One of three Polish films nominated in categories at this year’s upcoming Oscars (the others are Tomasz Śliwiński's Our Curse and – of course! – Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida), Aneta Kopacz’s Joanna is about as delicate and as discreet as documentaries come. What’s remarkable about the movie is that this delicacy and discretion is achieved in spite of the film’s charged and emotive subject matter, which is nothing less than the premature ending of a life.
Joanna Sałyga was a 30-something wife and mother diagnosed with cancer, who documented her experiences in blog posts (and, later, a book) that took the form of addresses to her 5-year-old son, Janek. Those unfamiliar with Joanna’s story won’t find it neatly summarised in the documentary, though. Rather, Kopacz’s film approaches its subject more obliquely, eschewing introductions or explanatory information to gently deposit us instead within the day-to-day domestic routines of its protagonists. As we see Joanna and her family on woodland walks, engaged in cooking, or playing with Lego, a sense of everyday normalcy is established. This makes the gradual realisation of what Joanna is going through - which we’re first tipped off to in fleeting references to pain and medication and then a brief glimpse of an Oncology and Chemotherapy ward - all the more devastating.
The movie features a number of intimate scenes between Joanna and her husband Piotr; one of these starts out wryly (with Joanna suggesting that she hold an audition for Piotr’s next wife on her blog) before turning wrenching, an example of Kopacz’s sensitivity and rigour in modulating the movie’s challenging shifts of tone. However, the film’s primary focus is on Joanna’s relationship with Janek, an open-hearted mother/son bond that’s characterised in equal parts by easy-going playfulness, sharp challenge and tenderness. As Joanna reads Janek her writings, which take the form of observations and advice, the viewer might be reminded of Bruce Joel Rubin’s underrated My Life (1993), in which Michael Keaton played a dying father recording video messages for his as-yet-unborn son.
Yet Kopacz’s film goes deeper than Rubin’s managed, ultimately. Ever so gently, her movie gestures towards larger existential questions, not only of life and death, but also of identity and understanding. It opens, after all, with Janek responding to his mother’s enquiry “Why would you like me to write about you?” with the rejoinder “Because I want to know what I’m like.” (To which Joanna’s characteristically questioning response is: “If I describe you, will you then know what you’re like?”). How we know others and how we experience the world are concerns of the movie, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent film that’s conveyed with more perspicacity what a child intuits and what remains beyond the scope of his comprehension. Curious and a bit precocious, Janek’s questions to his mother veer from the delightfully surreal (“Can little Dalmatians drink milk from a cow?” he wonders at one point) to the raspingly poignant. We know that the boy is just starting the painful process of understanding his mother’s imminent passing when he asks her: “What do you dislike about our house so much that you want to move out?”
Shot by the talented Łukasz Żal (co-lenser of Ida) Joanna is attentive to atmosphere, its ambient moments, nature shots and haptic imagery sometimes enhanced by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s subtle score. Joanna’s main advice to Janek is to “pay attention” to the texture of everyday experience, to “what … you feel when you eat your favourite pizza, when you cuddle a cat, or when you just rest your head on the pillow.” The movie appears to have taken its own cues from such counsel. Quiet and watchful, "tactful" in more ways than one, the film doesn’t force things and, remarkably, it never feels like it's invading privacy, either. “I’m not making a movie about dying, I’m making a movie about life,” Kopacz has remarked. And in the 45 minutes of this modest yet profoundly resonant film she has indeed achieved precisely that.
You can watch a Q&A from Polish Filmmakers NYC: "New Voices, Ancient Echoes" screening of Joanna here.