Girl’s Stories, Girlhood Magic


Director Aga Borzym talking with Dimitra Kouzi

DIMITRA KOUZI: You introduce yourself as a director (once), animator (in-between), editor (usually), mother (by choice), engineer (by accident), and girl (from the beginning). How did this interesting combination influence the creative process for ‘Girls’ Stories’?

AGA BORZYM: I wrote it as a joke, but it’s true. That directing is the first time I’m doing this in this project. I’ve been an editor for a long, long time, but I was editing shorter things. But my dream was to edit a documentary movie because I thought the editor has a lot to say in the creative process. I came across this documentary, I was really interested in it. And for a Polish person, it was something really new, because we don’t have such films. And it’s not so popular to have a documentary where the protagonists are kids. Generally, Polish documentaries like to show really tough topics.

It is true. Like Communion, for instance.

It’s a great movie, of course.

People often reduce the film to just one story, about the first menstruation. Which it is not.

Menstruation was something with which I really connected, with this body thinking, and I realised I wasn’t doing that when I was a young girl. And nobody talked with me about a lot of stuff. And the body was somehow like a taboo. Even my mother, who wasn’t a person who didn’t want to talk, yet I think she didn’t know how to do this.

In the beginning, a lot of people were like, are you crazy? What do you want to show? And what do you want to talk about? And I thought, yes, these subjects are very fragile. And it’s a taboo in Poland. So maybe we should see animation, not faces. And I was in really nice workshops, where there were documentary-based people, and they like animation, but they want to see people, they want to see faces. They were like pushing me, come on, just try to show protagonists, try differently. They were challenging me, so I started to shoot different girls with my friend, Karla Baraniewicz, the DOP, and we did three groups of girls. I thought the best idea would be to shoot friends or sisters of similar ages. I was looking for that. I was also looking for girls who were before their first menstruation, who were maybe during this (this was the hardest), and who were a few years after. So we did it.

Did you cast them?

Yes. I even did a post on Facebook. It was more like to show other people, my friends, that I was doing this project. Sometimes it was nice because I was talking on Facebook. Facebook is from 13 years old. So, of course, the girls who wanted to talk with me, because I also did some interviews on the phone, looking for the protagonists, they were more like 16, 17, 18. They were older but they were saying some nice, interesting stuff. It was more like this project could be showing those really different aspects of this special moment in your life. But, of course, these girls which we have in our film in the end, they were the first girls we shot.

So we had this luck somehow that the first girls, even though I kept looking afterwards, the first girls were, I don’t know how to say it – brilliant. And this first scene we have in the film, it was just happening in front of our eyes, and we were amazed with Kachna (the DOP). I just wanted to talk with them. And this boy just came!

This first scene, where he asks, ‘What are you talking about?’.

Yes. We don’t see it, but it’s Zuzia’s brother, because he was a little bit jealous; he wanted to play with them as normal. But they told him, no, no, we are making a movie. Sorry, you can’t join us. So he dressed up, ninja style. And the girls were so in the movie and that we are shooting a documentary about girl stuff. They didn’t know at the start that this was Janek. This was really funny.

I think that the important thing is that you manage to connect with them. This is the key. This is why this film is also for adults. How did you win their trust and not just become a kind of ambassador for grown-ups?

I think with Jakota at first it was quite easy because I knew her. Maybe I wasn’t a really close person to her because I was closer to her mother. But of course I knew her from when she was born, and she knew me and she felt quite safe. Maybe it was also this age that she was really joyful, she really liked it when we were there with the camera, she really enjoyed it. She was excited. At the start it was quite easy, and she was very open. I didn’t push her to any subject.

How involved were the girls in the storytelling?

I was really calm and just looked very quiet. What Jakota wanted, maybe, what it can be, I was talking with her, of course, and then having an idea: OK, you have this friend and maybe we can film with her. OK, she’s coming to you for a sleepover. So, of course, there was the material, we were looking for some friends of hers, boys, girls, because she’s this girl who has a lot of friends. In the film, we see a few of them, but she’s a really social person. And she’s also a person who does a lot of stuff, sports stuff. At the start, in the script, even, she had this idea that she would make a football team, a girl football team, in her school, because at that time she was into football. She’s a person who does a lot but also changes very quickly.

How did you crystallise the issues and how did you write the script?

The script was quite challenging because a lot of people were asking me, OK, what is the goal? I was also a little bit not sure, of course, they are kids and then they become teenagers. But what does this transition mean? The subject was the two young girls, kids, changing to adults, I mean to teenagers. And the subject was what is changing in their life when they are becoming more visible as a woman? So, yes, that was the idea which I was looking for.

I was looking for the stories of Jagoda and Zuzia alone and thinking, OK, we will have their stories because they are friends, but they are not always together and they have different lives and their schools and they have different friends. They are more like those friends from the neighbourhood and they are not together all the time, they can talk about that. And, of course, those subjects sometimes were subjects which I asked them or just provoked somehow the idea that they can talk. It was good with them that they really like to talk together. They were unique in that, because even when we were shooting Jagoda with her friends from school, it was totally different. They didn’t talk so much. They didn’t complement each other. They were more childish because Jagoda is younger. But with Zuzia, you don’t feel this because she really likes that Zuzia probably challenged her somehow. So, I couldn’t imagine what they would say because they were saying so much stuff, sometimes so mature that I was really amazed myself. There were simple subjects which I just wanted to ask them about menstruation, their body changing, but I didn’t want to push them. I was really waiting for what they would say. And maybe I was provoking those subjects. But sometimes, of course, they were just talking by themselves.

What was the process of you directing them?

I was looking for situations. It could be that something could happen, Jagoda with her friends, with boys. I knew that they spent time with another girl, whom we don’t see a lot in the film. I knew that they were doing this stuff, more doing, not talking, stuff like skateboarding, going to the river, all this which we feel we all did somehow, maybe not everyone, but it’s very connected to this moment of life. And there is some freedom and some childish feeling still. And with Zuzia, I was just looking more for the places we could go and talk. I had notes, which subjects we could discuss. And I was looking for what’s going on there, what they are talking about now. Sometimes we did sleepovers, we would just meet at Zuzia’s place or Jagoda’s place. And of course, a lot of time we met in the playground. We did some walks in the neighbourhood, going for ice cream. 

In the script, sometimes the stories didn’t work out somehow, this football thing. OK, with Zuzia, I had the school, she had exams, she was overwhelmed – a lot of stuff was on her shoulders. And she’s in this nunnery school. I knew we had to do some mornings, when she’s waking very, very early with her brother. And it was more like to get the make up, the invisible makeup to go. Of course, I was interviewing them a lot also.And some interviews I also did after the whole shooting, I knew that I needed more story to be set, because at the start I thought it would be more observational. But then it came out that maybe we need more voice off. It was a kind of collage, I would say. There was this idea that she goes asking questions to adults, and we thought there would be more of that. But I wanted those questions to come from her. After, I don’t know, one year, she told me like, oh, no, this is so childish. I don’t want to do it anymore. I thought, OK, we will start to do this and make a different situation like the talk with her father. I had some questions, but what she asked him, I mean, what she said, I didn’t know, I didn’t expect. I really had this great protagonist, I knew that when I put something in their head somehow they will manage to transform it somehow.

What were you like at that same age?

Oh, I was very, very shy. I was more childish for sure. Of course, there was no social media like today. Yeah, I think I was really shy with boys, for example. And with Jagoda I love that she’s so spontaneous with all the people she meets. And with Zuzia I love that she talks about the world in a very funny way, but very wise also.That you are laughing and you’re also reflecting. They are so special.

Do you think that Jagoda and Zuzia are representative of the average Polish teenage girl?

No, no, no. I think it would be a lie if I would try to say yes. No, they aren’t. Of course, maybe they are average girls from big cities and from those good, like typical good families somehow. But maybe on the other hand they are special together, because of how they talk and what reflections they have. Sometimes 30-year-old women say, hey, come on, they are thinking like me. How come? Of course, probably they are reflecting some parents’ ideas, or they read a lot, Zuzia reads a lot. They aren’t average.

Is this why it also works for adults?

Maybe that’s why sometimes adults like to watch it because they have those ideas, and they are teenagers and you’re amazed, like, oh, my God, I’m thinking the same. They were like, maybe it’s not only for young people; maybe it can also be for adults. 

But did you feel, because it was your first film, insecure by many different opinions and many different people who said this and that?

Yes, it was like that. Actually, I’m an editor and I’ve been one for a long time, but I’d never edited a feature film before. From the start I said I want to edit this, and everyone was saying, no, it’s not professional. Don’t do this. Please don’t do this to yourself. And I was like, what are you talking about? No, I want to edit my own film at last. But then I understood it’s really hard to forget…

To have distance?

Yes, to have this distance. And of course, and now I understand it. And I got some really nice consultants. But one of my consultants was a really good editor and really well-known person. And at the start, it was really hard when we did something because we had this three-day consultation. And after all, we had like a…

… rough cut?

Yes. Of course, it was still during filming. We didn’t have the ending and other stuff. But I really needed time to understand that I want to change some stuff. Because I was like, oh, my God, he’s such a great editor.And maybe I should leave it because he said it.

But of course, it took time for me to understand I want it different, and I want to change some stuff. It was like I had to…

… follow your instinct.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

I’m sure that your relationship also evolved during the course of shooting the film and it affected also the final project, not only the shooting. Can you elaborate a bit on how your relationship evolved?

With Jakoda, it was really, really easy to just be with her. She loved the camera, and she could spend time with me and Kachna (the DOP), just walking around, doing things, and talking. But when she started to become more of a teenage girl in her eyes, I began to be more like a mother’s friend, an adult. Also, I think she started to feel insecure about the subject of menstruation. At the start, she was very open and didn’t care. For her, it was a normal subject. But then, someone at school said, ‘oh, really, you’re doing this movie, and there is this menstruation subject. So, she became influenced by others. It’s that phase when you start listening more to your friends than your parents and stop caring about what your parents say, becoming more concerned with what your friends and people your age think. 

So, I had to step back a bit and give her time. I was waiting for her to come around, and during that time, I was also more focused on Zuzia’s story. After a few months, Jakoda changed again and wanted to be more involved in the process. It was a continuous cycle. So, it was sinusoid, somehow. And, of course, I made some mistakes sometimes. For example, I asked some boys about menstruation. It wasn’t necessarily a mistake, but it turned out to be because they were so shy about the subject. One of the boys, who happened to be a close friend of Jakoda, didn’t want to be in front of the camera for half a year. I thought maybe I shouldn’t do this so quickly at the start. We needed time for him to forget about it. With boys, we relied more on observation. And they’re different, aren’t they? 

Would you say that boys, in general, approach this subject differently?

Yes, I think it’s not easy for them either. In school, they often segregate into groups, boys and girls, and talk about gender-specific topics. While segregating might help due to shyness, perhaps they should also discuss what girls go through during this time or what they feel. The same applies to girls; they should know what’s going on with boys. It’s a challenge in Poland; people often forget that it’s okay to address these subjects with boys. 

I believe this is a universal issue, not unique to Poland. How did you deal with the possibility that Jakoda and Zuzia might dislike the film in a few years or be embarrassed by it?

I was quite apprehensive about that. But on the other hand, it made me more cautious not to push them. While making a documentary, there’s a temptation to condense the subject.

It’s my first film, and it was really like stepping back and looking at them. But I felt that sometimes you may need to step back and give them space to express themselves. I believed they should be the first ones to decide how they wanted to present the film, after the shooting. We watched the film together, the three of us –me, Jakoda, and Zuzia, at Jakoda’s house. It was crucial for them to see if there was anything they didn’t want to share with their parents. I wanted them to feel that I was with them first and foremost. Of course, their parents were involved, but the focus was on the girls.

Is this the main difference when making a film for young people, that they become the primary decision-makers on the content and the final film?

In the end, they really loved everything, and we only removed one scene because Jakoda’s mother wasn’t sure about it. I understood that it might make someone feel uncomfortable, not the girls themselves, but someone they talked about in that scene.

Tell me about the animation. Did you create it yourself? Why did you incorporate these animation clips between scenes?

No, the animations were created by Monika Kuczyniecka, an animator with years of experience, specialising in clay animation. I love her work. The ideas were mine, and we had a script, but we collaborated closely, and sometimes, we made changes based on Monika’s suggestions. It was a wonderful collaboration.

The initial idea was that the animations would serve as metaphors and sometimes lighten the subject. They could also address topics that were challenging to discuss directly, like changes in the body. At times, they would convey emotions. It was more about conveying feelings than telling a story. Clay was something that I was dreaming about because it’s malleable, it’s childish work, and also has structure, like the human body. There’s a connection with the body. At the beginning, while I was making a trailer and we had a few days of shooting, I made a few suggestions for animations from the internet, just to show the feeling. I felt that it was really nice, clay added depth to the scenes and served as metaphors, nightmares, they often show us the subject of the scene before or after. It was like colour, sometimes. Editing this is sometimes quite hard… It’s like a moment from life. 

And what about the song, ‘Essa, Essa’? Was it written especially for the film?

Yes, it was, it was my dream to have a song written specifically for the film. Initially, I wanted a pop, empowering song for girls. The girls often used the word ‘Essa’ during their conversations. It became a sort of teenage word in Poland. It was interesting because when we first used it in the film, it became the teenage word of the year in Poland. It’s typical for teenagers to have such trends. Some people were concerned that we used it in the movie. However, this word was already being used by the girls themselves, especially as they transitioned into teenagehood. I think it’s associated with joy, relaxing, being cool. It’s hard to translate it into a single word. The word existed before; it wasn’t invented for the film. Basia Wrońska, a Polish songwriter and musician, crafted the lyrics based on what she heard from the girls while watching the movie. The song is also about friendship, which I adore.

Girls’ Stories has already seen success in Poland. What are your hopes for the film’s future?

I’m thrilled that the film will be available for educational projects, which makes it watchable in schools. It’s great to see it in that context. I’ve noticed that when children watch it in class, it offers a different experience compared to watching it with their parents. They become more reserved during discussions afterward. Maybe it can make a difference, encouraging them to open up.
The reactions have been varied. Some boys asked when we’d make a film for them, like a second part for boys. Some girls felt empowered by the film. In Poland, it’s not common to openly discuss such topics, especially in films. It’s a blend of conservatism and Catholicism, exacerbated by the current very right-wing government. Women’s rights are underrepresented, and young people are becoming aware of it. One girl told me she was amazed it was a Polish movie and that a boy was discussing women’s rights in it, giving her hope. Jagoda’s school may not be typical, but there are many young people who want to bring about change.

Did making this film change you?

It was quite a journey for me. When I was starting, I was really feeling insecure. That’s probably why I thought that I would make a short documentary for kids. And at the start, I thought it would be a docu-animation, because I’ve been doing animation for a few years now.

For sure, making this film has changed me. I feel more confident that I’m capable of making films now, more secure to create documentary films. I hope it was not just this one. It’s a growing experience, I feel more sure of my ideas. I feel more like a filmmaker.

I’m sure you’ll go on to make more great films. You are a great storyteller.

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