When “Ida” first surfaced on the festival circuit in the fall of 2013, nobody could have predicted how far it would go: Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s alternately haunting and poignant tale — which follows a young nun in the 1960’s who discovers she’s Jewish and her parents were killed during the Holocaust — become one of the biggest specialty releases of 2014.
Five months into its release, the movie garnered $3.7 million at the U.S. box office alone. Now that “Ida” is one of five titles vying for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards on Sunday, Pawlikowski continues to travel around promoting his movie. In New York last week shortly after yet another trip to Los Angeles, the director sat down with Indiewire to reflect on the continuing success of the project, the controversy it stirred up in his native country, and how he’s surviving the final burst of awards season activity.
You’ve been traveling the festival circuit with “Ida” since the fall of 2013, but the awards season really kicked in late last year. How are you holding up?
Being in Los Angeles has been good, but the Golden Globes were a nightmare, but you know…I don’t think anybody enjoys the Globes. It’s like being at a big railway station with a delayed train.
At least you can drink during the ceremony.
Well, you do, but it’s incredibly industrial, the whole thing — it’s made for television. I was sitting with my foreign language [nominee] friends — we’ve all become friends. They’re great. You realize that you’re just strangers here, actually. You know, when they announce the foreign language film, most people went to the toilet or the bar. It wasn’t really about that, was it? But it was nice. And I really enjoy being in this little group of foreign language people. There’s less of attention, but there’s kind of a common cause. So, we got to the point where whoever wins, you know — “Timbuktu” was great. I liked “Force Majuere,” too, but unfortunately it wasn’t nominated for the Oscar.
When you say that you have a common cause, what exactly do you mean?
You know, none of these films were made commercially. They’re made for some strange subsidies, some strange monies, with no kind of idea of the marketplace potential. It’s a different way of making films. They have no stars, you know, so they have less immediate visibility. And a lot of times, they’re better films, too. Well, I don’t know if they’re better. [laughs] I mean, I love American cinema.
Yet “Ida” wound up being very successful around the world, including the U.S. That caught you by surprise, right?
I thought it would be successful in the film festival world — you know, and find some distribution here and there, maybe in France because they like that kind of thing — or England, because they know me in Britain. But yeah, the fact that it traveled like this, and that it moved people — that was the surprising thing. I knew it was moving, but I thought with the kind of patience and timing it required, without pressing buttons, there was no guarantee that people would be moved. But they were. It started with screenings in Telluride in Toronto, and it was a big shock. We were like, “Oh! People are coming out quite shaken.” [laughs] “That’s quite good…” And then I said, “Okay, it’s got more of a punch than I expected.”
Why do you think that is, now that you’ve had time to see different reactions?
I think there’s like several things coming together, it’s kind of difficult to put your finger on it — but I think it’s just being a part of a tradition of stories that are powerful, but also just having the space to get into it and live it without pressing any obvious buttons. And I think the performances are good…a lot of things come together.
What about the historical dimension of the film? The story involves a woman with a family history complicated by the darker circumstances of WWII. Are there a lot of people who can relate to that?
Well, there’s that, too. Some people have, but it can’t be that many — not in South Korea or in New Zealand or Spain, where it has played well. It moved people in Finland, so it must be more than just identifications with these stories — or maybe they’re identifying with it in a more general way. Hopefully, it has a universal, timeless thing that people look into. It’s like when you read Chekhov — his stories are moving. It has nothing to do with 19th century Russia. It’s some kind of universally tragic, ironic chord. And I think people respond to that.
More specifically, what are they responding to?
Just thinking of how tragic, disastrous and beautiful life is. Liv Ullman told me that she came out with a feeling of light from the film, and that touched me personally, because when I finished cutting it, I just watched it, and I had the same feeling of lightness at the end of it. And not just because of the story, just because of stuff that comes together — like a good tragedy can be uplifting — the Greeks knew that. If it’s truthful in some way and not manipulative in an obvious way.
Do you see the cycle of the film to be uplifting? In terms of the fate for your lead character, there’s more than one way to read it.
No, no, if you just reduce it to narrative, it’s not exactly a happy ending on any front. But I was talking about a different sort of uplift, more like catharsis.
How has your experience with audiences for the film evolved as awards season has taken shape?
It’s great. It’s been going on for a long time, and it’s a great ride. The paradox is that it’s a film where a lot is contained and not much is explained and the less said, the better. And I find myself having to talk about it, and unravel it, and people deconstruct it [laughs] — sometimes, completely in a way that is a bit wrong-headed, but that’s life. I just like going to screenings and feeling afterwards like there’s a kind of electricity in the room each time. People just sit there quietly, and don’t leave, and we talk. That’s happened in so many countries. People act like something happened to them.
How do you feel about the way the film was received in Poland?
Well, you know, at the beginning it was fine, because it wasn’t a big audience. It was like a 120,000 of mainly cinephile types who went to see it, and they took the film on its own terms. They went on a journey, and they liked it — but it was clearly not a film for big audiences in Poland. There isn’t a big kind of cinephile thing in Poland. An audience of 120,000 in a country of 40 million is not huge. And it was only when it started winning awards, like the European Film Awards, and the European Parliament Award, and then it was nominated for the Globes, and the Oscars and the BAFTAs, and the Cesars, and everything — suddenly, it had become like a public event.
Two years after you started it.
Yeah. And a year after it was first released in Poland. Some people, especially on the right, sat up and said, “What is this film about? It’s embarrassing for our country.” They kind of translated it into some kind of political thing, rather than taking the film in its own complex way. So they started getting very upset about it.
And then, of course, because journalists have to put labels on it — they labeled the film a Holocaust movie, which I don’t think it is. Among other things, it deals with the Holocaust, but I don’t think it’s a Holocaust movie. That immediately sets up certain expectations, and people are disappointed that it’s not really about the Holocaust — or they decide that it is about the Holocaust, and the Poles come off badly.
But that’s something that I tried not to do. The film didn’t have a label in my head when I did it; it was about very specific, complex, paradoxical characters, and I did try and make it, of course, with the Holocaust very much present. But also Stalin is very much present — and I did try to make it about very specific but universal themes. It’s about all these historical things as well, but it’s not foregrounding them: It’s not saying, “Now I’m going to teach a lesson or break a taboo or kind start a debate.” It’s not that kind of film. That kind of film has been made in Poland — there’s a film called “Aftermath,” which is really huge and kind of controversial, and a lot of people went to see that. Because it’s much more crude: It’s about the guilt of Polish locals.
It’s important that certain things are out there and discussed, but I’m didn’t make a film about an issue; I’m really interested in these very complicated and paradoxical characters, and also I want it to be about a lot of timeless things.
So do you feel like you have to defend it?
I try not to, because the whole point was to make a film that doesn’t get into rhetorical stuff, that actually cuts across it, and makes you feel the reality of that situation, because life is complicated — people are complicated, light and dark are complicated, so why do we simplify just because it’s a movie?
To be clear, the misconception is that this is somehow a film about the Polish complicity in the Holocaust —
Yes, that it’s mainly about that. But there are Stalinist crimes that are in the background as well, and all sorts of other things. Jazz music is there, and love, and faith, and aesthetic attitudes towards life…
I thought it was about a crisis of faith more than anything else.
Yeah, it’s about identity in general. It’s one of the reasons I made it is that it’s my return to Poland. I left Poland at 14 and wanted to recapture a certain world — and not just in terms of landscapes, sounds, and images, but also in terms of human types: Human dilemmas, tragic lives, people who are making huge decisions. I miss that world, and in today’s virtual world, where our morality’s slightly off the peg, because we live in a historical vacuum — I’m talking about the West — we get our moral values from The Guardian or The New York Times. “Ida” is nostalgia not just for the landscapes, sounds and images of Poland in the 1960’s, but also for people steeped in history. They are not there just to symbolize anything, except through the reality of who they are.
So, if you’re like Wanda [Agata Kulesza’s character] — a young, Marxist-Leninist idealist — which, you know, a lot of people were — then after the war you become part of the establishment. Murder is part of the establishment as well. You kind of believe in what you do, because you want to change the world, but you’re committing crimes as well, because you have to engineer show trials, and innocent people die. But that’s not the end of the story, that’s not the whole of you. You’re still full of energy for life, have a sex drive, and suddenly you have this family life you turned your back on, and some tragic secret. Wanda is not there to symbolize anything — and neither is Ida, for that matter: She’s complicated, too — although she seems simpler.
The farmer, Feliks [Adam Szyszkowski] did the deed, so his whole thing is not straight-forward at all. His father harbored this family, but there was a death penalty on doing that. He kept a little girl alive — what the hell? This life is full of inconsistencies.
You’re hardly a newcomer, but none of your previous work received this kind of exposure. How has the success of “Ida” changed your relationship to the industry?
I never thought much about the industry, to be honest. And I never worked in TV — I made documentaries, I had a contract with the BBC, because back then the BBC was a fun kind of gentlemen’s club, not a corporation. It was just an enclave of freedom, you just go there and shoot stuff, and these are my favorite films anyway. So I always felt like a marginal kind of figure, and I enjoyed being on the margins. I was making films in Britain, but I wasn’t British. I have a different perspective on Britain, and when I made my feature films in Britain, again, I didn’t want to enter the mainstream. I was making small budget films so I could control everything. I wanted to stay away from the industrial side of filmmaking, where everything’s kind of scientific: You write the script, and cast the people who get you the budget — I never did that.
So I kind of kept to myself. And I never had an idea of a career either, so basically I made films about what’s in my mind at any single time — including the film that I did in France [“The Woman in the Fifth”], which is a weird, two-headed monster, but it’s very much about where I was at the time. The luxury that I have is I’m not career-minded, I just live from one film to the next. For a time, I was making documentaries, and all my documentaries were winning awards and stuff, and then I lost interest in documentaries. Then I had a little bit of success with my films “Last Resort,” and “My Summer of Love,” and I was sort of offered stuff. But I want to be able to make things about what interests me at a particular time.
And you don’t feel like the success of “Ida” is making that process easier for you?
Yeah, up to a certain budget you have more freedom. That probably has gone up a bit, but not hugely — especially if you don’t have famous actors, and also if the financiers know that I keep reworking the script all the time. Basically I sculpt the thing as often as I write it. So to have that amount of freedom…I don’t think I could have that in a normal set-up.
But it’s so difficult to actually come up with ideas that you really fall in love with, you know? That’s the most difficult thing about filmmaking — and that’s my main challenge in life. Not to get a job in Hollywood.
To that end, how does the Oscar nomination impact your self-confidence?
It proves this theory that I have always had, that when you really do your own thing and follow that pull, and do it uncompromisingly, the world will come around to where you’re going.
Statistically, that happens rarely, but it’s great when it does. With “Ida” — whatever happens with the Oscars, it’s done so well. It’s overshot the mark so far. It’s like in any other art: You don’t do it for the reward. It’s difficult enough to do something that has emotional pull, form that has something to do with the content. When you create a certain energy in your material, if it gets recognized, fantastic.
Where were you when the Oscar nominations were announced?
In Mexico City. I was in a bar, having a beer at six or seven in the morning. It was a sort of vacation, my daughter was also teaching at the film school there. I went to Mexico City after some time in Los Angeles, just to decompress. I was really disappointed that Ruben [Ostlund’s film, “Force Majuere”] didn’t go further, I must say, because I really liked it. Ruben was sweet about it, he was quite openly competitive. He was very honest.
What about you?
I am at some level, but the problem is, I change the goal post rather than play the game. So I’m not competing on the same field as other [nominees]. I wasn’t terribly competitive before, but by this point, it’s so far along in the Oscar campaign, so I can’t stop myself.
The thing is that all these guys — like Andre [Zvyagintsev, director of “Leviathan”] and “Wild Tales” director Damian Szifron — they were great guys doing great films, and we’re all in the same boat, so when we’re on this strange tour, we bump into each other, and we have much more in common with each other than the world around us. Whichever one of us wins, I think we’ll be fine.