“One man against all”
- Extracts from the press conference with the Polish director at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, where Essential Killing won the Special Jury Prize and Best Actor Award
Where did you get the idea for Essential Killing [+see also:
interview: Jerzy Skolimowski
Jerzy Skolimowski: I live in a remote forest region in Mazury [Poland]. One night, I was returning home by car and I almost veered off the road. I then realised I was very close to the secret military airport where CIA planes were landing with prisoners they had captured in the Middle East. I wondered what would happen if a vehicle transporting prisoners had an accident on that same road. That’s how the film’s story came about, with the idea of a man in chains, fleeing barefoot in the snow across the wild forest, pursued by the army.
Did you set out to make a political film?
I’m not interested in the political aspects of the matter. There has been a lot of speculation about the existence of CIA flights and secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Only the Lithuanian government has officially admitted it more or less. And it’s an almost proven fact that there were two other prisons of this kind, one in Romania, the other in Poland. However, none of the Polish governments since 2002 have confirmed this, although an investigation was opened recently. What interested me was the story of a man who returns to an animal state and has to kill to survive.
We never find out if Vincent Gallo’s character is actually a terrorist.
I thought it would be a better story if people didn’t know. With these two hypotheses that lead him to the same experience, he either wins our sympathy and solidarity, or not. Some will think he’s a terrorist and will be appalled, regarding him as a killer and enemy. But others may think he is innocent, just involved by accident and simply the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
In my opinion, this ambiguity plays an important role: it’s like checking our capacity for empathy towards other human beings, how far we’re prepared to go with an oppressed man whom we’re rather fond of, but who repeatedly commits acts that we can’t accept from an ethical point of view. I considered him more of an anti-hero. His actions are really hard to accept, but at the same time, he fights with such strength and goes through such experiences that sometimes we hope he’ll manage to survive.
Everything seems to conspire against the protagonist.
It’s the story of one man against a multitude, practically one man against all, including nature, which proves very cruel with the cold weather. We were shooting in 35-degree [Fahrenheit] temperatures, night after night: it was the most demanding shoot I’ve ever done. Also, the main character is literally tortured by nature: he has to survive in these temperatures, without clothing and in chains at the beginning.
Why did you insert flashbacks, dreams and images of the protagonist’s future?
The flashbacks were created to give the audience a bit of information about the protagonist’s past. But it’s very minimalist in order to avoid people knowing whether he’s a terrorist or not. Moreover, there’s a strong probability he’s an innocent man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Above all, I wanted to include some quotations from the Koran, in particular the most significant, which is the first: “It is not you who kills, rather it is Allah who kills”.