I spoke with Mr. Skolimowski at the London office of Artificial Eye, the UK distributors of his highly acclaimed new feature Essential Killing, on the day of the film’s gala premiere launching the 9th annual edition of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival.
HeyUGuys: There have been very few works in any medium that have come out of the West that portray the Islamic guerillas of Afghanistan and elsewhere in any sort of sympathetic or humanising manner. Did you anticipate a backlash that you and the film would receive for creating a sympathetic portrait like this?
JZ: Well, of course this is not a sympathetic character; there is the possibility also that he is a terrorist. At the same time, he is the one who is chased by many, and in the fight of one against many, you tend to take the side of the underdog. So it’s kind of a perverse thing; although the audience will not like him, and will be very suspect of what kind of man he is, it’s kind of like in sports, when a team in the 3rd or 4th division play a Premier League team, you want the little guys to score.
HeyUGuys: You certainly didn’t give him any of the attributes that we are accustomed to seeing in film and television portrayals of Muslim fighters. Mohammed is captured by U.S. forces after killing three men, but two of them (U.S. security contractors) are presented as decidedly unsympathetic characters. I think there are some things like this that help us to side with Mohammed.
JZ: Yes, and there’s a possibility in the beginning that he is just the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he’s totally innocent. It has a double meaning; either he is innocent, or maybe not. He’s not wearing a black turban, so he’s definitely not a Taliban. On the other hand, he has skill in operating arms, and the way he fights, with such desperation, is characteristic of a fighter. So, maybe he has some past that we wouldn’t like if we knew about it.
HeyUGuys: In the Kinoteka Festival programme there is a description of the recently published book Polish Cinema Now! which points out that Polish cinema since the fall of communism 20 years ago is much less known than when filmmaking there was totally controlled by the government. Why do you think that is?
JZ: What we were doing, which was the so called Polish School, was that we were talking about the important issues of our time. Also, the fact that we were doing a little anti-regime work, it was recognised that there were artists behind the Iron Curtain who were trying to say something about what was going on. That’s one thing. Since 1990, when we have had freedom and there is no need for conspiracy any more, I believe that our filmmakers, especially the young filmmakers, are trying to copy Hollywood movies, which is not always a good thing. That’s why Polish film doesn’t have the strength that it had in the ’60s and ’70s.
You mentioned the Kinoteka Festival, to my surprise I learned that there are 50 films showing in the festival. I read the programme and I must admit that I know about a dozen of them, and among them are some really quite significant films. I guess this year is a better year for Polish cinema; if we can present 50 films in London, and a good deal of them are very, very interesting, I think this is a sign that Polish cinema has a chance to bloom again.
HeyUGuys: What is the experience like of shooting a film in Poland now as opposed to when you were making them in the ’60s and ’70s?
JZ: First of all, the crews are much more professional, they are very well trained and Polish camera men are amongst the best in the world. The actors are also very well trained. If they are making 50 or so films in a year then the personnel are clearly well trained.
The biggest problem in making the films in the 1960s was the stock, because we had to buy the film stock from the Western world, and we had to pay hard currency for it and that was really tough. I don’t remember that I ever did more than 3 takes, so you can understand how limited the workshop was. Now, we can have luxurious productions. In Essential Killing, I think my ratio was something like 1 to 15.
HeyUGuys: You were away from filmmaking for a very long period, were you living in California for all of that time?
JZ: I lived in California, in Malibu, and I was painting. Painting is my great passion, and I never had time to execute my talents in that field. So after I made a kind of mediocre film 20 years ago, I thought, I should take a break now, and re-think what I am doing as a filmmaker, and I promised myself that I will never again make a mediocre film. It would have to be something special in order to force me to make another film. I was painting quite successfully, and had exhibitions all around the world. My work was bought by museums and private collectors, some of them very famous (Jack Nicholson bought 4 of my paintings and Dennis Hopper bought 3), so it was very satisfying. Somehow I felt that I had renewed myself as an artist, and so with that feeling, I felt that I was able to go back to filmmaking.
HeyUGuys: Was there anything specific that happened that brought you back to filmmaking at the time you made your feature prior to this one three years ago?
JZ: I was feeling full of energy, and enthusiastic, and successful as painter. The fact that I decided to move back to Poland, where we have a well functioning Polish Film Institute, with a considerable budget supporting practically all Polish film production, makes it much easier for me to make films there than if I were to try my hand in Hollywood or somewhere else. These were the main reasons I decided to start making films again.
HeyUGuys: You’ve said that you think this film is the best you’ve ever made. Can you expand on why you feel that?
JZ: I think Essential Killing summarises all my experience as a filmmaker. I executed the film exactly as I wanted to, and had full control. I was not only a screenwriter and director, but I was also a producer of the film, so everything was in my hands. I believe I executed exactly what I wanted, as I’m responsible for every frame and every sound in the film. That was very satisfying and I’m very happy with the film.
HeyUGuys: Will we be seeing more films from you soon?
JZ: Not right now. I don’t have any ideas for films and I’d like to go back to painting now because I haven’t been painting for two years as I was so busy with Essential Killing. Hopefully after my tour of practically every film festival in the world and openings in many countries, maybe this summer I can go back to my forest and start to paint again.
Essential Killing is now playing across the UK. This year’s Kinoteka Polish Film Festival (official website here) runs until 23 April at various London venues as well as venues in Belfast, Edinburgh, Exeter and Glasgow.