Lessons in True Documentary Making
An Interview with Wojciech Staroń
by Ondřej Kuhn
Polish filmmaker Wojciech Staroń attended IDF's Ex Oriente Film workshop in 2010 with his documentary project Brothers. This year, Staroń's Argentinian Lesson enjoyed great success at the 8th East Silver Market. Not only did the film appear on the list of 11 nominees competing for the Silver Eye Award in the mid-length documentary category, it also turned out to be among the most viewed and best rated films of the market. The outstanding visual qualities of the film earned Wojciech considerable acclaim at the 51st Krakow Film Festival where he received five awards, including the Golden Horn Award for the Director of Best Film, and the Award for Best Cinematography from the Polish Association of Cinematographers. At the 2011 DOK Leipzig, the film won the Silver Dove Award.
1/ Because of thematic and formal similarity, Argentinian Lesson is very often compared to your 1998 documentary film Siberian Lesson. Besides the fact that it happens in a different place and time, what are the differences between the two films?
In both films there is the same reason for our trip: my wife’s job as a teacher of Polish within the Polish communities in Siberia and Argentina. While the first film takes my wife’s point of view - a teacher who decided to go work at the "end of the world", the second film gives the perspective of an 8-year-old teacher's son who has been taken alongside his mum to the "end of the world". In the first film, the story is based on the relationship between me my and girlfriend/wife, in the second film the story is based on the relationship between a newcomer boy and a local girl. Siberian Lesson is told using very emotional, personal voice-over, Argentinian Lesson doesn't use voice-over at all. The narration is more fiction-like.
2/ How far did your directing get since Siberian Lessons? Did you make any efforts with Argentinian Lesson to make connection to the prior film, leaving out the title itself?
In the beginning I was thinking of opening the film using flashbacks from Siberia, but during the edit I realized that every film should be an independent story and so eventual connections are born as soon as we know the two films. Anyway, the title Argentinian Lesson came to us at the end of the edit.
3/ As a cinematographer, you are rather observational type of documentary filmmaker. Is it possible to get answers without questioning? Is it even necessary for a documentarian to ask questions and give answers?
These questions are always on my mind during both shooting and editing: thanks to these questions I have an inspiration to shoot. Using camera, observing, filming, creating scenes, I try to get answers for my questions, but very often I get new questions instead of answers. I love observing people, nature and life, which is great inspiration for me, but anyway, films and stories are created in my mind. So, in the end, I observe reality and use fragments of this reality I need to build my story. Sometimes I shoot and get some good take or scene I would never expect, after which I end up with a lot of new questions. My story is developing and I look for new scenes connected to the one I've just shot. One thing is very important, though: a true emotional connection between individual takes and scenes. Every sequence, scene, take, and frame should have the same strong potential which connects my story through the whole film. That is very important to me.
4/ Does a story always evolve by itself? How much should a documentary filmmaker intervene with the subjects to get drama out of them?
The true human drama and true emotions cannot be created or pretended, never in a documentary film. It should arise from the life itself, and my job is to transform it into a film in a way like it is, more simply and truly - stronger. We can create all the rest.
5/ How is such a style of filmmaking different when the protagonists are children?
The camera should be more child-like: vivid, emotional, dynamic, but also very patient, because we only have few chances to deal with kids directly. We just have to catch them.
6/ You are a true filmmaker, filming your environs, your family. Are your kids used to the camera being a regular part of their lives?
Of course they are. Filmmaking is easier with kids than with adults. If children can see that for filmmaker his job is a real, full of emotion and passion, they become more open, natural. They have no problem to be themselves, even though a camera is around.
7/ You are both Janek’s father as well as the author of the documentary he is the subject of. How did it feel for you to guide him through new experiences while switching between those two roles?
It was very often difficult for us because I couldn't share my time with him since I had a camera in my hand. But in the end he saw me doing my job and he saw my passion, so he knew that we have gone through these new experiences together. Not only Janek, but even I had a lot of problems, too, and I think it was a great lesson for him.
8/ The film highlights the relationship between daughter, father and mother. What was the lesson for you, Wojciech Staroń, the father of a family, and Wojciech Staroń, the documentarian?
This is the most difficult question. These two years were extremely important for us as a family. We felt very united, we spent a lot of time together, we have rediscovered each other under new conditions, in new situations. As a filmmaker I understood that if you are making something really important, the film which takes all the emotions you cannot separate from your family, you need to make it through with them, you have to share emotions, troubles and successes with them.
9/ The film is a reflection of being a newcomer in a strange place, it is about getting used to something new, growing up, about a new lesson of life. What is the lesson for a viewer? How can audiences learn from it?
I don't want to lecture anybody. I wanted to tell a human story using motion pictures. What can one find in that story? It depends on personality, but I hope everyone can find some kind of poetry of life in this film. I'm happy because teenagers react very well, which is the true test for the film.
Argentyńska lekcja , Poland, 2011, 56 min, Digi Beta, Creative, Personal View, Society, Travel
In 1998 Wojciech Staroń made the documentary film "The Siberian Lesson". The film told the story of a young teacher who emigrated to the vicinity of Lake Baikal in order to teach Polish deportees’ descendants their native language. Many years later, as a married couple with two children, the director and his wife are leaving for Argentina. For their little son, this trip will not only be an encounter with an unknown language. Influenced by their Argentinian friend, Janek enters the fascinating world of imagination, and is introduced to the bitterness of childhood prematurely contaminated by the problems of grown-ups.