Jan P Matuszyński • Director of Leave No Traces
“I came up with this concept that maybe I made this film out of fear”
by David Katz
- VENICE 2021: A leading light of new Polish cinema, the director talks us through his complex true-life tale of the aftermath of a death in police custody
When in doubt, rewatch David Fincher’s Zodiac. This was a line of inquiry that came up towards the end of our conversation with Jan P Matuszyński, the 37-year-old Polish filmmaker who makes works that feel like they’re from the hand of a far more seasoned artist. It’s there in the seriousness of the subject matter he tackles – such as in Leave No Traces [+see also:
interview: Jan P Matuszyński
film profile], his new political drama about a true-life case of police brutality, premiering in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival – and in the perspective he’s able to provide on events in the communist era, which he was only born at the tail end of. Leave No Traces, in its multi-character, multi-year sprawl, does indeed bring to mind Zodiac, and he was flattered by the comparison. That conversation about influences – cut for space – arrived at the end of our detailed chat on the Lido.
Cineuropa: How long did it take to write the screenplay for this film?
Jan P Matuszyński: That’s a complex question to answer because the first thing that arrived was the reportage book by Cezary Łazarewicz, laying out all the events in the film – and much more, actually, because we focused on the events of 1983-1984, yet in the book, you have the biography of Barbara Sadowska [the victim’s mother] in the 1970s and everything around this. Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk, whom I was working with on a project based more or less in the same period, based on real events, seemed the best candidate to write it: I thought she could handle it very nicely, and it really happened because she wrote a wonderful first draft. It took one year, more or less for the first draft, and then we were rewriting some things, and then the production started. So it was not so long.
How difficult was it to decide what to fictionalise?
During pre-production, we came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to use a real eyewitness to the murder – we had to fictionalise his biography [in the form of lead character Jurek Popiel], his identity and his parents. This section of the film is somehow related to the truth, even if it’s not really 1:1, because we wanted to be wary of his privacy.
So is it true in spirit, instead?
There’s one more thing – we have three guys at the beginning of the film, but in the real-life case, there were five guys: there was the man who was not inside the interrogation room, for example. He was outside, and he heard the screams. But that would have been too difficult because the characters would have been more or less the same. You have to work your way through what you really need.
What were you trying to reflect about the present day with this 1980s-set film? Did you have your mind set more on Poland or on events globally (such as in the USA) involving police brutality, and the subsequent public reaction?
I read the book at the right time, in early 2017 – we had a good time slot to produce, direct and make this film, and in 2021, we still have this after-image of the George Floyd case. I remember seven big cases, with some similarities, while making this film. During the last two months, we had at least three cases in Poland, and when you go a bit deeper, you can name even more. On one hand, I’m kind of happy, as I think it’s the right time. Shit happens all the time, and I want to understand why. But I’m also coming back to the Poland of 1983, and although it’s almost 40 years ago, it’s still just around the corner. While doing these interviews, I came up with this concept that maybe I made this film out of fear. And it’s always about emotions. Fear is this emotion that stays with me, and I had this situation where I made a short film years ago: I remember that I read a text, and I was so shocked that I had to do something about it. It was the same thing with Leave No Traces: there’s this book, there’s this story, and I can’t leave it alone, as I’m a filmmaker – the only thing I can do is make a film. To try to make this world a better place, at least a tiny bit.
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