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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2021 Competition

Tomasz Wolski • Director of 1970

“You can't always focus on what's difficult. Sometimes you need to tell a joke”


- In his latest film, the Polish filmmaker goes back in time only to realise some things haven't changed

Tomasz Wolski • Director of 1970

After An Ordinary Country, Tomasz Wolski focuses on the Polish protests in 1970 [+see also:
film review
interview: Tomasz Wolski
film profile
, sparked by a sudden increase in prices. But the film, which plays at Visions du Réel, also centres on telephone conversations between communist dignitaries, trying their best to stop the riots before they escalate further.

Cineuropa: I don't usually like reenactments in documentaries. But by introducing stop-motion animation, you managed to find another solution.
Tomasz Wolski: It all started when I was working on An Ordinary Country. I found these audio materials, phone calls between the crisis staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In that other film I worked with the actors, still trying to avoid what you just mentioned, as it annoys me as well. Here, we decided to recreate these offices in a miniature form and create something that would feel like a moving photo with the help of stop-motion puppets. After that, it made sense to animate certain parts of the film. These puppets, they actually look very similar to the men we hear talking. Our animation director, Robert Sowa, really paid attention to that. It wasn't about being 100% accurate, but he tried to check whether they were tall or short, or had really bushy eyebrows.

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The puppets in 1970

Their conversations are sometimes quite absurd. They address each other affectionately, someone is eating… It all stands in complete opposition to the mayhem happening outside.
Some historians I talked to while making the film were quite surprised that there was so little swearing. This leads us to the question I can't really answer: were they really like this, or was something holding them back? It's true, they are very calm, which makes it all that much scarier. Or maybe they were simply aware that they were being recorded?

That's interesting, because why do these recordings even exist? Who was recording them? In those days, it wasn't that simple: someone had to bring all the equipment, hook it up, sit down and listen. Whenever the conversations were about to take a more personal turn, someone would turn it off. I was told that perhaps it was for educational purposes, to later analyse what went wrong. Or maybe they wanted to get leverage on someone? These politicians weren't in the top league. They had to react to what was happening, but Gomułka, Moczar and Jaruzelski were the ones making decisions. And they weren't recorded.

It all plays out like a “telephone thriller”. But it's also very telling that you can't hear the people who are protesting.
These scenes were recorded on film tapes, without audio, mostly by the security services to have evidence and show who appeared at the demonstrations. With Marcin Lenarczyk, our great sound designer, we had to recreate it to bring the viewer a bit closer. As for the construction of the “telephone thriller”, which is an interesting term, I wanted you to hear about these things first and only then see them unravel. It forces you to use your imagination a little.

I don't really treat 1970 as a historical film – I use history as an excuse to reveal something more. First of all, history tends to repeat itself: we can now see the things we used to only hear about. I didn't want the viewer to worry about all these details too much, about the who, the what and the when, although it's obviously important. If you like the film, you can find this information later on. Also, [director of Krakow Film Festival] Krzysztof Gierat told me, and he was right, that the young viewers in Poland don't know these names either. My guess is that the fact that the film made it all the way to Switzerland proves that it can be understood. I wanted to start a discussion about what power really is, about its mechanisms and why our leaders prefer to send out an army rather than talk to people. It's a universal topic, whether we think about Poland in the 1970s or Poland in 2021, Belarus or the United States.

There is no denying those events were quite grim, yet I still laughed a few times. Were you surprised by the black humour that somehow creeped in here?
I always look for black humour. You have to disarm all this seriousness a bit. You can't always focus on what's difficult: sometimes you need to tell a joke. This film is something I haven't seen before because it shows these events from the point of view of the perpetrators. I have seen the footage of the victims, I have heard their families, but never the ones responsible for this tragedy. I wanted the viewers to even cheer them on at some point. They did care about saving their own people it seems, or maybe they worried that having them die wouldn't be good for morale. Either way, they show their human side. People aren't just evil.

We tried to differentiate these two worlds. Outside, people are fighting for this proverbial bread, and these guys are sitting surrounded by oranges, bottles and grapes. There is this divide. And when it reaches truly extreme levels, people take to the streets.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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