Familiar Places from Unfamiliar Perspectives
An Interview with Tomasz Wolski
by Ondřej Kuhn
Producing steadily over the past few years, Tomasz Wolski has earned wide acclaim domestically and abroad. While sweeping several scholarships, including the Berlinale Talent Campus, the Polish Ministry of Culture, as well as the City of Krakow, the young director managed to finish almost 10 documentaries. With Doctors, Wolski excelled at the 51st Krakow Film Festival where he won three prizes - The President of the Association of Polish Filmmakers Award for Best Film Editing, Student Jury Award and Special Mention in the international competition. This year in Jihlava, Doctors made it through to the selection of nominees for the best documentary feature of the East Silver Market. At the 2011 Plus Camerimage, the film won the Golden Frog Award for Best Documentary Feature.
1/ In your films you often portray whole groups of people - actors, patients, doctors, although you occasionally focus more on some individuals. Do you think groups of people are more interesting than individuals?
No, I don’t think so. Even when I portray a whole group of people I always choose very strong personalities to focus on. In my documentaries you can always follow Witek, Dr. Marek or Mrs. Elisa, not some nameless characters. I try to characterize them in order to make the audience know my heroes better, who they are and what they are. One of the reasons why I focus on a group is because it allows me to project the responsibility for the character I film into a few people. I always try not to hurt them, I avoid showing them in a negative way, but still, it is very easy to portray some people’s lives as complicated. The whole weight of the film is not on one man’s shoulders, but it is spread out, which makes it easier for all of us. I also think it is harder to make documentaries about a group of people because it is harder to keep the audiences interested till the end credits. So this way it’s more interesting. A simple answer to your question is: I just love that kind of films.
2/ You also show enclosed environments - institutions and workplaces - and never leave them in the films. What is it that makes you isolate those places?
I think it is very natural. When you're waiting in a hospital or a corridor at a railway station, you instinctively follow the life of that place. You notice that an old lady came in, she sits on the chair, then she asks someone for help, maybe she talks with the bystanders about their grandsons and eventually the doctor calls her in. She came in and then left the hospital. You don’t follow her out, you film her because she was in that special place. You could even lose sight of her on the street.
3/ Could you think of a place you would never want to portray? Why?
I don’t think there is such a place. It always depends on characters I meet inside. If the place is very exciting but the people who work or live there are not interesting for me, I just leave it. I try to capture familiar and popular places from an unexpected point of view. Every time I have to find one.
4/ Your films are observations of the life and daily routine in various environments. How much can the presence of a filmmaker intrude with it?
I don’t know. I’ve never made a scientific research to find out how people behave when the camera is filming them in comparison to the absence of a film crew. I always try to make them get used to me. Sometimes it takes one week, another time it takes four months. I always look for characters to whom my camera is not such a big deal, you can see it right away. I shoot scenes in which the characters are not set by me. They do their everyday job and they focus on it, not on me filming them. I make documentaries about people I like, so I couldn’t imagine filming a man I don’t respect. I must feel well spending time with them, otherwise my work would have been tormenting, and it works both ways. I don’t even care if people are a little different because of my presence, obviously, they cannot play someone else in front of the camera. But I’m not a fanatic truth searcher. I could even say that truth is not so much important. It's emotions that count.
5/ How long does it take to make the presence of a camera completely unobtrusive, invisible for the subjects? How long and what did it take in case of Doctors?
Every time it’s different. In case of Doctors, the researching took about 3 months visiting the hospital, looking for the characters and then visiting them again. I told them what I want and we made tons of conversations about different topics (not only medical). I wanted to make them know who I am, to know me better and convince them that I’m not here to hurt them. Then I shot for 4 months.
6/ Similarly to the images of your previous films, there is quite a smooth and gentle humor in Doctors. How important is it for your work to convey good nature of people and environment they live in?
I don’t want to make films about only dark side of life, sensational events, wars, Africans without hands, prostitutes, drug addicts or alcoholics. These are not interesting topics for me. I portray normal life and try to make it interesting for the audiences as if they were watching Avatar. Even when I shoot well-known Polish actors I try to show them as people with some flaws. In every life, there is place for tears, anxiety, but also laughter and brilliant moments. Good sense of humor is one of the most important parts of our lives. I’m afraid of people who are too serious.
7/ Doctors is the latest of your creative documentaries - you foster the ideas and script, you film and edit your films. Is it because your filmmaking style would be too difficult with a larger crew?
I shoot myself, holding the camera, because I like it. I often don’t know what I want to film but I can feel it. I use intuition and that is why it would be very hard for me to cooperate with a cameraman. The first question of every cinematographer is what to shoot, and I usually don’t know how to answer that question. I try to edit the footage at home immediately after a day of shooting so that I know where I am and what else I need. After a few months of this kind of work, hiring an editor is useless. The other issue is money. It’s impossible to hire people for 30 - 40 days of shooting during 4 - 6 months. They have other better paid jobs. I only need a sound man, but only occasionally.
8/ You once said you usually keep the camera rolling to avoid missing an important scene or moment in your film. You must often end up with a lot of footage to edit. Yet, you film with an overall concept in mind. How much does the concept change during the shooting and editing? What was the case with Doctors?
I usually end up with approx. 60 - 80 hours of footage. As I said before, I edit onboard so that the amount of footage is not a problem. At the end of the shooting day, I know exactly what I do or don't have. I know which scenes are good and thus worth spending time editing. The rest I usually leave untouched unless something is missing or I need some intercuts. So the concept is coming to light during both the filmmaking processes – shooting and editing. When I started shooting Doctors I had no concept at all. Well, I had one – shooting only doctors, not patients. But still, it was an experiment for me. Shooting was a process of discovering the theme. I followed my intuition to derive my own reality and dismiss what is strange for me. I was creating the concept during the shooting and it was very interesting.
9/ What is the time span of events shown in the movie? The hospital lights keep one forgetting there is day and night changing... How did you get used to the work regime of the hospital during the shooting?
I just enjoyed the shooting. I knew that I am going to focus only on doctors and patients will be out of focus or we will only hear them. So in every scene I clearly found the spot to stand with the camera. I was a little bit afraid of scenes just with doctor and patient because I knew it would be very difficult to edit 20-30 minutes conversation in to 4-6 minutes almost without intercuts. I didn’t film the patient so the camera was aimed at the doctors’ faces quite all the time. That was a big challenge.
10/ You don't criticize or judge the hospital or health care in Poland. Your film, however, manages to humanize an environment which, to many, is just a sterile repair unit for humans. Was that your intention with Doctors?
I try to make documentaries in a way that my intentions are not so clear. I try to meld multiple themes in one film. I avoid telling directly that this film is about this or that. I like it when documentaries have a lot of layers. So please don’t expect me to tell you about my intentions. I hope audiences will discover different universal aspects in Doctors. If not, I won’t help them and it would mean that I failed.
This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #2.
Lekarze , Poland, 2011, 80 min, HD, Creative, Health, Portrait
What happens behind the closed doors of surgical wards, treatment rooms and other spaces where specialist medical consultations take place? The film follows the everyday work of doctors in a surgical ward: the hierarchy between them, the need to take important decisions, the struggle with economic problems. Although usually they use a vernacular incomprehensible to an average person, they also tell jokes or insider’s anecdotes. Their work, despite the knowledge and experience acquired, may still involve surprising moments.