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BERLIN 2018 Competition

Małgorzata Szumowska • Director

“I make films that are Polish to the core”

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- BERLIN 2018: Małgorzata Szumowska, who scooped a Silver Bear for Mug, explains why Poland is her ultimate inspiration

Małgorzata Szumowska  • Director
(© Ali Ghandtschi/Berlinale)

After winning Berlin’s Silver Bear – Grand Jury Prize for her new film, Mug [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Małgorzata Szumowska
film profile
]
, Małgorzata Szumowska chatted to us about the film and the inspiration behind it.

Cineuropa: You open Mug with a sequence featuring half-naked people running to buy hugely discounted TV sets. They are in their underwear because only “naked” people are allowed into the store. You literally and metaphorically undress Poles here.
Małgorzata Szumowska: We were inspired by the YouTube videos that young people are sharing. They feature people getting crazy and fighting over Crocs shoes or Wittchen wallets in discount stores. Adding the undressed part to that scene introduces a level of abstraction, because no one in Poland would take off their clothes to run after a TV set. This scene is also an allegory – after communism fell in 1989, people started to desire material objects and money. We have had capitalism in Poland for only 29 years, and that need to possess things hasn’t changed.

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That sequence sets up the subject and the tone of your film in rather a precise way. We know that Mug will focus on Polish society and will portray it with a mixture of realism and satire. In the following scenes, you introduce the main character, Jacek, but you leave many things out of the picture: we don’t know who that person is.
Mug isn’t about him, but rather about how people react to him. At first, he is a fan of heavy metal music, which makes him a potential Satanist for some people. Then he undergoes a face transplant, which makes him a monster, like Frankenstein’s creature or the Phantom of the Opera. The way people in the village react to him is a metaphor for how we in Poland approach people and things we don’t know or don’t understand. They prompt fear, conspiracy theories, xenophobia and irrational thinking. Nevertheless, all Poles feel good about themselves, which is visible in the film. Jacek’s family is like that – content with who they are and the way they are. The only exception is his sister.

You seem to enjoy the company of Poles, too. You don’t make fun of your characters in a vicious way; there is sympathy in the way you portray them. Poland is an endless source of inspiration for you.
Indeed. I make films that are Polish to the core, and even though I feel pretty fed up with that subject, my next film will revolve around the Polish middle class. I think it’s easier for me to observe Poland from a distance because I very often go abroad, and after I come back, I see things more clearly. I compare Poland to the Western societies, looking for what is different between them and us, and then I build my films around those differences.

There are many diverse scenes in your film, and many minor characters who have their own vices and agendas. Yet your film is very coherent and consistent.
I think it’s a matter of experience. Mug is my seventh feature, and my co-writer Michał Englert and I know what we want. We don’t get distracted or lose our focus. Of course, occasionally we are flying blind, but that is part of the process. I often say that a film is like a football match – very unpredictable. Something can always go wrong, even if you are a great player.

What turned out to be unpredictable or surprising in Mug?
I don’t do a lot of rehearsals before shooting, so I discover many things with my actors on the hoof. We establish the general idea and work out the details on the spot. We weren’t sure how exactly Mateusz Kosciukiewicz would act in the mask, because we only did one technical test before, and on set we were looking for what worked and what didn’t. This is how we discovered that we should focus on his eye. Also, since we had three shooting periods covering three different seasons, we were able to edit one part and see if we wanted to add or change anything. This is how I decided to add more scenes with Małgorzata Gorol, who turned out to be absolutely magnetic on screen.

Can you tell us anything else about your next movie?
It’s an independent film that I made for very little money, when the Polish Film Institute was undergoing changes in its management. It’s the first co-production between Poland and Morocco. It’s called All Inclusive and has an almost entirely female, non-professional cast. It wouldn’t be one of my films if the premise weren’t merely a ruse: this film is only seemingly about a holiday to Africa.

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