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Marcin Koszalka and Family Cinema Therapy

Polish cinematographer and documentary filmmaker Marcin Koszalka (1970) is a graduate of the Katowice Film School. Dividing his talents between his creative documentaries, cinematography work and collaboration with HBO Poland, Koszalka is a member of the European Film Academy, Polish Society of Cinematographers and other industry organizations. His directing credits include eight documentary films, many of them awarded at international festivals. He received cinematography awards for Welts and Reverse at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival.

With a bit of simplification, Koszalka's oeuvre can be divided into two strands. In the first, he is involved with intimate family films, conducting a cinematic autopsy both on his relatives and strangers. The second centers on important figures whose approach to life may provide inspiration for others. The Existence (2007), which falls under the latter category, is about a well-known Polish actor who decided to donate his body to science. The protagonist and the filmmaker set out to express and elucidate their standpoint to (not only Polish) audiences who might find such decision problematic on ethical or other grounds. Another film under this heading, The Declaration of Immortality (2010) is about Piotr Korczak, a man who inspired many to take up rock climbing. Korczak puts forward his philosophy and his understanding of climbing - or sports in general - as a fulfillment of the myth of eternal youth, an invincible body driven by an invincible spirit. Aided by the sceneries, both films are also a showcase of Koszalka's expert cinematography.

The second group of films includes, for instance, Such a Nice Son I Gave Birth To (1999) in which Koszalka tries to come to terms with his mother and with himself. While this is a strong recurrent feature of all films in the "series", it does not necessarily involve his own family, as we find in Till It Hurts (2008). A 53-year-old psychiatrist who lives with his mother becomes involved in a relationship, something close to a miracle considering he is such a mama's boy. As expected, the mother opposes the relationship. She is brimming with bits of psychiatric knowledge, absorbed over the years spent with his son, and at the height of her hysterical outpourings, she is able to resort to impenetrable sophisms. The filmmaker managed to get so close to her that it makes the viewer feel uneasy, as if really being in the same room with people who are having a bad argument. Koszalka strings the situations together so as to clearly show the results of his long-term observations - the mother's pathological dominance, her snobbery and egotism, as well as the son's fatigue, insecurity and clumsiness created by their unhealthy bond. His position is all the more horrifying since he should be able to have an insight into this kind of pathology. Being an expert obviously did not save him from following damaged patterns of behavior. They discuss everything in copious amounts of jargon yet they remain unhappy. Analysis cannot save them. The film borders on horror as we find out more about the late husband and father who used to lock himself up from her and wished to die. The viewer gets a glimpse of a whole family ruined by mental instability and unhealthy emotional bonds, whose members just won't learn and, despite all efforts, systematically continue to torture themselves and one other.

Koszalka achieves effective results with subtle juxtaposition. For instance, the son tickles his girlfriend and, in a rare moment of domestic truce, he is shown tickling his mother in exactly the same way. This speaks volumes about his inability to break out of the damaged family structure. Alternately, the director makes use of a striking composition: while the son is on the phone with a patient in the foreground, the mother is sitting in an armchair in the background. Her expression and anxious gestures clearly betray anger and jealousy she cannot contain. Using very sparse devices, Koszalka is able to paint a compelling and persuasive picture of a private hell inhabited by the protagonists. He proves his worth as a patient observer, good psychologist and well-versed analyst.

Koszalka turns his attention to his own family again in Come What May (2004) and Let's Run Away From Her (2010). The first one captures the director and his wife as they repeat some of the things they certainly did not want to learn from their parents. In the second film, Koszalka  and his sister already have to deal with the death of their parents. Through film he tries to see how to cope with the loss, and contemplates about his sister and himself. He follows her with harsh meticulousness even in situations that are embarrassing for her, for example, when she has her picture taken with pursed lips to see how her permanent make-up turned out or when she wants the beauty salon employee to flatter her looks. He subjects himself to an equally shaming treatment when his sister demands that he tell her whether he thinks of anything else other than how their lives will play out on film. Koszalka is relentless as a filmmaker, willing to share and disclose everything he has documented as it has gradually crystallized into strings of meaning.

His sister lives in apparent wealth, surrounded by beautiful objects, which allows for an open confrontation with death, pain and fear. It is as if Koszalka dripped some aqua regia on a piece of gold trying to see what is left once the gold has dissolved. The hospital scenes act as the aqua regia in our case, and Koszalka's sister plays them on a plasma with a gilded frame. Tainted with contrast, paradox and an air of the surreal, the resulting effect forces one to make comparisons and assessments. The filmmaker throws in a few hints to help the viewer see things from his perspective. Koszalka is by no means just a neutral observer, he consciously refines his material and makes it into a whole with a deliberate meaning and composition. With subtlety and deftness he manipulates his protagonists, setting up situations for a joint exploration of the outcomes. His sister is subjected to a near brutal confrontation. She - along with the viewer - is first shown a patient who speaks about his fears, then we see his death and finally, a nurse dressing his body and a doctor making a phone call to his relatives. It is another instance in which intimacy borders on voyeurism, and the viewer finds herself out of her comfort zone, in a place permeated with unease and pain. Shown repeatedly, the gilded frame of the television stands for a cinema screen or another interface used by the viewer. Koszalka continues to remind us of the transience of all things, the worthlessness of tiger-striped chairs next to a woman who is trying to salvage whatever is left of her beloved husband from inside of her diseased body. His final smile is a rare reward even for the viewer.

In this and other films, Koszalka employs frequent shots of hands and their actions. They serve as a synecdoche to gauge a person's mood, character and disposition. Speaking hands are an important device in Koszalka's films. Another recurrent element is that of the mother who is the object of ambivalent feelings because there is always something very complicated if not sinister about her - this is probably what drives the director's staple genre of family cinema therapy. And let's not forget his talent for sensitive and eloquent juxtapositions, his uncompromising eye in collecting and composing footage, as well as his absolute and heartfelt commitment to the given subject matter. Far from making an assault on the viewer, Koszalka does not spare himself, readily revealing his own weaknesses, injuries and limits. His films are at once an unpleasant, painful and beneficial purgatory for all who are involved in the life of a film.

Written by Kateřina Surmanová

Marcin Koszalka's directing filmography: Such a Nice Son I Gave Birth To (1999); Come What May (2004); All Day Together (2006); User-friendly Death (2006); The Existence (2007); Sentenced for Life (2008); Dead Body (2008); Till It Hurts (2008); Let's Run Away from Her (2010); The Declaration of Immortality (2010).

This text was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #1. On October 28, 2011, Marcin Koszalka held a master class as part of our Industry Programme in Jihlava.

photo: Let's Run Away from Her (dir. Marcin Koszalka, Poland 2010)