certain: I would like them to watch Communion.

How do you deal with the film’s success? Viewers’ very lively and authentic reactions bring me the most joy. I participated in many meetings after screenings. They are sometimes so full of emotion. I receive moving emails from all around the world. This motivates me to work on another film.

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