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Bogna Kowalczyk • Director of Boylesque

“I like to say that you can steal your film, or your protagonist can give it to you”


- The Polish director zooms in on drag queen Lulla La Polaca, asking: if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?

Bogna Kowalczyk • Director of Boylesque
(© Alicja Kozak)

Lulla La Polaca (Andrzej Szwan), known as Poland’s oldest drag queen, is still figuring things out. Opening up about love, her past and her present, she is also starting to believe in her future, as we see in Bogna Kowalczyk’s tender, Hot Docs-screened documentary Boylesque [+see also:
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interview: Bogna Kowalczyk
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. All the while working on her perfect tan and inspiring people everywhere she goes.

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Cineuropa: I hadn’t heard about Lulla before, which is embarrassing. But it’s always interesting to see people who were in drag before it went mainstream, mostly thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Bogna Kowalczyk:
And yet this movie is not about the past at all. Drag is a part of Lulla, but when we talk about someone who happens to be part of a certain subculture, we don’t always have to talk about this subculture through them. The main idea – and I tried very hard to cultivate this – is that older people also have a future and a present. What Andrzej has experienced – because no one in Poland referred to it as “drag” at the time, all this dressing up and gender bending – became a symbol of his freedom. But it doesn’t define him. This film is not about a representative of a certain group; it’s about Lulla. I talk about her past only because it was important to her.

It seems that Andrzej also had to learn that he actually has a future. He doesn’t always believe in it here, instead looking for the perfect urn in the shape of a high-heeled shoe.
We all have those moments when we sit and think about who we are. “Is this the farthest I have come in my life? Is this the end?” Or, conversely, we think about stepping onto a new path. It sounds dramatic, but we experience it often, and I love it. We have many endings and many beginnings.

Also, such feelings are not defined by age. Lulla is experiencing what someone much younger might be experiencing, and vice versa. This question about what we ultimately leave behind is timeless. The scene you just mentioned, with the urn, could be seen as preparation for death, but also as an attempt to tame it. It’s like saying: “Okay, I’m going to die, but I will do it my way. And after that’s settled, I will just focus on living.”

Sometimes, Lulla appears to be feeling too young for the old and too old for the young. Did you always want to surround her with different people?
From the beginning, I tried to have very few assumptions and a lot of curiosity. It allowed me to notice things and make sure they were right, and not just a part of my fantasy about Lulla. I wanted to really look at my protagonist and take my time, making sure I wouldn’t force any labels on him, romanticise him or take away his sexuality, for example.

Recently, I spoke to a director who showed a lot of pain in her film. She said she had disappointed herself, in a way, because we need new stories now. I was thinking about it, because you don’t show what’s expected: intolerance or aggressive reactions to Lulla in Poland.
I think there’s a time and a place for everything. It’s a very personal issue for me, as a bisexual woman. Every change starts with people reacting to anger or discrimination. I certainly didn’t want to diminish it, and maybe it’s good that some will expect to see suffering in my film. It means they know about it. They are not pretending it’s not there any more.

But here’s the thing: sometimes, we immediately define people through the lens of that suffering, instead of just asking, “Who are you?” The fact that Lulla is afraid to go out in drag is probably obvious. But I wanted to tell the story of her love for life, which can be hellishly difficult. By giving a platform to homophobes, I would always have been taking something away from her: minutes, words. I wanted to give her my full attention. Lulla has problems, but who doesn’t? We don’t feel attractive sometimes, or valued or loved – and that applies to all of us.

Lulla’s stories flow very freely in the film. How did your conversations go?
I decided to ask questions that would have more to do with philosophy. Filmmakers are afraid of being accused of banality, but I wanted to talk about life, about how ambivalent it can be, how much it resembles a dance. That’s how we made this film – we made it dancing. I like to say that you can steal your film, or your protagonist can give it to you. We were wondering what it takes to feel alive. Does it happen when you are eating something you like, or maybe when you are performing on stage? Sometimes, when you show someone struggling with illness or addiction, there is this final act – they are either going to make it or not. But I wanted to show the excitement of still finding things out.

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