Tuesday 19 November 2019

Experiencing synergy: An Interview with Ewa Podgórska about Diagnosis

 Ewa Podgórska

Nurtured and developed at some of the most prestigious film schools in Europe, documentary filmmaking in Poland remains a strong and ever-evolving component of the country's cinematic production. A unique city symphony, both intimate and monumental, in which the metropolis and the human psyche become indivisible, Ewa Podgórska's new film Diagnosis takes a distinctively stylised approach to the documentary form. A haunting sound design, slow zooms and some stunning overhead shots create a hypnotic, multifaceted portrait of Poland's prime cinema centre, former industrial hub and revitalisation success story, Łódź, one that might be described as an investigation into the city's subconscious.

As the title indicates, Diagnosis fuses elements of psychoanalysis with urban studies, as questions such as "If the city had parents, what would they be like?" and "If the city was a colour what would it be?" yield answers at once poetic and direct from a range of diverse interviewees, Łódź inhabitants whose insights create a deeper, more impressionistic vision of the city than one made possible by a focus on demonstrable facts. By turns moving, funny, surprising and disturbing, Diagnosis unfolds stories of caring and compromise, loss, disappointment and resilience, and clearly speaks to audiences outside of Poland, given its successful presentations at festivals in the UK, Egypt, the Netherlands, Singapore, Russia, and elsewhere. Here Podgórska discusses the approach of the film, the use of urban psychoanalysis theory, her collaboration with the crew and the protagonists, and her views on the current condition of Polish cinema. 

Alex Ramon: What was the inspiration for Diagnosis and why did you want to make a film about Łódź?

Ewa Podgórska: The idea of making Diagnosis came from my producer Małgorzata Wabińska. She wanted to do a film about the city.  During her research she found the 'urban psychoanalysis' theory. Knowing that I have a strong love/hate connection with my hometown she invited me to work on this project.

Why was it important to incorporate psychoanalysis into the film? 

The energy of a city has enormous influence on its citizens and at the same time its citizens have a great impact on the city itself. Urban psychoanalysis theory was a great starting point to explore this connection and to making the film. It was a useful tool because it allowed me to show something subtle that is difficult to translate into film language.

On the other hand, I've always wanted to explore what people experience when they "fall into themselves," for example during a tram ride. Why they are sometimes not aware of their surroundings. Why they don’t speak about it. To find the answers I had to expand the original 'urban psychoanalysis' to include my own ideas. 

You've written about documentary-makers. Did you have any particular models or inspirations in mind, in terms of other films, when making Diagnosis?

I like documentary films and I’ve seen a lot! So subconsciously I must have had some kind of inspiration, but consciously I didn’t. Although I encouraged the Director Of Photography, Marek Kozakieiwcz, to watch Atlas by Antoine d’Agata and The Sound of Insects – Record of a Mummy by Peter Liechti.

In both films, the narration is based on interior experience which is very difficult, some say even impossible, to show in documentary film. For me this makes these two outstanding films.

How did you find the people to appear in the film? What was the process like?

It was a long and hard process. I was looking for protagonists in different places like nightclubs, markets, streets, churches, etc. Members of the crew contacted me with their friends and family. We even made an announcement in the local newspaper. I spoke intimately with several hundred people - I am not exaggerating! Of course only a small group agreed to take part in the movie. Often people would withdraw just before the shooting began. It takes enormous courage to lie down on a couch in front of the camera and talk about feelings that have often never been shared with anybody beforehand. 

Yes, the participants reveal some very personal and sometimes painful things about their lives. How was the process of working with them in this very intimate and exposing way?

During the couch sessions I just listened to them. Without judgment, interruption, and, most importantly, I think, without any expectations. They knew that they could talk about everything, and that they could also be silent. I spent a lot of time with most of them before filming took place, so the actual shoot was just another meeting but with a camera present. There was just one protagonist that came to the set without knowing me. Of course, all "opening questions” like "If the city were an animal, which animal would it be?” were very useful. 

After shooting scenes on the couch, the protagonists would sometimes want to continue talking. We would speak on the phone days, sometimes weeks later and they would want to finish the stories they had begun.

What was your collaboration with the sound designer, composer, cinematographer and editors like?

I loved them and they loved me. I am deeply grateful that I could meet all these beautiful people and that we could experience this adventure together. During the process of making Diagnosis we experienced synergy. This film is something that happened between us, particular members of the crew, the protagonists and me. The DOP, editors, sound designer and composer are all are very talented, my role was to stimulate them and then stream their creativity. I am especially grateful to Marek Kozakiewicz, who helped me in many different ways. 

What has the reaction to the film been like so far, and how was it to screen the film for a Łódź audience at Transatlantyk Festival in July? 

I'm very happy because Diagnosis is communicating with foreign audiences. I remember one screening in Amsterdam, during which the audience was so focused and glued to the screen that nobody even coughed. It was amazing!

To make Diagnosis more universal we decided not to translate Łódź - the name of the city - in the subtitles. It’s just 'The City'. And what makes me happy is that nobody is interested which city is it. Viewers treat it as a symbol of the mental state of contemporary townspeople.

Of course screening at Transatlantyk Festival was special. It was the Łódź film premiere. I was very stressed about how citizens would react. But it was good. It is not an objective film about the city and they understood that. Much of the so-called "lodzermensch” identified with Diagnosis. That’s our success.

How was your experience of studying at Łódź Film School? What were the most important aspects of the training there for you?

Schools are very important. The Film School in Łódź is excellent. But my main teacher is life. I learned my craft mostly on film sets after school. 

Following a rather controversial edition of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, do you think that now is a good moment for Polish cinema? Are there some new directors whose work you particularly admire?

Polish cinema has never been in such a good position historically. It's hard to find an important international film festival without Polish films. It is a wonderful time for new directors with a fresh approach to the cinema. I hope that the people who are responsible for Polish culture understand this. There are a lot of new Polish directors, which I admire: Agnieszka Smoczyńska, Paweł Ziemilski, Jagoda Szelc and many more. 

What is your next project? Would you be interested in making a similar documentary about another city, or was Diagnosis a "one off" project of this kind for you? 

Diagnosis is a universal project and I don't need to do another film like that in a different city. However, if there was an interesting proposition for a town situated, for example, near the ocean…

I am already working on my next film. I hope it will be a surprise. 

Diagnosis screens this month at the Człowiek w Zagrożeniu (19-23 November) and Cinergia: European Cinema Forum (22-30 November) festivals in Łódź, and at HumanDOC festival in Warsaw (22-24 November).