Polish producer Maciej Kubicki and his Telemark company have carved out a unique space within the observational tradition of the country’s documentary industry. As both a producer for non-fiction and episodic narrative, Kubicki’s name has been attached to some of the country’s most successful festival-run documentaries. Utilizing a particular affection for the cinematic form, a deep understanding of Poland’s cinematic legacy, combined with open and overt stylistic and genre elements, his frequently interwoven documentary narratives have featured everywhere from Ji.hlava to Locarno to Krakow and beyond. As both an Ex Oriente Film and East Doc Platform alumnus and tutor, we spoke with Maciej Kubicki on this unique approach to production, as well as the current state of Polish (and CEE) documentary.
What sort of activities do you have going on right now? The last project of yours I am familiar with was Kubrick by Kubrick which you co-produced. Before that, it was the documentary I enjoyed very much, The Wind: A Documentary Thriller. But what about current activities?
I'm producing a unique piece on young pianists taking part in a Chopin piano competition, which takes place right now in Warsaw. It takes place every five years, and the best young pianists usually take part. It is a prestigious event, covered by all the world's media, and it lasts around three weeks. Out of those three weeks, we follow the final bunch of young pianists. This competition sets up their career for the rest of their lives.
The film is unique as it's a coming of age story and, I would call it, a punk film about classical music. It's got great tension, a lot of stress, and a sense of competition, which is not so familiar in classical music, as we tend see it from a distance. We have young characters from every place in the world - Russian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Italian… so it's a multiple plot documentary. We are also trying to make a documentary series out of it, which the very talented Polish director involved will also direct. It will be his first feature documentary, but he just debuted at Sundance in the world competition with this fiction feature this year…
What was the film at Sundance?
Prime Time by Jakub Piatek. We made his mid-length documentary, One Man Show, some years ago. That film was released at DOK Leipzig, and now we are back with his feature-length documentary.
You and your company privilege this idea of creative documentary films. Can you give me your definition of "creative documentary" in relation to other criteria you would look for in a pitch, project, or co-production?
We are quite specific regarding what kind of formal approach we look for. We are usually looking for a frame that gives us a different view of the topic we are portraying. For example, as with The Wind: A Documentary Thriller, it was a genre frame. This gave us unique access to the social and environmental phenomenon of the wind.
In Over the Limit, which portrays Russian gymnastics, we go through a very powerful arena with very strong characters, as well as a fragile youngster trying to compete for Olympic Gold. So, we are trying to find different access than the most obvious when you think about certain topics or certain characteristic terms like this. The idea is to find a different approach in form and topic. We usually aim for strong cinematic values and typically try to find elements of the core Polish documentary movement. We have this tradition of observational documentaries, and we try to use that tradition to tell relevant and modern stories. It is a technique we use, but the formal approach and cinematic value are also very important. We don't just want to tell stories the way stories are always told. We want to tell them differently - important stories but also good films.
As a producer, was this approach always there, or did it evolve to this place?
It's funny, but it started from the beginning. Maybe it was a coincidence that it started this way because the first documentary I produced was Entangled by Lidia Duda, in the main competition at DOK Leipzig. It won the Krakow Film festival too. It was the story of a paedophile and his victims, told through both perspectives - through their personal experiences without showing them together. It went through a stream of consciousness from both, interwoven within one narrative. From the beginning, it was very formal. But this formality gave you a different approach to the topic. Somehow, it just happened that we started with this kind of film and decided that we wanted to tell stories on our terms.
You are also producing for television more episodic content. How does your approach to production compare when you are looking at a nonfiction project vs, a serial television project? Are their similar kinds of criteria you look for in a TV project?
It's more than an approach, but it is an experience. These are two different worlds, usually at the same time for me. I produce mainly for platforms, so I produce episodic narratives at the same time as the documentaries. You need a switch to be able to go from one to another.
At the same time, it is very invigorating for me. You have a certain experience on one that you can use on the other. With episodic TV, you can implement things like creating dramaturgy and what kind of formal tools to use to tell the story. So, in my head, these two worlds support each other. I benefit by staying in two places at one time, making me a better partner with the filmmakers. Filmmaking is a partnership, so stronger relations make stronger films. It is important to stay fresh and creative in this relation, and working in both fields helps a lot.
What aspects of the role of documentary producer have evolved for you from Entangled (2012) to this point? There must be some places where a particular element of your approach has changed based on experience…
If you are active and don't produce a lot, but still regularly, it's the kind of activity that inevitably makes you stronger with each experience. The timeframes helps you understand some things better and be more efficient in relation to other filmmakers who are in the process with you. Those years of experience are just good for you because you are probably finding solutions sooner than before.
Another thing, and from a different perspective, I feel like I am part of a documentary community. This means you have an obligation to tell meaningful, relevant stories uniquely. When I started, I just wanted to produce films, which is fine, but you also have this obligation to produce something bigger with documentary. You need to be responsible when you tackle certain topics in a certain way. I would say it is a different consciousness that I have now than before. From that point of view, I am in a different position. I wouldn't call it stronger, but different - with a different mental approach to what I try to make.
Going back to your studies or your early aspirations to be involved in the film world, were you always drawn to being a producer? Did you ever have visions of being a screenwriter or director?
I was quite naive at the beginning. I was just really thrilled by watching films, and I wanted to be close to the industry. My career went in a very unexpected way. I worked at the National Film Archive for years, so I have a very different insight into the topic of Polish cinema. Then I collaborated with Polish broadcasters and was hired by one of the companies to help them on a production. I figured out soon that I was quite good at it. So, it was somehow by coincidence but, of course, rooted in a strong affection for cinema.
I was also particularly affected by documentary filmmaking. At that time, documentary was more affordable, and I could be more independent working on a documentary project because they were not so money-obsessed. It was a nice coincidence that changed my line of life, that I started working on documentaries.
What are some of the challenges that a Polish producer, or one from Central and Eastern Europe, encounters in building an international interest in your films?
It is quite important question. It has many layers. As I'm a Polish producer, we don't have a substantial problem with funding, for example. We have the Polish Film Institute, which heavily supports our docs, and we have many experts who are part of our community and part of the decision-makers of the country. The Polish Film Institute changed the landscape here as we have much more resources.
Of course, one of the main problems is how to be universal with local topics. We need to know how to be universal and entertaining to audiences abroad, especially those in Western Europe or the USA. Europe's not a big task for us as we are quite accessible in the different continental territories. Polish documentaries also have a high reputation. But when you refer to English speaking territories, it is totally different. The language barrier divides us in a very harsh way. If you don't have your film in English, you're somehow out of that market. Of course, you can be present on the festival circuit, which is important to all of us, but your audience platform is very niche. To be present in these markets, you need to make your film in English, which is quite challenging.
There is also a mental block of festivals that are not so friendly toward Central European films, which probably is more a PR issue, where work is still to be done. Quality-wise, we feel firm. Also, how we tackle important contemporary issues, we don't feel apprehensive about that either. Of course, the only way to solve all this is to make more films and promote those films in different places and ways. We need to make more contacts with those people to try and give us a chance.
Do you notice certain thematic trends when Polish films are curated in international events? Are there certain expectations from Polish cinemas that international audiences are simply expecting or, perhaps, are more lucrative than others?
We have all very distinctive personalities in Polish documentaries with different styles and approaches. There is a common core, which is observational, which may be a blessing and a curse. When you think about a Polish documentary, you will think about observational. It is obvious it will be a deep observation. Usually, it's good, but it places you in something of a trap. It could be boring. Its dramaturgy may not be driven as well as from other parts of Europe. From our perspective, it is a good thing, but it could be difficult to approach for those who have already seen films of this kind. My producer strategy is to find a different approach each time. So Over the Limit is completely different from The Wind in terms of approach. The piano film I am making now is totally different too. It is important not to be predictable in the way we tell our stories. If we are, then our style should always be different. But that is from our perspective. From an abroad perspective, they could easily say it's just another Polish observational documentary…
What are some films, and who are some filmmakers from Polish cinema who are particularly important examples of this observational approach in Poland?
I would say The Balcony Movie by Paweł Łoziński which won at Locarno. It was made during the pandemic from the director's balcony. The camera observes people passing by his balcony, and it still is a fantastic film. It was produced by Pawel himself and HBO Europe. It is a really excellent film and is exemplary of this style. It's just the director talking to people passing by the balcony. You would think it could boring, but it is fantastic. It will also screen at IDFA Best of Fests.
The interview is part of series of talks with European documentary filmmakers marking 20 years of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague
Cover photo © gildiaproducentow.pl