Interview with Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek, directors of My Friend the Polish Girl: “There is always an imbalance of power… especially in closer relationships”
We sat down with Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek, the directors of My Friend the Polish Girl, which we first saw at EIFF 2018 and which is on release from the 19th July, to chat about their stellar debut. Read on for our full conversation, and check out our review in two days time.
1. Where did the idea for My Friend the Polish Girl come from?
Ewa: It’s hard to say where ideas come from. I guess we’ve always done mostly female-centred films, even before we worked together, and this project was the same. We were interested in the power dynamics that go on between two characters, because there is always an imbalance of power -even in closer relationships – maybe especially in closer relationships. The relationship between actor and director, or subject and director in a documentary will also innately contain these themes and it was something we wanted to explore because, of course, it’s a world that we know.
Mateusz: My Friend the Polish Girl is a completely scripted fiction film made by us, but watches as a first-time documentary film made by one of the main female characters. We jokingly pitched it to friends as Alan Partridge meets Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Since we’ve made documentary films in the past, we were quite aware of the inevitable manipulation that goes into them. There’s also often a lot of pretend befriending involved to get close to your subject, and that’s something we always felt uncomfortable with. But it’s not that we necessarily wanted to critique documentarians, but more the perceived “nobleness” of an artist. If anything, the film is a critique of ourselves.
2. How did you find and choose Emma Friedman-Cohen and Aneta Piotrowska?
E: There were both actresses we knew and felt would be right for these parts. Not because they were particularly like the characters we had in mind but more because they could pull off a certain kind of naturalism we felt was necessary for this film.
M: We proposed it to both of them at a synopsis stage and when they agreed to do it, we wrote the screenplay for them. Most of the other actors we knew from before as well but they came on board later.
3. The very conceit of My Friend the Polish Girl relies on the final product having to feel somewhat obnoxious and unlikeable. Is that something that worries/worried you?
E: A hilarious question and possibly a rude one! It was definitely not our intention to make an obnoxious or unlikeable film… We find that the character of Katie sometimes acts obnoxiously as a filmmaker and it’s her film we’re watching. So, if this was a real documentary, yes, it would be unlikeable but as a fiction film, “provocative” is perhaps the word that comes to mind. Although we’re not provoking for provocation’s sake.
M: We feel that art, and this is what we at least attempt to make, is meant to take you to a place where you experience something new and original. These places can sometimes be out of one’s “Netflixy” comfort zone… Hence, we believe art by its very nature provokes. But let’s not sell My Friend the Polish Girl as a provocatively obnoxious and unlikeable film – there are a few laughs in there as well! (laughs).
4. How do you tread the fine line between making it clear the documentary is fake (a la Man Bites Dog) but making it real enough to be a believable critique? I know of at least one person who was under the impression that My Friend the Polish Girl was for real.
E: We never try to present the film as a documentary and I think it’s very rare, except at perhaps film festivals, that people go and see a film without knowing what genre it is. So, despite the film coming across as extremely realistic, we hope that nobody will think it’s an actual documentary. Having said that, we’ve often presented the film on stage as a fiction with one of our lead actresses present and despite this, some audience members can’t really wrap their head around the fact that the events in our film didn’t actually happen.
M: There is a morally dubious trend at the moment of mixing fiction and documentaries and calling them “docu-hybrids”. We’ve done a whole public lecture about how we think this is, for the most part, wrong.
5. On those lines, how do you make a piece of work feel like ‘real life’, and how do you direct actors in a ‘documentary’ simulation as opposed to how you would direct them in a straight fiction piece?
E: We put an enormous amount of work into understanding why a film truly feels like a documentary. As much as we really admire Man Bites Dog and The Office we really didn’t want that wink to the audience. We watched a lot of documentaries trying to discern what made them real. Apart from the obvious visual aspect of documentary filmmaking, there is also for example sound. All our sound was recorded properly but we intentionally distorted some of it in post. The script was also written in such a way to resemble the episodic nature of many fly-on-the wall documentaries.
M: There are a lot of acting conventions in say the “traditional” fiction genre, small things like for example an actor always looking intently at the other person talking. In real life, we observe that people behave differently as they often look away, even if they’re engaged. The same goes for actors’ tendency to punctuate the end of a scene by for example sitting down, or putting their glass down or looking out the window. This comes instinctually and makes for good action but we really encouraged the actors to not do that as it seems to us that when observing life, real people don’t do that. The whole process was quite counter-intuitive for the actors, the cinematographer, and for us. We really had to unlearn a lot of things for this project.
6. Are the stylistic flourishes in the film yours or Katie’s?
M: They’re Katie’s.
E: We were very much inspired by young female artist bloggers, especially American ones and their desperate need for attention using any visual form to get it. So, Katie’s eclectic use of black and white, colour. text, animation, and emojis felt very much in line with how she would express herself.
7. Do you think documentaries featuring the documentarian inevitably become self-aggrandizing portraits of the artist as opposed to the subject?
E: Not necessarily.
M: But they sure have a tendency to go there. Choosing to put yourself in front of the camera is a very actorly thing to do. On the other hand, it could also be the more honest thing to do.
8. Do you think Katie is a bad person? What do you think was her biggest mistake?
M: We’re really interested in exploring character’s darker sides but we don’t necessarily approach them as bad. Most of the time when people do bad things they think they’re doing them for defensible reasons. Katie’s biggest mistake is that in the end she can’t get close to Alicja. When Alicja confides in Katie, showing her her “uglier” side, Katie is frightened and rejects her in full, later pretending like nothing’s happened. At its core, the film is about the inability to confront people’s darker sides. A bit like society today…
E: I would be careful about categorising someone as “Bad.” It seems like we live in times where things are categorised in a very black and white way, which leads to a lot of polarisation. What interests us are the nuances in a character, why someone acts in a certain way. The truth is we all have a dark side, we’re all a bit “bad”. And it is something we should probably explore rather than deny.
9. How have you found the journey from finding finance to seeking distribution on your debut film?
E: Very tough. For such a small film as this, it’s really up to yourself to get it out there. Of course, in the end, we got some financial help to finish the film but that was after the film got into an A-list festival.
M: The thing is that we’ve been involved in more traditional productions before with proper budgets plus a whole production machinery that pushed it forward. On My Friend the Polish Girl we wanted to get something quicker off the ground and not wait around for public funding. It was a bit of our little F.U. to the world of government financing – they’re not the only tastemakers. We trusted our skills, made a film with what we had at hand, and asked for a tonne of favours. We feel quite honoured to have been to prestigious film festivals where we competed side by side with films that cost a million to make. Our one cost much, much less than that…
10. How would you like audience members to feel exiting the auditorium after your film – or rather what would you like them to think?
M: The times when this film really seems to work is when people come out of the cinema and feel that I’ve been through a very visceral experience. Something more than a film. Something that’s not as contrived as your average feature. We get that over and over and it’s a particular reaction we’ve never had with our other work.
E: That they’ve seen a masterpiece! (laughs)
M: Or: Oh my God, I want to go and see it another three times!
11. Lastly, and slightly off-piste, I’m always interested in how the BBFC rates films and decides who can and cannot see a particular work. I notice My Friend the Polish Girl has been rated ’18’ – which can be quite limiting – for a scene which didn’t scan as particularly explicit. Do you have any thoughts on this matter?
M: Funny enough, we’ve previewed this film to hundreds of people all over the UK and I think it’s fair to say that nobody would think this is an 18 rating. We got the “18” not for the sparse nudity in the film but because of a 39 frame insert (that’s little over 1.5 second), which was referred to as “brief strong injury detail”. The shot in question is almost identical to one in a Wes Anderson film, which makes the rating even stranger. I’m not quite sure how subjective these things are but maybe it was someone new in the job…
E: Perhaps this is influenced by recent news stories about social media being the cause for self-harm that in themselves seem to be a reflection of how contemporary society is more over-protective. I would say that 39 frames of this seems over-protective. We don’t mind the rating that much, as we don’t think it will affect the sales of our film. We play in independent and arthouse cinemas and I don’t think those audiences look at the BBFC rating when they choose a film. And we’re in good company with Pulp Fiction, Wolf of Wall Street, Trainspotting, and American Beauty…
My Friend the Polish Girl is released in UK cinemas on July 19th.