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BERLINALE 2018 Forum

Jagoda Szelc • Director

“Watching a film is a form of ritual”


- BERLIN 2018: We talked to Jagoda Szelc, whose debut film, Tower. A Bright Day, has had its world premiere in the Berlinale’s Forum

Jagoda Szelc  • Director
(© Sonia Szóstak)

We caught up with Polish director Jagoda Szelc to talk about her feature debut, Tower. A Bright Day [+see also:
film review
interview: Jagoda Szelc
film profile
, which has just premiered in the Forum of the 68th Berlin Film Festival.

Cineuropa: Why did you choose a First Communion as the setting for your film? Was it related to the significance of this sacrament or the fact that in Poland, the Communion is an occasion for a family gathering?
Jagoda Szelc: Spirituality is a result of one’s individual experience. It’s an advantage that spirituality has over religion, because religion is more about borrowing from someone else’s experience, and also it’s a system. At this moment, religion is only an institution. Everyone has spiritual needs to some extent, and the Catholic church doesn’t meet those needs. Anyhow, I think no religion does that, because from its very foundation, it is forced to operate within systems. Everything starts soaking people in fear and empty rituals, and the rituals were created in order to release us from fear. In general, we know that people who are frightened are easier to manipulate – that’s why a priest in my film is not a bad person, but then again, he is not connected to his own centre. He is a “church clerk” who is being pulled away by a force he doesn’t understand. He can’t handle the situation. That is why the church in my film is under construction and kids are laughing at it, and that is what I am wishing for this institution that is already compromised: a resurrection. The Communion is an interesting ritual for me, as it’s the first ritual that a child undergoes consciously. However, in most cases, this event is completely empty. That is why Nina, the child in my film, does everything in order not to take part in this event, because she is smart, and because she is in touch with herself and sees that the reality that is being imposed on her is a lie.

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The protagonists of your film are sisters Mula and Kaja. The former leads a more conventional life than the latter. Mula is a symbol of tradition, while Kaja represents spirituality. Why did you “divide” these values and worlds between two women, and not, say, a woman and a man?
Because it’s a conflict between the left and the right hemisphere. I have things in common with both of the sisters – not much, because I do not base any character on myself, and I don’t present myself in my films. It’s not psychotherapy for me. I made a film about the necessity of losing control. We think that we are the owners of the world, when in fact we are only renters. Humankind is at a critical moment – overproduction, overpollution and our demanding attitude towards the world are causing calamities, such as ecological and geopolitical ones. We are in the first stage of apocalypse, but we are in a state of “total denial”. The characters in Tower. A Bright Day are just like us. Are they bad? No. Mula lives with a constant illusion of control; she thinks that she is in charge of her life. But human beings are only here for a while, and we don’t really own anything. Coffins don’t have trunks. Kaja, on the other hand, is a trickster; she brings chaos in order to form a new deal. She is a phenomenon (the “Bright Day”), while Mula is a fortification (the “Tower”).

The plot of the film is clear, logical and “material” at first. Over time, it loses these qualities; the events that occur have a symbolic nature, and mysterious images and sounds appear. How did you write the script in order to gradually introduce this change in the tone and mood?
I’m not interested in what “films are about” as much as “what they do”. I define a film as a machine to perform certain actions on the viewer. Watching a film is a form of ritual because you are different after the screening than you were before it. That is why the title of my film changes. It is different at the beginning and different at the end. And the references to film genres [that I make in my film] interest me on a level I would call “primitive”. Working on a film is like a strategic game because it’s very hard to employ elements of certain genres and avoid stereotypical solutions. On the other hand, I love genre. I have dreamed of making a film that would switch genres completely, just out of curiosity. I dream of seeing it fall apart.

You hired virtually unknown actors. Was it important to you that they were relatively new to the audience, and they didn’t bring in any association with other roles?
Yes. Both my cinematographer, Przemysław Brynkiewicz, and I wanted the film to be naturalistic, hence credible. In that way, we wanted to create a vehicle for more “formal” scenes. We wanted to make a modest film. But most of all, I hired these actors because they are very talented, and they are good people. And I have a rule of not working with people from hell.

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