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Interview: Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski on His Oscar-Shortlisted Film ‘Ida’

Interview: Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski on His Oscar-Shortlisted Film 'Ida'

Golden Globes are considering “Ida” directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski (“Last Resort”, “My Summer of Love“),
a moving and intimate drama about a young novitiate nun in 1960’s Poland
who, on the verge of taking her vows, discovers a dark family secret
from the terrible years of the Nazi occupation. The film premiered
at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival and was also featured at the 2013
Toronto and 2014
Sundance film festivals.

“Ida” won
the 2014 European Film Awards for Best European Film, Best European
Director, Best European Screenwriter, Best European Cinematographer and
People’s Choice Award. The film was named the Best Foreign Language
Film by the New York Film Critics Circle and won the 2014 Los Angeles
Film Critics
Association Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Agata Kulesza) and
Best Foreign Language Film. “Ida” is also nominated for
the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film.
It’s also the Polish Oscar® entry and has made the 9-film

Below is my interview with director Pawel Pawlikowski published last year prior to the film theatrical release:

I happen to love Jewish films and so when I saw “Ida” was playing in Toronto, it was first on my list of “must-sees”. However, I am no longer an
“acquisitions” person, nor am I a film reviewer. My work keeps me out of the screening room because we work with filmmakers looking to get their films into
the hands of those who will show their films. In other words, we advise and strategize for getting new films into the film circuit’s festivals,
distributors’ and international sales agents’ hands.

So I missed Ida at its TIFF debut. In Cartagena, where I was invited to cover the festival for SydneysBuzz and where I was gathering information for the
book I have just completed on Iberoamerican Film Financing, it showed again in the jewel-box of a theater in this jewel-box of a city. But when I saw the
first shots – and fell in love with it – I also saw it was subtitled in Spanish and rather than strain over translating, I left the theater.  Later on, Pawel Pawlikowski and I sat next to each other at a fabulous dinner in one of Cartagena’s many outdoor squares, and we discussed the title of my book rather
than his films which was a big loss on one hand but a big gain for me on the other because we got to speak as “civilians” rather than keeping the
conversation on a “professional” level.

READ MORE: Review ‘Ida’ by Carlos Aguilar

Now Music Box is opening IDA in L.A. on May 2, 2014 at the Laemmle in L.A. and in N.Y. and I made sure to take advantage of my press status, not only
to see the film but to interview Pawel on himself and the film.

There were two ways to look at this film: as a conceit, as in, “what a great story – a girl about to take her vows in the convent which raised her
discovers she is Jewish and returns to the society which destroyed her family” — or as a journey of a fresh soul into the heart of humanity and finds that
she is blessed by being able to decide upon her own destiny within it.

Parenthetically, this seems to me to be a companion piece to the Berlinale film “Stations of the Cross”, another
journey of a fresh soul into the spiritual life of religion as she struggles in the society which formed her.

And so I began my interview with Pawel:

I could look at this film in two ways, I’ve heard the audiences talk about whether the film is Anti-Polish or Anti-Semitic, but that is not my concern,
I want to know if it is just a great story or does it go deeper than that?

Pawel immediately responded, I THINK he said, “I am not a professional filmmaker, and I do not make a ‘certain type of film’. I make films depending on
where I am in life. A film about exile, a film about first love. Films mark where I am in my life.

In the ’60s, when I was a kid and first saw the world this was how I depicted it in this film…seeing the world for the first time…life is a journey and filmmaking marks where you (the audience)
are in life and it marks where I am in life. Each film is different as a result.

After making “Woman on the 5th,” about the hero’s (in my own head) being lost in Paris, a weird sort of production – directed by
a Polish director with a British and an American actor and actress, I craved solid ground, a familiar place or a “return” to important things of the
past, and I returned to a certain period in Poland which I found very much alive, for myself then and again as I made this movie and in Polish history

takes place 17 years after the war and shortly after after Stalin’s crimes were being made public by Krushchev. The Totalitarian State of Poland bent a
bit; censorship was lifted a bit and a new culture was developing. Music was jazz and rock and roll. Poland was very alive then: the spirit of going your
own way, not caring what anyone thinks, creating a style in cinema, in art, music…

I myself was a young boy in the ’60s and I left Poland in ’71 when I was 13 to stay with my mother in England where she had married a Brit. My father lived
in the West; they were divorced and I went for a holiday and stayed.

I went to school in the U.K. but at 13, I was thrown out and I went to Germany where my father lived and matriculated there.  I couldn’t go back to Poland as I
had left illegally and was only allowed back in to visit in the late ’70s. I returned in 1980 during Solidarity and from 1989 to the fall of the Wall, I went
back often.

is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history that wouldnʼt feel like a historical film— a
film that is moral, but has no lessons to offer. I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the
usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in “Ida” is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no ax to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood…

I read you are going to make another film about Poland…

It is not about Poland but it is set in Poland. I am working on three projects, which is how I work. I keep writing and find one of them has the legs to carry
me…which one is not yet known. 

You mentioned in an interview with Sight and Sound your top 10 films…

Yes, which ones did you like?  They ask me this every year and every year the list changes for me. There are other good ones, like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia…they are not all the old classics and they are not necessarily my favorites or what I think are “the best”.  Again they depend on where I am in my own life.

The ones I like on your list were
Ashes and Diamonds which I saw in New York in my freshman year in college, “La Dolce Vita” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Some Like It Hot.”

I actually think “8 ½” is more remarkable than “La Dolce Vita.” I also like “Loves of a Blondevery much….

I found “Ashes and Diamonds” so extraordinary, I then had to see the actor in “Man of Marble” which took me to the next “Man of Steel” and Man of…whatever… until I thought I knew Wadja. What did you make of this film?

I saw it later as I was too young when it came out in the ’60s. I saw it in the ’70s when it was already a classic. Its impact on me was that it was
well-done and about something. It is a comment about a man who decides whether to fight or to live. It could be remade in any country coming out of civil

To return to Ida, I noticed stylistic choices you made that I would like you to comment on.

The landscapes and interiors were very large and sparse. Interiors always had someone in the back ground moving, arranging or walking by in silence.

Yes there is always some life and the movements of people in the background are like music in the film, though it is not really music…

Yes, the music in the film is great. The magnificence of the classical music someone is playing, like the aunt…

Yes I only want to use real music at times that real music is part of the story. I didn’t want film music. I wanted it to come out of silence. It is part
of the scene like the background movement of people.  Each piece means something. The pop songs were key from the start. They were fatally imprinted on my
childhood memory. They really color the landscape. Coltrane and stuff came from my adult self.

Incidentally, the late ’50s and early ’60s were great for jazz in Poland. There was a real explosion: Komeda, Namyslowski, Stanko, Wroblewski… Apart from
telling Idaʼs story, I wanted to conjure up a certain image of Poland, an image that I hold dear.  My country may have been grey, oppressive and enslaved in
the early ’60s, but in some ways it was ‘cooler’ and more original than the Poland of today, and somehow more universally resonant.

Iʼm sure that lots of Poles with a chip on their shoulder, and there are many, will fail to notice the beauty, the love that went into our film—and will
accuse me of damaging Poland’s image by focusing on the melancholy, the provincial, the grotesque… And then there’s the matter of a Polish farmer killing a Jewish family… thereʼs bound to be
trouble. On the other hand, thereʼs also a Stalinist state prosecutor of Jewish origins, which might land me in hot water in other quarters. Still, I hope the film is sufficiently
specific and un-rhetorical enough to be understood on its own terms.

The music Ida’s aunt was playing before she…what are your thoughts about her aunt?

Neither Ida nor her aunt is typical. Wanda’s imprimatur is that she has no self-pity, no regrets, no sentimentality.

She had fought in the resistance rather than raise a family. She had been a super idealistic Marxist, became a part of the New Establishment and got drawn
into the games and hypocrisy, sending people to death for “impeding progress”.

She reminds me of my father in some ways. Her acerbic sense of humor.  I gave her some of my father’s lines.

Where Did The Character Of Wanda Come From?

When I was doing my post-graduate degree at Oxford in the early ’80s I befriended Professor Brus, a genial economist and reformist Marxist who left Poland
in ʻ68. I was particularly fond of his wife Helena, who smoked, drank, joked and told great stories. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she struck me as a
warm and generous woman.  I lost touch with the Bruses when I left Oxford, but some 10 years later I heard on BBC News that the Polish government was
requesting the extradition of one Helena Brus-Wolinska, resident in Oxford, on the grounds of crimes against humanity.  It turned out that the charming old
lady had been a Stalinist prosecutor in her late twenties.  Among other things, she engineered the death in a show trial of a completely innocent man and a
real hero of the Resistance, General ‘Nil’ Fieldorf. It was a bit of a shock.  I couldn’t square the warm, ironic woman I knew with the ruthless fanatic and
Stalinist hangman.  This paradox has haunted me for years.  I even tried to write a film about her, but couldnʼt get my head around or into someone so
contradictory.  Putting her into Idaʼs story helped bring that character to life. Conversely, putting the ex-believer with blood on her hands next to Ida
helped me define the character and the journey of the young nun.

By 1956, illusions about society were gone. Stalin’s crimes were revealed in 1961, there was a change of government, a new generation was coming of age.
Wanda was a judge they called “Red Wanda” and had sent enemies of the state to their deaths. The older generation was left high and dry. Communism had
become a shabby reality.  Her despair was apparent– she had been heroic and now the system was a joke.

And then some creature from the past pops up and makes her reveal all she had swept under the carpet. She drank too much, there was no love in her life,
only casual sex. But still she was straight-ahead, directed and unstoppable.

And then after the revelations of what had become of their parents and her child, her sister returns to the convent. There is nowhere for her to go.  She
hits a wall.  She is heroic and there is no place for her in society anymore.

And Ida? Why did you choose such a person?

Ida has multiple origins, the most interesting ones probably not quite conscious. Let’s say that I come from a family full of mysteries and contradictions
and have lived in one sort of exile or another for most of my life. Questions of identity, family, blood, faith, belonging, and history have always been present.

I’d been playing for years with the story of a Catholic nun who discovers sheʼs Jewish.  I originally set it in ʻ68, the year of student protests and the
Communist Party sponsored anti-Semitic purges in Poland. The story involved a nun a bit older than Ida, as well as an embattled bishop and a state security officer, and the whole thing
was more steeped in the politics of the day.  The script was turning out a little too schematic, thriller-ish and plotty for my liking, so I put Ida aside for a while and went to Paris to make The Woman In The Fifth
. I was in a different place at the time.

When I came back to Ida, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted the film to be.  My cowriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz and I stripped the
whole thing down, made it less plotty, the characters richer and less functional.  Ida became younger, more inexperienced, more of a blank slate, a young girl on the brink of life. Also we moved the
story to ʻ62, a more nondescript period in Poland, but also a time of which I have most vivid memories, my own impressions as a child – unaware of what was
going on in the adult world, but all the more sensitive to images and sounds. Some shots in the film couldʼve come from my family album.

In the course of the film, Ida undergoes a change. She becomes energized. When she returns to the convent you can see it in her body movements.  It is the
only time we used a hand-held camera to depict the new energy she has acquired.  She is going into the spiritual in a different way.  The old way elicited a
giggle from her;  she had seen the sensuality of the novice nun bathing…whether she is returning to the convent to stay is left to the viewer to decide.

The viewer is brought into a space of associations they make on their own, the film is more like poetry where the feeling of the viewer is the private one
of the viewer, not one the film imposes.

Yes, each woman enters a new reality and comes out changed, and I was left thinking there was nothing better of the two life choices, the “normal”
life of love and family and the “spiritual” life of simple living and silent devotion. There needs to be some balance between the two, but what is
that? I still don’t know.

On a last note: I noticed in the end credits you thanked Alfonso Cuarón. Why was that?

Yes he liked the film a lot. There were many people I thanked, like Agnieszka Holland. These are friends I can show my work to. They protect me against
critics and festivals. This group of friends can also be nasty, but they are honest friends.

Thank you so much Pawel for your insights. I look forward to meeting you again “on the circuit”.

To my readers, here are the nuts and bolts of the film:

Music Box Films is the proud U.S. distributor of “Ida,” the award-winning film written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Ida world
premiered at Telluride 2013 and Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Film; then played the London Film Festival
where it won Best Film, and was the Grand Prix winner at the Warsaw Film Festival. It played as an Official Selection in the 2014 Sundance and New York
Jewish Film Festivals.

Poland 1962. Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is a beautiful eighteen-year-old woman, preparing to become a nun at the convent where she has lived since
orphaned as a child. She learns she has a living relative she must visit before taking her vows, her mother’s sister Wanda. Her aunt, she learns, is not
only a former hard-line Communist state prosecutor notorious for sentencing priests and others to death, but also a Jew. Anna learns from her aunt that she
too is Jewish – and that her real name is Ida. This revelation sets Anna, now Ida, on a journey to uncover her roots and confront the truth about her
family. Together, the two women embark on a voyage of discovery of each other and their past. Ida has to choose between her birth identity and the religion
that saved her from the massacres of the Nazi occupation of Poland. And Wanda must confront decisions she made during the War when she chose loyalty to the
cause before family.

Following his breakthrough films Last Resortand BAFTA-award winning “My Summer of Love,” “Ida” marks
Polish-born, British writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s first film set in his homeland. Ida stars Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza. It will open in
Los Angeles on May 2 at the Laemmle’s Royal. (Music Box Films, 80 minutes, unrated).

Its international producers, Eric Abraham (Portobello Pictures), Ewa Puszczynska (Opus Film), Piotr Dzieciol (Opus Film) and coproducer, Christian Falkenberg Husum of Denmark sold about 30 territories in Toronto and to date it has sold to 43 territories where the film has opened.

Argentina – CDI Films, Australia – Curious Film, Austria – Polyfilm is still playing it and to date it has grossed US$10,733. Benelux – Cineart where it is
also still playing and has grossed US$185,026 in Belgium and US$131,247 in The Netherlands, Canada – Eyesteelfilm and Films We Like, Czech Republic –
Aerofilms, Denmark – Camera Film, Denmark – Portobello Film Sales, France – Memento Films Distribution where in three weeks it grossed $3,192,706, Germany – Arsenal and Maxmedien where it grossed $24,010, Greece – Strada Films, Hungary – Mozinet Ltd., Israel – Lev Films
(Shani Films), Italy – Parthenos where it grossed $681,460., Norway – Arthaus grossed $59,920, Poland – Soloban where it grossed $333,714, Portugal – Midas Filmes, Spain – Caramel Films is still playing it and to date it has grossed $408,085, Sweden – Folkets Bio,
Switzerland – Frenetic, Taiwan – Andrews Film Co. Ltd, U.K. – Artificial Eye and Curzon, U.S. – Music Box and Film Forum.


(Poland) An Opus Film, Phoenix Film production in association with Portobello Pictures in coproduction with Canal Plus Poland, Phoenix Film Poland.
(International sales: Fandango Portobello, Copenhagen.) Produced by Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzieciol, Ewa Puszczynska. Coproducer, Christian Falkenberg Husum.


Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Screenplay, Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Camera (B&W), Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski; editor, Jaroslaw Kaminski;
production designers, Katarzyna Sobanska, Marcel Slawinski; costume designer, Aleksandra Staszko; Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen; supervising sound editor,
Claus Lynge; re-recording mixers, Lynge, Andreas Kongsgaard; visual effects, Stage 2; line producer, Magdalena Malisz; associate producer, Sofie Wanting


Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Joanna Kulig.

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