About Life in spite of Death

23. 5. 2014

Author: Filip Šebek

Visually refined Polish documentary Joanna with the music by Oscar-winning composer Jan Kaczmarek collects one award after another at film festivals throughout Europe. This extremely powerful film about life in the shadow of impending death, will be on display as a part of the Documentary Mondays programme in Světozor Cinema on May 26 from 20:45 under the patronage of Institute of Documentary Film.
The film, whose production was crowdfunded on a Polish server within three weeks by almost 500 people, will be introduced in Prague by its director, Aneta Kopacz, who will also answer the audience's questions in a debate after the projection. This is how she answered mine in our brief interview:

How did you find out about Joanna? Was it through her blog "Chustka"?
I was recently a new mum, actually almost did not leave the house. I fed, I was responsible for my little daughter, and the radio, the press, the internet was my only window to the world. I came across an article about Joanna, and then her blog. It completely consumed me. I was absolutely delighted with her writing style and way of looking at life and the world. She reached the point, in one remarkable, slightly ironic sentence she could capture everything. I was fascinated.

Why did you decide to make a documentary about Joanna?
Because she was unusual. Beautiful, intelligent, wise, with an interesting point of view. Because she loved life and she could touch it, derive from the ordinary everyday life and relationships with other people. For me there is nothing more precious. I am very much interested in such people and such films.

What was your first meeting with her like? Did she and her husband agree with the shooting from the beginning?
I went to the Bookseller Club, where a radio reportage about Joanna was going to be presented. I knew she would be a special guest there. During the reportage emission, when her son's voice appeared, Joanna couldn't control her emotions and left. After a while I went for her. Barely visible, she was standing back to me in a dark, empty room. A thought came to my mind that she is very petite. I walked over to her and introduced myself. For a moment we just looked at each other in silence and tears came to our eyes. I felt the incredible mutual intimacy then, like we knew each other for ever. I told her that I wanted to make a film about her, she looked at me and said: -„No, that would be too interfered with my privacy”. Then I learned that she had proposals from well-known film directors, and she refused to all of them. I asked her for just a minute to express how I would like to keep her story in the image. After she said: -"Wait for me until this meeting is over". Two days later we had the first shooting day... In my conversation with her husband he said that if Joanna wants the movie, he does not mind. All that makes her happy is also his happiness.

Which was, for you personally, the strongest moment durring the shooting?
There were many such moments very thrilling during the filming, I do not know if I could select just one. But always the Joanna's sense of humor, her joy of life neutralized these great emotions. To the last shooting day I hoped that some miracle would happen and Joanna would beat the disease. She was so much full of energy, full of life, that I could not believe it that she's dying. I never see her in this way throughout the whole process of filmmaking. Until one day...
It happened off camera. One September evening, Joanna with Janek and and her husband Peter visited me and my family at our home. Immediately she wanted to see our little daughter, who was asleep. Silently we went to the child's room. Joanna took my baby in her arms and tenderly hugged her. She smelled Olena for a while and then tears appeared in her eyes. After we strolled in the garden. Joanna walked slowly, holding her hip. Suddenly she said to me: - "This is the end, I feel it. Today Janek woke up in the night screaming and came running to our bed. He probably already knows”. It was the first time I thought she was dying and our last meeting. Joanna left a month later.

You graduated from Psychology Department of Warsaw University, did it help you somehow to gain better approach to Joanna and understand her feelings on a deeper level?
Undoubtedly, psychological studies help in understanding people, their feelings and behavior in general. However, I think that the studies themselves are not enough. What is needed is more empathy, that allows you to feel deeper the other person even without the need for words.
The ability and willingness to have close and honest relationship with people is also very important.

How much time did you spend with your characters before you started filming them? It looks from their point of view, as if your camera was invisible...
We had to start immediately, before we get to know each other. In this case time was uncompromising and running so fast. It was an unusual method of creating a documentary, but I had to face it, had no choice. The most important in any relationship with another human being, regardless of the circumstances, is trust. However, it takes time, time that I didn't have before the shooting. I tried much to gain the trust of Joanna, I spent time with her privately outside the film, telling about myself, we were sharing our views, observations, discussed for hours. We were kind of similar to each other: in the same age, with a similar sense of humor, similar way of perceiving the world, loving life in the simplest things of its manifestations, tasting life with great sensibility... It approached us and certainly helped to get closer to each other and gain confidence, which then translated into a movie, I think. Besides Joanna told me that since she learned that is sick to death all seemed to simplified. That means she needed less time to accept or reject what life gives to her. She did not need to wonder long, decisions were made faster. She felt harder and experienced more intensely. I am the same. It also probably helped us to establish a close relationship more quickly. The crew had to be invisible as much as possible. Therefore we were minimized (only 3-4 people), we often shot hiding behind the trees, behind the house, we shot through a window, a mirror, a reflection... We used long lenses to reduce the distance and achieve the feeling of closeness and intimacy. We did not want to destroy intimacy and privacy of the family in the time spent together. We had to behave with extraordinary sensitivity and discretion. Day after day we all became more and more friends, and my protagonists familiarized themselves with the crew and the camera so that they behaved normally.

Your film is really beautifully done in a very poetic way - including the great camera work by Lukasz Źal and music by awarded Jan A. P. Kaczmarek. How did you convince them to participate in the film?
I knew Jan A.P. Kaczmarek before, so I called him and asked for a meeting. It was right at the beginning of filmmaking. I edited an excerpt of what I already had and I gave him, he was just in Warsaw. I am very keen on his music sensitivity, but I was not sure if the artist of this format would agree to participate in a low-budget project. After a week, John called and recorded me on the box, that he is in. I was more than happy... :) I did not know Łukasz before in person. My teacher Jacek Bławut recommended him to me. I was looking for a cinematographer for a relatively long time. First shooting was done by my friend. We had to start immediately and she was just available. Two cinematographers, who I asked refused, saying they did not want to do a movie about cancer. It did not help my explanation, it will not be a film about cancer and death, but about life. They didn't believe it is possible in this case. Very quickly it became clear that Łukasz understands what the movie is about and how I want it to look like. I had no doubt, and during the the whole process of shooting I comforted in the belief that Łukasz is the perfect choice. I was so lucky.

In your film I admire the very sensitive approach to your characters. How difficult was it for you to balance between filming the sad story and at the same time avoid the "cheap sentiment"?
I filmed a special family in a specific time for them, not wondering if this is maudlin or sentimental. Besides at that time I did not know what will be the end of the story. The Joanna's death really has shaped the film. Then it became clear that the camera recorded the last time together of this family. It was very obliging, giving a different tone.
Many played out during the editing process. I tried so much to avoid telling the tearful story. Joanna was not like that, and the time that I spent with them also was not like that. During editing the biggest difficulty was to extract these emotions that I experienced during the filming. I wanted the film to be moving and emotional but not maudlin or sentimental. I wanted it to be about life, somehow about life of each of us. I wanted to provoke reflections on fundamental topics. So I knew that the film can not lie, smooth, tantalize sentimentality... Must be faithful to what I have observed - especially in the emotional layer. The drama of Joanna and her family is so obvious, there is no reason to shout about it.

I have read that Joanna is the first Polish documentary that was completely financed by crowfunding. Did you make some promotion for it or did all the 442 people find your project and send money to it on their own?
Yes, the promotion was very important, the more that the crowdfunding portal has just started. People had to learn of its existence and about the fact that we collect money for the film. The promotion department of Wajda Studio was looking for ways to promote the film, created and sent promotional materials, I gave interviews in the media. It helped a lot. Joanna was pretty popular in Poland, especially on the Internet, due to her blog. It was also important. People wanted a movie about her very much. So as soon as they found out about the initiative of collecting money, we didn't have to persuade them to help. The needed amount of money we collected in just three weeks, even though the expected time was two months.

Your film was awarded in Leipzig, Warsaw and recently also in Kiev and Creteil. It must be a great satisfaction for all your crew, but also for Piotr and little Janek. Are you still in contact with them? How did they like the film and did Joanna have a chance to see some parts of it?
Yes, also in Brive, lately. There are many awards to this date, including several audience awards, which I appreciate a lot. We're very happy with the reception of the film and - frankly speaking - we did not expect it to be so much special. Every time I present the movie I feel like it is for the first time. I experience each screening with huge emotions and I like talking to the audience about their perception. Peter saw the movie and his reaction was great. He thanked me for showing the three of them in such a noble manner. He also said that the film gave him new strength to live. I was more than happy hearing that... Janek has not seen the film, I believe he is too little for these emotions, he just lost his mom... Joanna passed away in October 2012 and the film was finally done in May 2013, therefore she could not see it. However, she could see almost all the shots from the film in earlier rough cuts. I presented Joanna the results of our work. It was one of the ways to build her confidence in me. I wanted her to be sure that I'm not going to hurt her and that the movie is being done in a way that I promised at the beginning.

One of the first awards given to your film was Silver Eye Award in Jihlava. How did this award help your film?
It is difficult for me to clearly answer this question. I suspect that this award somehow affects the acceptance of the movie for the important festivals. I guess. For me personally, this award means a lot. Especially that the jury were excellent people, great connoisseur of cinema, such as Tue Steen Muller or Hanka Kastelicova. After the announcement of the jury verdict, they wrote to Wajda Studio what they thought of the film, very openly and honestly. There were so wonderful and unusual words, I will never forget.

What would you like the audience to "take" from your movie?
I wish everyone took from the movie what she/he currently needs most. However, if I would somehow generalize, I would like this movie to show what is the essence of things in life. And that we are not eternal, our clock strikes just as quickly as the Joanna's clock. We differ only by the fact that she knew, and we are not aware of it.

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