21 ✕ Questions to the Polish director Piotr Stasik on his EFA-nominated feature-length documentary film 21 ✕ New York
- What is your favourite interview question?
I don’t have such a question.
- Why New York? What does it mean to you? Why 21?
I chose New York because it’s like a laboratory of the future, of how our life will look like in the future. I thought it’s a city where you can feel free and where you can make your dreams come true. This is one of the myths of this city that attracts people who are outsiders, who look for something more. In New York, these people seek home and others that are similar to them. A whole world comes to this place – to live, work, express themselves creatively. It is the capital of the world.
The number 21 occurs in the film a few times. We’ve got 21 characters – people I met in the NYC Subway. The age of the main protagonist is 21 – as is the century we live in.
I chose 21 characters because it’s a number of people that offers a chance to show a cross-section of a society. I’m a sociologist by education. In the beginning, this film was more of a scientific research, participatory observation.
- You refer to yourself as "a harmless vampire documentalist". How did you choose your interview subjects?
Vampire – because we documentary filmmakers suck in other people’s emotions and stories like blood. We thrive on them and create our films with them. Harmless – because when we do it right, we act ethically, we do not harm our protagonists – on the contrary. Often, their participation in the film is for them a moment of joint creation, and watching themselves on the screen can be an opportunity for self-analysis, to find something about themselves, even therapy.
My research included collecting different stories. These were not interviews; rather, more like conversations where the topic came out naturally. I told them my story, and then asked them about the most important things and events in their lives. The most common topics were relationships, loneliness and being lost, confused. They came up in almost all conversations. Of course, I somehow asked for it too by intuitively choosing such protagonists and by taking the conversations in certain directions. However, to what extent I interfered and to what extent it was a reflection of a real situation – this I wouldn’t know. Loneliness is the disease not only of big cities but also of our times. Comfort and prosperity, combined with the abundance of stimuli and possibilities, create a situation where we either meticulously direct and stage our life, making it predictable and, eventually, boring, or, on the other hand, we spread ourselves thin, we can’t focus on anything, we cannot work for a longer period of time on ourselves, on relations with other people. One of my female protagonists told me that there’s no use working on the relationship with her boyfriend when new, more attractive men are already lining up just behind the corner, or in an app. In the more extreme situations, people check their tinder in bed, when having sex. Maybe it’s just how our brain functions. When we achieve something, we get used to it and we want something else. Sebastian, a newcomer in New York like myself, observes what’s going on and talks about what is at the end of this spiral. He is my alter ego.
- How does it feel to be inside the heads of your characters?
I wanted the viewers to feel as if they could, or that they did, enter my characters’ minds for a while. Hence, the form. It’s like becoming a God for a moment – to know the thoughts of people passed by in the subway.
- Did you have a clear idea of what the film would look like before filming?
It was like an experiment, like anthropological research with a camera. I go underground like an anthropologist, like Bronislaw Malinowski on Trobriand Islands but, instead of in a notebook, I make my notes in the camera. Sometimes, I felt as if I were making a new version of “The Sexual Lives of Savages”. I didn’t know how the film would end but I knew its structure and form from the beginning. I had a script, with probable dialogues even.
- Which photographers inspire you?
I look at photographs of many authors – mostly Cartier-Bresson or Michael Ackerman. I’m addicted to browsing through photography albums in bookstores. It was with photography that I started my adventure with image and film when, as a 15-year-old boy, I photographed kitschy compositions with metal junk.
- What did your instinct help you to do while you were shooting? My instinct helps me to choose potential protagonists for my film from thousands of people I pass by. Instinct combined with experience helps me to decide where to put the camera, when to press the record button, what to ask, how to shake reality in order for something interesting to happen right in front of the lens. My master, Marcel Łoziński, says that reality is like an aquarium – the fish swim lazily and only at scarce moments does something happen. So as to make that ‘something’ happen exactly when we want it, we need to interfere somehow. That’s what documentary directing is about. With small gestures, energy, or just using body language, we can stimulate the characters to open themselves, to take actions.
- Tell me of “magical” moments.
When one of my characters introduced himself with the words, “I am you”. I got shivers down my spine. Also, I often feel very moved during editing, and I can only hope that my viewers would feel moved as well. That is why it is so important for me to achieve a certain level of focus. One of such methods is the rite of passage that allows you to transcend your own self. In the case of this film it was total exhaustion. This allowed me to immerse in the city, melt into it and become one with it. Recording the footage felt like swimming, or like a long, day-and-night dance with the inhabitants of New York.
- The camera work in combination with the sound/music creates a certain feeling in the viewer; it keeps them captivated while witnessing from up close life through the subjects. Tell us about your method of cinematography.
I wanted the viewer to be like in a state of trance, to contemplate the world, to travel into the thoughts and lives of other people. We switch from one character to the other as if we were changing channels on TV. On the surface, nothing connects the protagonists apart from the place. I recorded the film with an unscrewed lens. By doing that, I stained the immaculate clarity of the digital image. It became more emotional, more subjective. The camera set I put together is very small and relatively quick and easy to use. Thanks to this, it does not feel intrusive during conversations, during my ‘dancing’. I don’t have to be only a filmmaker, I become the participant of events without harming the quality of the recording.
10. Why do you do documentaries?
It is to me a way of looking for the answer how to live and what to live for. A way of living in a more curious and more emotional way. The camera gives me a chance to visit places and ask questions I normally wouldn’t, out of lack of courage.
- Do you “flirt” with fiction?
Of course. One of my characters is almost completely invented. I won’t tell which one. The world changes; our sensitivity changes with it. The film language has to change too. We look for new tricks but the truth is we’ve been telling the same tales for thousands of years. We need to surprise our audience with new things that make them forget about reality but at the same time allow them to feel it’s about them.
- Do you have an obsession?
My obsession is the constant fight for time. Not wasting it on useless, petty issues like checking news on the Internet. Our lives are more and more dependent on some kind of a logarithm. After all, Facebook’s aim is not to nurture our friendships, or love, at all. These social media guys sit there and think how to make us buy their tricks.
Big money and most talented people work now on how to suck in the biggest amount of people for the longest period of time and make us addicted to “using”. We – and our kids, too – are helpless and bound to be defeated.
- What do you have against conventions?
Conventions enable us to make decisions faster, but at the same time they work as internal shackles. Imprinted within us, they don’t allow us to see our real needs, to live in the truth and in agreement with ourselves.
- What do all your films have in common?
My films are a constant journey and contemplation of the world. It’s a geographic journey as well as an inward journey into human existence – into the mind and, hopefully, into the soul.
- What do you mean when you say “we live in a bubble”?
Did I say that? Maybe I meant the Internet. We move part of our consciousness into the Internet, into a virtual world, believing it’s real. We don’t have to remember many things, because we can check them instantly, we don’t have time to meet with our real friends but at the same time we maintain superficial relations with 200 or even 1000 friends on Facebook.
- Did having a family change your attitude towards your art? Life?
I don’t understand the question.
- Why do you say that we have no clue about what is going on around us?
The Internet changes our everyday behaviour; it influences our relations; it seduces us, making us addicted. We don’t know what its influence on our lives will be in the long run – on our emotions, selection of partners – ultimately, on our souls.
- How can someone be happy?
Happiness is an overrated and abused term. Everybody wants to be happy on a daily basis. This is impossible. This compulsive aim to be happy directs the attention towards us; it’s the basis for everything else.
However, as imperfect creatures, we are bound to suffer, to feel discontent; we are destined to build imperfect institutions and countries; our body switches off the older we become. Only if we accept this, can we reach an agreement with ourselves and achieve balance – maybe this is the state we should call happiness?
- What makes you happy?
In general, giving to others. I experience that especially when I teach. This is all about giving your energy to other people, who then disappear from your sight and then suddenly sometime someday you hear that you’ve changed someone’s life.
- Tell us about the project you work on now in Poland?
An opera about Poland. It’s a combination of a documentary film and contemporary opera. The libretto consists mainly of small ads from local newspapers and Internet blogs. It’s an attempt to describe the spiritual state of Poles, the release of some behaviours and habits that are related to choices we make in our private and public lives. I thought I was making a film about Poland, but at foreign screenings people say that it’s also a story about their own emotions towards their countries – something between being pissed off and being sentimental.
- Where will you put the EFA award?
I don’t believe I’ll get it.