Conversation with Aleksandra Niemczyk, about her filmmaking practices and cinema in general. Aleksandra’s feature”Baba Vanga” is available for streaming on Illambra. First in our series of conversations with Illambra filmmakers.
ILLAMBRA: Aleksandra, tell us a bit how you became a filmmaker, and why are you doing it?
AN: Filmmaking was a path I was dreaming of early on, but I didn’t see the possibility back when I was making my initial choices for life, so I took Fine Arts – painting and lithography – as my study subject at first. In retrospect, I am glad I side-tracked a bit through visual arts before I dedicated myself to cinema, gaining a strong visual background and consciousness about the power of the image. Having established myself in those arts, I sketched an idea for a video installation, and a producer friend of mine convinced me that it could become a film. It did become my first short film, and was premiered and awarded at Locarno Film Festival. And so, the hook, the film hook got deep into my heart. Then Béla Tarr accepted me to his unique film program, film.factory, and the rest is history.
Since then, I keep going. Short films, a feature film, moving image installations, whatever is possible at a given time. Film is the medium that combines all the arts into one powerful sensation of a dream experienced in a real time. That keeps me coming back to this medium. But the other thing that motivates me to make films is the energy and dynamic that happens between people engaged in the process. From pre-production to post-production, everyone brings their talent and enthusiasm and ideas. In the end the film becomes a collective piece, driven with one conductor/director, but still, the final work is a collective effort and achievement. And this I have only experienced through filmmaking.
ILLAMBRA: Most probably, today, it is easier to get a film made than to get it seen and distributed. Can you tell us some of your experiences with the audience, audience feedback, and the channels you used to get your films to the people.
AN: That is very true. I think one has to be realistic but creative. All of my films have luckily had a festival life after they were premiered at an established festival and seen there by programmers of other festivals or curators of galleries or online platforms. It has been rare for a film to be selected after I submitted to a random festival, to be honest. That can be frustrating at times. So, I use the exhibition platform I am exploring with my paintings and often screen films in galleries or at art-related events. It is also a good way to meet my audience: I’ve shown my films in many countries and resonated with like-minded people without accessing conventional distribution channels. And feedback often comes from unexpected places in an unexpected way, in the form of an e-mail, an invitation to do another screening, or a film analysis in the film blog of someone who saw the film and appreciated it enough to dedicate time to write about it. It doesn’t happen every day and with every film, but I appreciate when it does.
ILLAMBRA: Can you give us a bit of background how “Baba Vanga” was made? It is your first feature film, and is now available through Illambra too.
AN: Baba Vanga is the last production I made in Sarajevo under the mentorship of Béla Tarr. I was fascinated by the Balkan prophet and attempted to re-imagine her as a young woman receiving the gift of clairvoyance rather than making a biopic. The idea was left in a drawer for a long time until I met Neenee Roche, the main actress, who I saw as «my» fictional Baba Vanga.
I had a passion for the subject, an amazing crew mostly made out of my friends from film.factory, a talented DP and two actresses who were just perfect for the role. Production was almost a family affair. Small crew, three locations, one-week shoot.
We worked on the art design of our location for a month before shooting, working at the same time with the main actress, Neenee, to inhabit the space as if it was her own, without acting it. So, when the crew came to the shoot it was really as if they were visiting her and observing her daily activity for real. She became the character in a very organic way. The older actress. Tatjana Sojic, is a very talented and experienced professional actress, and there wasn’t much need for direction other than explaining the character and the choreography of the scene.
The director of photography, Lukasz Zamaro, has a very sensitive eye for lighting, colour, and composition, and I think he captured the visual world prepared by the team (led by art director Jesse Erin Posner) in a very poetic way. He was mainly using daylight, blocked to create a mysterious atmosphere, and he embraced the loneliness of the main character with static shots and contemplative observation.
Script-wise it was very prepared but also very improvised. I collaborated on the script with my partner Graeme Cole, but then very often on the set I would disregard it or re-write the scene, or test some new idea if the pre-written scene didn’t somehow work. And the judgment of that was strictly intuitive.
Once the film was shot, I approached my friend and editor Kostas Makrinos and sound composer and sound artist Olga Szymula to add their magic into material we had.
It all sounds easy in a few words, but there were a few challenges with the low budget production, and the language we had to set to French because of the main actress, who was most natural in her native language. There was the last-minute withdrawal of a rafting team, who were supposed to help shoot the opening sequence on the river. Also, I broke my lower right rib literally a day before the shoot and had to go through the whole shoot with excruciating pain, without moving at all, coughing or laughing, which could only be possible because of my family of friends who were more than dedicated to bring the project to a wrap.
ILLAMBRA: For the last question, give an answer to your favourite question.
AN: I don’t have a favourite question.
But I can tell you about the latest film from non-mainstream cinema, that has caught my heart, “Rhymes of the White Crow,” a visionary fairy tale with very poetic images. It resonated with my taste for films that are addressed to our senses, not our logical mind. I recommend to watch it and follow the young Croatian filmmaker Andrea Resner, as she is a new voice in Croatian art cinema.