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Piotr Ryczko • Director of I Am REN

“I wanted to stick to the truth and talk about a woman who suffered”


- We talked to Piotr Ryczko, the debuting director of I Am REN, which is about to hit Polish theatres and VoD as coronavirus restrictions ease up

Piotr Ryczko  • Director of I Am REN

With its April release cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, after showings at the Warsaw and Cottbus Film Festivals, I Am REN [+see also:
interview: Piotr Ryczko
film profile
is now scheduled to premiere locally on 19 June, as well as on the platform. It shows Renata (Marta Król), a devoted wife and mother, suddenly experiencing a violent breakdown. Or, rather, a malfunction – as she informs her psychologist, her name is really REN. And she is an android. We spoke to its director, Piotr Ryczko.

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Cineuropa: You grew up in Norway, and a certain modest Scandinavian aesthetic is certainly present in the film. Or should it be attributed to the budget restraints instead?
Piotr Ryczko: There were two factors at play: one was our micro-budget, which of course limited us in a way, but we also spent a lot of time in pre-production, looking for the right places. With my cinematographer [Yori Fabian], whose constant creative input was worth its weight in gold, we wanted each space to reflect our heroine’s psychology and her internal journey. I put a lot of emphasis on that, despite the fact that we are talking about science fiction. We decided to take this “Scandinavian” look, all this coldness, anxiety and sometimes even paranoia, and use it in the film to our advantage.

In one radio interview, you mentioned names like Tarkovsky or Nolan, emphasising that, ultimately, they made films about people and their stories. Still, in Poland, science fiction – or genre cinema in general – is not in great shape.
You definitely still have to deal with a lot of stereotypes. For many people, science fiction equals flying spaceships or a distant future that has nothing to do with our reality. But there are films created by very important artists, like the one you just brought up, and movies that deal with this “inner space”. And suddenly it turns out that the entire film, as well as its structure, serves to show some intimate experience. For me, that was the basis: making sure that my film had this second layer. Otherwise, trying to tell this story would just have been pointless.

It’s generally not easy to make your first film – I am certainly no exception – and frankly, it’s not much easier in Norway. Partly because cinema is very polarised: we have arthouse and mainstream. It’s much easier to just take one of these sides instead of trying to create something in between. I fought for ten years to make my debut feature, and only after some time did I find a producer who believed in this story, who liked it. Also because I Am REN is primarily a psychological film: a drama that uses science-fiction elements. That means that some viewers, who come into this expecting some hardcore science fiction, will probably be disappointed. It’s not an idea movie, like Blade Runner, for example. But you can find the same way of thinking in Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

I was thinking more about The Stepford Wives. Did you intend to turn it all into a feminist parable? About this perfect woman, wife and mother, doing what is expected of her until she can no longer recognise herself in this role?
At first, there was no such intention, but when I started to work with Marta Król, who was amazingly supportive and creative from the very beginning until long after the production wrapped, she began to insist on taking it in that direction – and rightly so. Suddenly, there was this opportunity to show the contemporary image of women and all of the expectations associated with their roles, this pressure for them to be perfect. Which makes you wonder if we need all of these “defective” people at all, since in the future, we will be able to get someone who is trouble-free! Especially as such a change is probably already lurking around the corner.

The film also mentions your mother – it’s dedicated to her memory, actually. Why?
To answer that, we would have to go back to this inner-space science fiction again. I have always been convinced that making this movie, not to mention dedicating so many years to it, wouldn’t have made sense based on the genre alone or the plot. It’s not enough. I needed something that came directly from me, something personal. And for me, growing up in a family marked by an illness proved to be the most formative experience in my life.

Before we actually make an effort to get to know a sick person, we immediately assume they are dangerous, threatening. I wanted to give my viewers a chance to meet Renata, without judging her through the perspective of a mentally sick person. That is why we enter her world, and the narrative, without any prior knowledge of her sickness, in order to have the chance to empathise with her before we dive into her paranoid way of thinking, full of nooks and dead ends. I wanted to stay close to what I experienced in my family, so the decision to have a female protagonist seemed natural to me. I wanted to stick to the truth and talk about a woman who suffered.

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