“The System Has To Change”: An In-Depth Interview With Documentary Director Hanna Polak
Hanna Polak is a documentarian whose films have been screened the world over. It only took her two directorial efforts for her to be recognized by the Academy, as her memorable film Children of Leningradsky was nominated for Best Documentary Short in 2005. After spending some time as a director for hire, Polak is returning to the international documentary scene
Hanna Polak is a documentarian whose films have been screened the world over. It only took her two directorial efforts for her to be recognized by the Academy, as her memorable film Children of Leningradsky was nominated for Best Documentary Short in 2005.
After spending some time as a director for hire, Polak is returning to the international documentary scene with an absolutely remarkable film over 14 years in the making, Something Better To Come (you can read my review here). The film takes for its subject 8-year old Yula, who lives with her mother in the largest garbage dump in Europe, and follows her as she grows and navigates the fires and dunes of the trash heap. Polak was kind enough to take time out of her festival-touring to sit down with me over Skype.
Arlin Golden: So I’d like to start at the beginning; how did you become involved with Yula?
Hanna Polak: I was helping homeless children. I got engaged in helping the children on the streets of Moscow for many years. And just in the beginning of this, I was taken by the children from the Kievsky railway station in Moscow to the suburbs, and they were my guide. They showed me the community of people and they wanted to show me how they live, both on the streets of Moscow but also at the garbage dump. So this is how I met Yula, otherwise I wouldn’t know these people existed.
AG: So once then children brought you to Svalka, what about Yula stood out to you?
HP: I think the main thing was that we very quickly started to have a relationship. We became very close, very dear. She liked me and I would say I was very close to her. There were many children, and I had relationships with them all. But with her it began to feel like a friendship.
She enjoyed my presence, she liked me and I liked her. Of course she was outstanding for many reasons – most beautiful, very smart, had an outstanding sense of humor, very funny, very strong; it became a kind of mutual trust relationship. To this day we are very close, she expresses that I am part of her family. For example when I come to Russia, she invites me to stay in her home.
So I think its something beyond making a film, or just helping people out. Very personal, very close.
AG: That’s very touching.
HP: You know I was trying to help her, but at that time I was already helping hundreds of children at the railway stations and on the streets of Moscow. We had 5 or 6 children at the time staying in a small, two rooms apartment, that we rented next to the railway station. We tried to help many many children. Her situation perhaps was more complicated than with other children. She came to the dump with her parents. Her father died there, but she had her mom. Because she was at the garbage dump with her mom, Tania, she wouldn’t leave the dump without her. And I simply wasn’t able to help them both.
Yula, wouldn’t leave her mother behind alone. She always worried very much about Tania, who was also trying to protect Yula, because she was very beautiful and her mom felt that she was vulnerable because she was beautiful. Yula saw so much death at the garbage dump – her father died there as he contracted TB – so she always worried about her mother. They had a very special relationship where they really supported each other.
Now Tania feels very much guilty because she didn’t support her daughter and put Yula in this situation in which she suffered so much. On the other hand, Yula’s father was an alcoholic and abusive, and sent back at home, before they came to the dump they had no money and he would send Yula to get him a bottle of vodka from when she was a very small child. Not to buy, to get the money and buy or bring the vodka for him.
There was a lot of poverty and people wouldn’t even share anything in the village; they wouldn’t even give you a piece of bread. There was no food. The communism collapsed and there was no payment sometimes for some months in the province. They went to Svalka also because when people were working [at the dump] they could get paid instantly at the garbage dump recycling centers, either with vodka or a very small amount of money.
I would add that I think they are very extraordinary women. Very strong, very tight, very stubborn. [Tania] finally broke down in the garbage dump after the rape. But for many years she was positive and strong. It’s astonishing, because she had a lot of dignity. I was very impressed with her dignity.
AG: So since you brought it up I’d like to talk about Yula and her mother’s relationship. In the film it seems almost like Yula is more protective of Tania than Tania is of her daughter; they drink together, and she makes little effort to protect her from the harsh realities of the dump, even at one point coming to Yula to help her when she has been raped. I know you expressed she feels guilty about these things now, but do you have a sense about how Yula feels about how her mother was during their years at Svalka?
HP: I think that children in these situations often become stronger than the adults. Maybe they learn at a young age that they have to take care of themselves, because they can’t count on their parents. Oftentimes the relationship is broken because they have a horrible home situation with lots of abuse. In this situation Yula deeply loved her father, despite his abuse and alcoholism.
There are a lot of memories (a lot of moments when Tania talked about Yula’s father and Yula would add something about her dad) – I decided to cut them – but Tanya talked at length of how her father would be physical abusive, force Yula to get him a drink. For instance, she would send Tanya to the store for vodka – despite the fact Tania did not have the money – and he would not let Yula go with her. At this same time he would have a knife. Tania didn’t know if when she came back, she would find her daughter still alive.
I remember one time Yula told me her mother ate something poisonous and swelled up at the dump and she was absolutely frightened. Even after Yula got the apartment, her mother escaped back to the dump because she became so addicted to living there and drinking, that Yula had to go search for her in the dump and bring her back to the apartment. To this day Yula doesn’t drink. Her mother even now can return to the dump or get into two months of heavy drinking, and Yula has to get her back sober.
The roles are quite reversed, the mother becomes the child, and it was Yula who actually got the apartment. Tanya wouldn’t be able to do it. So only when Yula got at legal age and became more self-sufficient, she took care of the situation with the apartment. When it came down to documentation, she had to have some funding and just basically had to sustain herself in this town in this situation. She had to dig and take her mother to organize the documentation.
It is all a credit to Yula and what she has done, it’s quite amazing. She actually pulled other people out with her. She took her mother, she took her mother’s boyfriend – mother wouldn’t go without him – so he also lives in the apartment now with them. And then Yula’s boyfriend, Andrei also – he was at the dump because his house burned down. Yula and Andrei have been supporting each other, but she is a really big force behind all of this.
AG: She seemed to do much more complaining than Yula.
Tania loves Yula, but she hasn’t been responsible in the proper way because of vodka, and a parent would do anything in his or her life to protect the daughter from this situation. I am not judgmental of Tania, but she herself felt she didn’t perform her responsibilities the way she should. We see that she has always been there for Yula. Tania always collected things and cooked to make sure Yula had dinner. It was very strange – in their little “kibitka” (shack) – it was always very clean. Tanya was always wiping, sweeping, even in these conditions. Another scene I cut for example: someone comes to visit Yula and Tania in their shack and Tania asks “why are you throwing this [cigarette ash] on my floor, who is going to clean it?”
We can also see that Tania is the one always going around with the brush and broom, always cleaning, always cooking, so this relationship has many different levels. Maybe she didn’t have the proper perspective to see that she was putting Yula in this dangerous situation, but she and Yula are very close. For example, when Yula is washing her hair outside in the winter Tania screams at her that she’ll freeze her head, so she’s like any other parent, worrying her child will get sick.
AG: Did you initially envision the 14-year production that you eventually came to shoot?
HP: Yes…[laughs]…I didn’t think about making a 14-year film, obviously. I could not forsee how long the project would be, how the shooting would prolong. Since I didn’t only make a film, but it was also a part of my presence in those people’s lives. To go to the dump and see what’s going on, to take them to the hospital and bring them the medicine. Sometimes they would call me for help, so in this way I would be coming to the garbage dump and visiting from time to time, so in a way bringing the camera was quite natural.
At this time I was working on other projects, Lenigradsky in 2004, so working on that made it so I couldn’t finish. It was already six years, but I really was trying to close the production, and I feel that something magic stepped in. Cinema always has to have a kind of magic, and I feel it’s always nice when in the artwork you have some presence of something magical, mystical happening or something mysterious. When people ask me questions – you can see that things change over the course of time – which is amazing to me, how you can see how things can change over a lifetime. So I think this is something that I hadn’t consciously planned [but] I consciously used it in course in the editing; I was conscious of trying to build this time presence.
To tell this whole story not just about children living at the garbage dump, but about coming of age, taking life in your own hands, and coming to the point where you really make the change inside, the moment of maturity, whatever it is. That’s why I think the film is very universal in this regard.
I love this presence, magical mystical things happen in the art. Everything was going against closing the project. “it is not meant to be for you to close the project at this moment”; I tried very hard, and was bumping against the wall – things mysteriously didn’t work to complete the project, to finish the film. For instance, the editor, with whom I attempted to work, disappeared with the computer and materials for many months and when I finally got my computer back the motherboard was burnt, and things like this would happen all the time. I was of course frustrated and tried harder, but something like this would happen. And finally a friend told me “this is not the time for you to finish the film.” And I understood that I wasn’t meant to stop shooting yet.
The dump is a place that’s forbidden to be inside and especially to film – I was always there illegally. Given the conditions I gave the most I could, because it’s such a long time and the place is forbidden. There is a lot of security there with walkie-talkies walking around controlling the place, making sure there are no trespassers. So it was impossible to bring a crew, or even a tripod, to not to get noticed – so I would usually bring just a very small camera. I was hiding and running away. So the fact that for so many years I was able to shoot – I think this is a huge accomplishment.
Yula would get lost in this vast territory, and I could not get close to where the machinery is because of all the security where the most interesting things would often happen, where people would work. Yet I still managed to film these things. Sometimes they would show up from nowhere – if you’re looking through the viewfinder you don’t see what’s around you – so I was caught a number of times, because I didn’t see the guy coming. When I got caught, and when I was warned again and again, materials were destroyed and of course I was getting kicked out of there.
So there were tremendous difficulties in making this kind of film. People can beat you up, kill you, threaten you. In some places the reaction could be very brutal. So I think I was very lucky, because I managed to film and stay alive. Most of the footage that is in the film is footage I managed to film despite that it was forbidden. Even in the hospital. You had to have permissions, and you had to apply for them and I wouldn’t even get them. It would take months and months just to hear no. No one would ever give permission for the garbage dump.
I didn’t think that this project would go on for so many years when I was collecting the footage, and then it happened that Yula’s life started to change. I started to finish the film in 2010, that this is the time I wanted to finish the film, and it still took me four years to edit the film, and in the meantime new things continued to happen, so new footage was collected, and life brought this unexpected ending to the film.
I can also tell you that it was a fascinating experience for me, because in the filmmaking process, when you have material like this on your timeline in the editing system, you can see that there are so many meanings to it. It’s actually really fascinating experience to work with something like this and to be able to hear it and find these moments. And it’s incredibly difficult. You can make many many many pictures from your footage and you have to choose the right one.
In editing [a fiction film], you have a script and you film scenes, you have a structure. But in documentary you have no idea. I wrote many scripts for this film both before and after, writing and rewriting, thinking about meanings and stories of certain scenes, because they are not obvious at all. So you are always looking for the best way to edit it, to find what is the story you really want to tell, and to shape this reality in a consistent film. And sometimes you edit a story and you get some new footage or you find something in the footage later on and then this one element really changes the story, the meaning of other things, so I think for this reason the process is very exciting, addictive even.
You have to take the time, and build your protagonist over many many years. And there’s not many people you can go to for advice. There is [director of The Up Series] Michael Apted, but his films are also a little bit different. He is not filming constantly, he is returning, revisiting same people every seven years. So it is a little different. I spoke with Helena Trestikova, who also worked for many years on her films. I went through so many books and directors and detours. And music also! Music is very inspirational in the editing room.
So it’s the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on, and everyone who has worked on it said the same.
AG: Wow, so it seems like everything happened very organically and naturally, which is actually how I found your filmmaking style to be as well. Can you talk a little about your personal ethic of documentary filmmaking? Specifically on your relationship with Yula and the decision to for the most part stay out of your story; we only here your voice a couple times. But for instance later on when Yula’s grandfather attacked you.
Also you mentioned as an influence Michael Apted’s films, so I’m curious what other films may have had an influence on you.
HP: First of all I was a very good friends with Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock. I met [Maysles] in Poland and he invited me to visit him in the US. I watched in his studio all his films, and I was very much familiar with the cinéma vérité style, so I would say that I would know about the existence of this kind of cinema, which is trying to avoid being manipulative I would say, yes.
There is always some kind of influence that the filmmaker has on the materials, on the subject, but I’m just saying that it was very important for me to create in the film… I didn’t want the voice-over to kill the feeling of presence. I tried to in the beginning, but discovered we are actually taken away of the reality people are concentrating on the narration instead of experiencing. It was important for me for people to feel like they are in the garbage themselves. It shouldn’t be an artificial experience where I see some exotic footage and someone go through difficulties in life, that I observe for an hour and a half. I didn’t want it to be easy for people – they should experience reality as it is. I made a lot of conscious decisions on how I wanted to edit this film, and I think it really ascribes to the cinéma vérité style. Feeling, almost smelling, that the distance is almost invisible.
I like to be very close to the protagonist. I try to be as close as possible in the emotional sense also. For me it is important that a barrier not exist, that there is closeness for protagonist and myself.
As far as the ethic, I think it was important that for me, I generally like the people. I generally felt sorry, but not looking down at them, but understanding their truth or their situation. For me I could really see the wonderful qualities in those people; kindness, the sense of sharing, the sense of community. We very easily take the license away form the people, that they are not human anymore because they live in these conditions. But what really makes us human? Is the environment [in which] we live or is it what we keep in our hearts?
For me, that was very visibly manifested in these people. We were going to a place that is so terrible, and we meet for the people who long for normality and have the same desires, same sense of humor. One guy for instance could perhaps be a great Russian artist, a musician, if things had gone a different way. So it is very unexpected.
So I am trying to avoid forcing these kind of feelings via editing, et cetera. I want these things be very subtle – like you don’t try to fill your balloon with feelings of pity or drama. I was also trying very much to be a professional in my approach; to see reality without emphasizing the poverty. We see it, we don’t have to dwell on it, we don’t have to build on it with music or push it somehow. I think that in fact I was regretting that I sometimes asked people about the dark part of their life instead of light, because we see it already. On this dark background the beauty of people shines even brighter. This creates a great contrast, because you see people you love and you smile, you cry, not because I am pushing it, but because of the people. So it is important to stay honest and true to the people as they are, without pushing it. It may be very subtle, very gentle, so people may not even notice it, but this approach to the editing is very important to me. A lot of things are hidden, you might find new things if you watch the film a second time.
As long as we are talking about the influence: I decided not to hide my presence because I would have to make unnatural cuts. My presence is very much explained and justified in the film itself, because it’s also my journey, it’s also my Russia. The political background we are painting also has this timeline – we are trying to build time as a protagonist – so people can understand that time is moving, that Putin is elected or something else. This is important for me. [It was also] my vision of the time when I was there, this place. How this is in relationship to the rest of society. They participate very actively, it’s only a few hundred yards form civilization, which is bizarre. It’s on the edge of a huge, multi-million metropolis, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. And you have the extra rich in Moscow. It was quite amazing that this story is not going on somewhere else; it’s in Europe on the edge of the really big city with millionaires and billionaires, and all those things mattered.
I think it is very important to show these people with dignity. It’s also something that comes down in the editing; what to use, what not to use. You don’t want to hurt people, but on the other hand, there is the truth. So it is all a question of the choices and I hope that this portrait is something that is true.
Influence was coming from music, Olafur Arlands, Alexandre Desplat, a lot of different music. I loved Isaac Stern and a film that was very inspirational to me was the 1981 Oscar-winning film From Mao To Mozart, about Isaac Stern’s visit to China after the cultural revolution. I was listening to Stern’s music, but also in the film Stern talks about his artistic credo. I found it great and inspirational. He’s giving you so much creative freedom, and advice as an artist. I would wake up in the morning I had dreams with Stern’s musical performance on violin, so this was a great inspiration at some point.
Oftentimes I was completely alone in the process of the editing, or I would work with my co-editor both. Things would be born between some email exchanges or conversations. Really the editing comes in your head. It’s not a technical operation on the editing system. When you start to understand things, and connect facts, and really realize what the scene is about. Then you go beyond clichés. Because the process becomes so creative, you start to connect things with a totally different understanding, in very different ways, finding more important meanings than the one on the surface.
There is the question of “what is the story, really?” It starts at the moment of the pitch – “what is the film and what is it really about” – and the question is answered many many times during the development of the film. It’s a documentary. You have to really understand your story and it takes time to realize what the film is really about. We are talking about many things. It could be about the relationship between a mother and daughter, or something else. But I didn’t make this the main focus of the film. But really felt that this is a coming-of-age story, and not because she is physically growing up, I think her conscious decision really makes this a coming of age story. To decide to change her life, and this is really not easy. You have to talk to people with money and power.
It can be a very rich person, but if they never reach the point of maturity, they remain a child. They go to parties but they never really change in life. And this is something that amazes me. Everybody has his own garbage dump. We have our own downfalls and challenges, some moments in life when you face a difficult situation, and how do you go about it? Do you give up? Or do you have the strength to change something. So I think that this is very important.
AG: You spoke a little bit about how the film is meant to be representative of your perspective of Russia. What about this story, if anything, do you find to be uniquely Russian? What would you consider to be more universal about it?
HP: It is a very universal story and it can happen everywhere. For instance when I watch a film about a garbage dump somewhere, I may wish to get more understanding of the background of these people, more understanding of the place, the country. Thus I wanted it to really be a Russian story. To be placed in the country, because it has relevance to the socio-economic historical moment. But of course we know that this situation of homelessness, loneliness, being rejected by society, is everywhere.
People in the States feel the same. I got beautiful interviews with them, when I worked on a similar subject in North Dakota. What you find is that even if people throw you a few dollars on the street, it’s always still the loneliness, the rejection of society. These people are usually on the streets because they are more sensitive, more vulnerable than the rest of society. They cannot cope. We are talking about very sensitive people, like an artist. To become an artist you have to have this kind of vulnerability, something that makes much more exposed to this rejection. You don’t know how to elbow your way through life.
So what I found, for example, is that there are homeless people everywhere, and many give up, and many don’t know how to defend themselves. They don’t know to fight for themselves. They need protectors, people who will come and hold their hand, help them out, notice them. Oftentimes they are so caught in this cycle of loneliness. I have a man who came recently to a screening at Hot Springs who told me he was homeless, and you wouldn’t have known he was if he hadn’t admitted it, as he got back on the track. So there are just beautiful people who cannot cope with this life. They are normal, not different, but for some reason got under the surface of this kind of life.
So with Yula, it is a very universal story, but it is based in Russia and had Russian flavor. I did not want to create a political cliché about Russia and Russian problems; this film has nothing to do with that. And having Putin as a protagonist; of course it’s ironic at times, as he’s talking about prosperity in the country and children, more Russian citizens being born, while we see a child being born to a life at the dump. So juxtaposed to the scenes in the dump we will have a reaction, but these things are very subtle. But this is not a political film.
I think people everywhere are beautiful and this is what’s important. We are looking at kind, amazing characters, actually smarter than much of society. They have a wit and can comment on politics. Their experiences make them more intelligent and more brave maybe, because other people would be afraid to comment. It can be [this way] in the US too, or any country. They are afraid and paranoid that they might be talking about something they shouldn’t be talking about. But these people don’t worry about their personal safety; they are as they are. All these things are kind of contradictory to what you’d expect. But, it is Russia. It is that kind of Russian soul. Did anything stick out to you as particularly Russian?
AG: Well the thing about how Yula finally got an apartment. I think for instance here in the States, it probably wouldn’t be possible for a homeless person to go to some governmental department and present a few forms and be given an apartment.
HP: Ah, but this is not the case, perhaps I did not make that clear enough in the film.
The fact is that her father owned the apartment. This house went for demolition and they were going to be granted an apartment. But in 1999 Russia was in such havoc, there was no money and everything was postponed. And of course administrations of smaller towns didn’t have the money. So obviously she should be granted this apartment, but she wasn’t. They weren’t provided with anything..
In the beginning, they went to the grandfather, but you can see what kind of person he was, so they couldn’t stay there. So without anything else they decided to go to the garbage dump, where Yula’s father dies. There was no death certificate for the father. So Yula thought that he was the only person eligible for getting the apartment and she assumed that with no death certificate no one will even talk to her, she could not be eligible. So they never inquired, they just assumed when their father died that that was it. Who could do it? Tania? She didn’t care, she didn’t even have an ID card. She was so deep in the dump and didn’t have money. It was me who was taking them out of the garbage dump a couple times. So basically they were helpless in the situation.
I took Yula and Tania there when Yula was pregnant and I took Tania away, when she got raped.
They didn’t have mobile phones [yet]; they got some around 2006 or 2007 at the dump. This is when Yula got one, and she called a person in the town. Some years later, around 2010, this woman called her back. She had a kind of vision or dream or she was drunk, we don’t know, but she said “look, we have these documents for your apartment.” And Yula is no longer underage. She went to this town, took her mother with her. She was already self-sufficient and working outside the garbage dump. So even if she was still attached do the dump, she was naturally gravitating towards a normal life.
She talked with her boyfriend about buying a small house in the village. And then she went to visit the woman and found out she had no documents; of course, it was a lie. But since she was there she decided to go the administration of the city and they said “where have you been? We have been looking for you for so many years.” It happened, that a private investor bought this territory and gave the money to the town administration and they were giving people money to buy new apartments. So a few families [who were living in the same building as Yula’s when it was demolished] already had apartments.
In fact Yula went to the administration two months before program expired. If she had gone a couple months later, it would be all finished, no apartment. She was not able to provide the required documents [by the end of the] two months, but this administrative woman showed a lot of kindness and kept their case open for another few months, until Yula collected all required documents necessary for the apartment. She had to come with a proposal and say this is the apartment I want and they’d make it happen, and it took her time to find one which was being sold. It was an irony of fate, she could have gotten an apartment after the first baby, many years earlier.
AG: That sounds frustrating.
HP: Yes, but she’s a very amazing person. She feels that it had to be like this. “This was my fate”, she once told me. Yes, but people say it’s fate and they never do anything. Fate is one thing, but you can also change absolutely everything, because you can start working and change things.
So she feels it came in the perfect moment. When she had the first baby she was 16 ½ so she couldn’t be the owner of the apartment, it would have to be her mother and she wouldn’t have been willing to deal with it. In a way she felt maybe this would be lost anyway if her mother were dealing with it.
She’s also very practical in life. She tries not to regret things that happened already; when things happen, they happen. She’s pragmatic; “what should come from me being frustrated or having regrets, from my tears? It doesn’t change anything, so why should I place this burden on myself? My one dream is to have my child well-educated and to be the best for her, have a loving family.” So she is practical and pragmatic. “I don’t want to be rich, I am not dreaming of a palace on an island.”
My life has to have a very deep meaning, and this is very important for me, so I am looking for subjects that are truly important. What is meaningful, something I can offer to people where people can get inspiration, catharsis, understanding, direction in life. Not through mentoring but revealing is what is important for me. So for whatever I do next I have to feel that my life is meaningful so that I am serving the people who watch my films, not just waste a couple hours of life but provide something of value that inspires them and myself to become a better person.
AG: In your earlier film [Children of Leningradsky], there seemed to be sort of a loose hierarchy among the children, but in this one things seem to be more egalitarian. Was that the case and if so why do you think the reasons might be?
HP: I came to realize there were a lot of differences and that’s why I decided to start this separate project. The kids in the city had to deal with prostitution and sniffing glue, and of course there was a hierarchy. But only to a degree. So of course the older children were very strong, but they were also providing protection. They were trying to build their own equal groups, but a leader always emerges sooner or later. So there is always this kind of hierarchy going on.
At the dump it’s a different type of hierarchy; all the people are lower. Then you have the hierarchy which goes on in the collection centers, which were also illegally operated, who were controlling, beating up and exploiting people, paying them with vodka that wasn’t even vodka, it was a fake vodka, a poison really for some technical use, not drinking. So there was this kind of hierarchy. And then there was the staff at he dump who had the most to say. But for them it was convenient that the recycling center operates, so they looked the other way and allowed people to work on their territory.
So this kind of environment and set of problems the people were dealing with, and their background, was a little bit different; I didn’t want to repeat myself. I wanted the garbage dump to be the background; this is a different story. This is the story of Yula and survival and moving on. I already did Children of Leningradsky, I didn’t want to do a similar film. And the time has changed now. We see so much poverty and homelessness. So it was important for me not to make the same story, to make a very different film.
When I was talking with Yula, it was very difficult, she was very shy, didn’t want to say much. When I was talking to Tania, Yula was always listening very carefully, and you could see that she is really participating in Tania’s life, very close very emotionally connected. This love is crucial for her in life.
And now still, they live together in the apartment and Tania is helping take care of Yula’s child while Yula is out making money. Her mother is the one who cleans the apartment and cook.
I don’t know, I like them both very much, Tania is very straightforward and she always tells you what she thinks. She has a good heart and is a very good person and if you have some troubles, she worries, she is very interested in you. But if she doesn’t like something she will also tell you about it. She is a very straightforward person, in a good sense, not cruel.
AG: Here at Film Inquiry we are heavily involved in the cause of women in the industry. Recently we ran a story that noted that over 40% of documentarians are female. Why did you become a documentarian and do you have any thoughts on why this industry is more inviting to women than narrative film making?
HP: I think it’s easier. I think in documentary filmmaking it’s just an easier situation in which you can take your camera and tell your own story. Fiction film has always been dominated by men, but women will have their foot in more and more. We have some strong female directors here in Poland, and in the UK and US as well. So I think it’s going to happen, sooner or later.
Overall it’s – I was thinking about this myself actually – in Poland there are a lot of women documentarians. It’s interesting, I studied at the cinematography department of Moscow film school and I was aware that it used to be all men, very few women studied cinematography over the past decades. In my course however it was at least half women, sometimes very small ones, with a lot of equipment and we used heavy lights and big film cameras, such as the Arri 535, heavy ones. Some of these women are now working in the fiction world.
So I don’t know exactly what is the reason for not so many women being in the fiction realm. I know it’s difficult, I can feel it. Here in the documentary world it‘s my work, I don’t have to deal with all the levels of approval – script, money, crew producer. It’s my story, I tell it, I shoot I it, I may or may not have a crew, but this gives me a different field in which I can operate.
I was at this meeting of women at a film festival and I said next time I would like to put my foot in the door of the fiction world. But it starts from a good script! If more women come up with good stories to tell, the films will follow. I see so many women being very strong nowadays and being creative and brilliant. So it is just a matter of time for the strong women directors to move to the fiction world.
I get asked this question – and some people say of course absolutely we have to give women more opportunities. But I am always more interested in working with professionals. It’s not the gender, professional excellence is what is important and it’s most important to have the most professional end product possible.
I have had some fiction experience, but I was in this environment where I had men doing the lighting and the grip, and they were very cynical in the beginning. I could see and feel that they don’t want to listen to me. But on the second day they can see that I’m doing something really nice and something good is coming out of it. So they have to give me time to show them that what I do is good, and then it really brings respect and change of attitude. So people no longer look down on you, but they see that you can make a good film, and this is what really matters.
So I would like to do it. I am looking for a script and this is a challenge I would like to undertake. My heart strongly beats now for a fiction film! I love documentary even if oftentimes it’s much more difficult than fiction. But I wish to do fiction films. I was in an acting school. I’ve performed on the stage, so it is not foreign for me to understand the actor. During my school years, I was always thinking about film, more than theater. It’s a different type of magic, it’s great. So we’ll see, maybe life will happen that I will be able to work on fiction films and I will be able to tell you about it. But I believe that when you have a strong vision people recognize that and don’t pay attention to whether it’s a woman or man. I believe it is much more difficult for us to get our foot in the door, though.
AG: What initially brought you to documentary?
HP: A need. Definitely a need. I wanted to help the children and was thinking how to help them. At this time I did take photographs, but I wasn’t a cinematographer. I would never get the money or funding for a 14-year film like Something Better To Come, I was trying to get agencies and TV interested in the subject and they weren’t. So I decided to enter film school and learn cinematography under the cameraman of Andrei Tarkovsky, Vadim Yusov.
The courses in the film school were not dedicated to the documentary cinema, more actually fiction, of course. I simply did by doing it, I learned it. I decided to do it. I didn’t go to documentary directing classes.
I met these people who were suffering, children who were suffering, I felt very motivated to help them, and one of the ways I can help is to show their life, their struggles, the things I witnessed. I thought it was important for people to see it so that the policies could change and have people being inspired, wanting to help, changing the attitudes towards these people when they meet them on the street.
Because I experience how indifferent society is, and how hospitals don’t care; they need medical attention, documentation to get them back with their family or placed in an orphanage. Oftentimes these children grow up with no citizenship, no ID, no job, no nothing, so it is crucial that institutions take care of these children. Just to be a part of the system to take them out of the street. If I bring them to the hospital and child doesn’t want to stay, they can’t be forced even if they are very sick.
So this whole system has to change. The policies have to change. They have to understand the problem very deeply and look at the consequences. You can see in Children of Leningradsky that if you don’t solve the problem you will end up with an army of criminals growing up. It’s not a joke and it may one day touch you. So on this kind of level of explaining to people, even if not on the altruistic level, on the selfish level, this is something that could be relevant to the people’s life, even if they don’t care deeply for these people or children. This is why I decided to take a camera and tell about all these different stories; to help people.
Even when you take a child, [it can be difficult] because they have freedom and don’t want to leave the streets. This life of smoking, drinking, getting money by themselves, not being told what do to, no bedtime or school; but this story always ends in a very tragic way, basically always. So I would try to convince the kids, but I didn’t have any rights. I’m not a a parent, I can’t force a child form the street. And even if I could convince, there were no institutions [to take care of them].
AG: You recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise fund for an Oscar push. How exactly will you be using the money raised towards that goal?
HP: We are already [doing] advertisements in the professional press about the film. It’s for promotion of the film and screenings. I really think this is an important film that people should be seeing. We don’t have an American broadcaster at the moment, so I am looking to get the film seen in America and to the world.
I could not see better exposure of Yula’s story than the Oscar nomination, of course, because this is the most important recognition in the film world. Despite if it is possible or not, I am owing it to the protagonist of the film – to try hard, to fight, to simply try my best; Yula did not give up, so I can not either, no matter how hopeless my situation may be.
We should try, we should fight. You are writing this article and people will read it, so the story of Yula and other dump tenets gets spread out, and I have met many wonderful people through this campaign. Yula was just nominated for the Unforgettable [award, handed out by Cinema Eye for the most unforgettable documentary subjects of the year. Other nominees this year included Amy Winehouse and Iris Apfel from their eponymous documentaries].
And of course it costs money to pay submission fees, and for screenings – we actually just concluded screenings in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and at Hot Springs. We are trying to spread information about the project and to make people curious about the film. We are getting very good reviews and people feel it is one of the best films they have ever seen. It is an important story I worked on this film for many many years. And I put so much of myself in it, so many sacrifices, so I really want to bring this film to audiences, because this is a unique project.
I want the chance for the Academy to consider the film and they will see its value. I know they have 124 films to watch so we will see. We’ll keep our fingers crossed, but the promotional campaign has already achieved considerable value. For example, we have just been asked to screen the film at Yale, and also a summit in New Jersey about ending child homelessness.
And it’s important that we talk about these things. In the States there are also homeless children. Also, there is emotional homelessness, where the children have a family and home but parents have no time for them. And also for people to be inspired by Yula, to tame their own destiny and to see that there are no hopeless situations in life. So obviously I am very happy and very thankful to the Kickstarter supporters. I am sure it is giving us the possibility to bring it to audience.
AG: I am very thankful to you for making this remarkable film and for taking the time to talk about it with me.
HP: Thank you.
And thank YOU, dear reader, for listening in on this conversation. Something Better to Come has not yet had a wide theatrical release, but to date has garnered over 21 awards at film festivals around the world, and is currently in contention to make the shortlist for this year’s Best Documentary category at the Oscars. If the film comes within 50 miles of you, it would absolutely be worth it to make your way to the theater where it’s playing.
What do you think of Hanna Polak‘s aim to change policy and help these people by going into filmmaking to show the world and inform them? Do you believe film and documentary can be that powerful?
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