Mark John Ostrowski Illambra Interview

Conversation with the author Mark John Ostrowski about his passion for making films, his cinematic language and upcoming projects. Recently we added four feature films of Mark to our Illambra library – you can watch them here:

ILLAMBRA: Mark, tell us a bit how you became a filmmaker, and why are you doing it?

MO: Why did I become a filmmaker? The short answer is: to make the kind of films that I enjoy. Just as for many people sailing is comparable to standing under a cold shower tearing up €50 notes, filmmaking can also be an extremely frustrating and time- and money-consuming experience. Yet, despite the hardships, there are also great rewards to be had. Which is why some of us continue to push on…

ILLAMBRA: Do you consider yourself an independent filmmaker and what this term means for you (+ benefits and flaws of being one)?

MO: In my films, I have the final word and I make no concessions. I don’t form the part of any “movement”. So therefore I have absolute creative freedom. The downside to this is that you are an “outsider” in every sense because in filmmaking like in other areas of life, you have to have friends. Merit alone is not enough. If you look closely, most so-called independent filmmakers who get any kind of coverage are already in the mainstream and have been co-opted by the industry.

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.

MO: Making a film is hard work. Some of my films took two to three years to reach the screen once they were shot and often they took just as much time to materialize into a project. In my view, the problem is not getting it seen, but getting it seen by the right audience. In today’s world it is not always easy to find spectators who can appreciate avant-garde cinema. My film “Sixty Spanish Cigarettes”, for example, did not receive much attention here in Spain, but yet it won awards in Italy and Russia. So, it’s not always a question of how many people see your film, but rather what kind of people see it. For me, film festivals continue to offer the best possibilities for getting one’s work appraised by critics and avid movie-goers.  

ILLAMBRA: The common motifs in your films are displacement, identity, belonging, heritage… You seem to be in constant search, both in life and your film language, of experiencing and questioning these emotional states and concepts. Tell us a bit more about the journey you undertook in both fields.

MO: My grandfather was born in Poland; my father, in the United States. I have been living in Spain since my early twenties. I am reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s book “What Am I Doing Here?” or Jonas Mekas’ autobiography “I Had Nowhere To Go”…I can relate to both. So yes, there must be some complex psychological issues at work deep inside me, and I think my films are an attempt to bring it to the surface, a kind of therapy, if you will. But maybe I need to get psychoanalysed in order to understand what is going on inside my head!

“Home movie” 2014

ILLAMBRA: Do you like to improvise, working with your actors and also during the editing process?

MO: Yes! Everything for me is improvisation. In life and in film. When I make a film, I start with a phrase, an idea, nothing more. There are no hierarchies. On the set I encourage feedback from actors and technicians. It is truly an organic, collective experience. A kind of heightened reality. Working with a script and a detailed shot list doesn’t stimulate my imagination.  

ILLAMBRA: Originally you are also a photographer, the visuals are one of the key narrative elements of your films. Do they also represent a driving engine for your dramaturgy?

MO: Film, like Nicholas Ray once said, is the cathedral of the arts. That is because it combines so many aesthetic elements. The visuals are obviously a very big part of the equation. Which is why I shot many of my films myself.  Curiously enough, I am increasingly becoming interested in sound design and cinema as performance (live cinema) as well. 

ILLAMBRA: Black and white or color? 

MO: Black and white reduces a scene to its basic elements and in its detachment from color actually seems to come closer to reality. It allows us to concentrate on light and shadow as well as composition with no other distractions. Stunning color images of bright, sunny landscapes would be well suited for a TV commercial but in my view they would only detract from the generally dark existentialist visions in most of my films.   

ILLAMBRA: Could you tell us a bit more about your latest film “The Island”?

MO: “The Island” was filmed in Taranto, Italy, where my film “Sixty Spanish Cigarettes” won an award at a local film festival.  I was immediately struck by the decadent beauty of the city and I vowed to return to make a film about it, which is exactly what I did. 

ILLAMBRA: What do you want people to feel/say about your films?

MO: One of the most moving things said about my work (“Le vrai film est ailleurs”) came from the Jury of Kinomorphia Film Festival:  ”The film stands out for its search for deeper levels of expression, tenderness towards the characters and the overall pure cinematic experience that everyone in the audience was a part of.”

“The real film is elsewhere” 2018

ILLAMBRA: Whose films do you like to watch? Who are your role-models?

MO: Joao Cesar Monteiro is a big influence.

ILLAMBRA: What inspires you the most?

MO: The possibility of making a breakthrough, of creating something new. 

ILLAMBRA: If you were not a filmmaker, what would you be/do? 

MO: I am currently learning about the sea. Last year I bought a sailboat and I am preparing to make a long journey.  

ILLAMBRA: Is there a question no one asks you, but you’d like to talk about it when it comes to your creative process or your work?

MO: I generally do a poor job at explaining my creative process. I think my films provide the best answer.

ILLAMBRA: Thank you very much for this conversation, Mark. We are looking forward to your future projects.

The films of Mark John Ostrowski are available for streaming on Illambra: