At Łódź Film School the art of filmmaking is both present and past, documentary and fiction.
At the 53rd edition of the Krakow Film Festival held in May this year, Poland’s legendary Łódź Film School showcased a retrospective of short documentaries in celebration of its 65th Anniversary. Films by the likes of Kazimierz Karabasz and Krzysztof Kiewslowski (whose 5 minute 1966 movie The Office is a brilliantly observed and satirical examination of Soviet bureaucracy) were screened while other famous alumni of the school – names such as Andrzej Munk, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański, Krzysztof Zanussi and Marcel Łoziński – were remembered. But as the school remembers its past, it knows it must deal with the thorny issue of its future.
Based in the central Polish industrial town of Łódź (pronounced ‘woodge’ for those not conversant in Polish), the Film School – which produces over 170 fiction, animation and documentary films each year – is one of the most renowned in the world thanks to its storied history. During the 60s, it was a hub for creativity and free-thinking; all the more remarkable considering the school spent much of its time under the Soviet regime. The school´s steps became famous as a place for debate and discussion; Western films, usually denied to Polish audiences, screened to the fascination of students and émigrés such as Polanski did much to enhance the reputation of Łódź on an international basis.
Films made to fulfil the expectations of others or made to be part of a certain fashion don’t have a long breath
Jagoda Szlecz, student at Łódž Film School
Marcin Malatyński, responsible for overseeing all the films that the Łódź Film School produces as well as teaching on the school’s MA Directing course, told me a little bit more about how the school was set up:
“The idea of a film school in the 40s was something new: it wasn’t very common that you should teach someone how to be a film director. Now you don’t think about it: almost every town has a film school. But you had all these names Bergman, Antonioni and Fellini – they didn’t need film school. So the question was ‘Is it really necessary?’” he explains. “The school was established in 1948 by very smart, intelligent people who had this great idea in their minds. They were looking at what was going on in Russia and the VGIK School and they had their own thoughts about what was important. They knew that the graduates of film school should be very well educated people so there were two parts. One was the artistic knowledge, the theory – such as art history, film history and philosophy. We had really great philosophers, the best people. The other was the technical part. These two things had to co-operate and it’s been working like this for 65 years now.”
One of the most interesting things about the school is its approach to teaching documentary which – as Malatyński explains – continues this holistic approach.
“The documentary and fiction programmes are taught at the same time – it’s not like film schools where you study either documentary or fiction. Here you have to do both. And I think it’s something unique in our school and I think it works. When you talk to our alumni, no-one has ever said: ‘It was a waste of my time’. Everyone has said: ‘It taught me something that I could use in fiction film or documentary.’ Kieslowski, when he was in school, was totally ‘documentary’ because he was just like ‘Fiction, what is this? – I don’t want to do this, because it’s cheating people.’ He was all about real life. But then, at some point, he realised that doing documentary was somehow manipulating people as people around him started to behave differently and he noticed ‘Oh my god, I’m changing their lives’.”
Jagoda Szlecz is currently a fourth year student in the directing department of the school. Directing films such as the short doc Exit Point and currently working on a new project to be shot in Russia, she elaborates on how she’s been taught during her time at the school
“The course consists of many subjects. Documentary classes run parallel to fiction film classes since both are similarly based on form and editing. Throughout the first year we focus on exercises such as Interview (the great art to ask the right question), Observation (you have to trust yourself so that your protagonist can trust you as well – all on a non-verbal basis), Portrait (creating by means of editing, framing and sound – those are simple techniques that everybody can be taught). But more importantly, we learn to follow our intuition. You also learn a great deal from other students, from their mistakes and our common discussions. All our work is analysed in groups, which is a long and painful process. Disapproval and regret are a big part of this. It teaches you to stand behind your work and in that way behind yourself. It helps to develop character. Films made to fulfil the expectations of others or made to be part of a certain fashion don’t have a long breath. Maybe they draw superficial success but then, we don’t make films for that sort of confirmation.”
Martin Rath, another current student and director of short docs such as Written In Ink and the forthcoming fiction short Arena, elaborates on the benefits of a dual approach to teaching
“I strongly believe that the parallel focus on documentary and fiction has influenced me a great deal. I often treat documentary projects with a ‘fiction film approach’ and vice versa. Working on documentaries gives me the chance to get in touch with authenticity on screen and making fiction shorts helps me to develop an understanding of creating story.”
But while the historical decision to teach documentary and fiction in parallel has remained, some other aspects of the school’s history – especially that of its political notoriety in the 60s and 70s – can be harder to negotiate.
“People talking about all these famous alumni and so on – that’s all true but it’s the past,” says Malatyński. “What we really want to do now is to concentrate on what’s going on now and the future. There’s a big discussion now in the school about our programme, what we should teach and what kind of school we should be – we haven’t asked this kind of question in a long time. My idea of the school is that we should not make films at film school – we should teach HOW to make films and this includes the theory. In fact, the best question is not “how?” but “why?” – and now we are working on that. Why do you want to be a director? What do you have to say? What do you want to do?”
This is echoed by Szlecz: “I believe that every documentary film maker faces the same challenge, to face the most significant of all questions – why do I want to make this film?”
So while the legends remain and Łódź rightly celebrates its past, a new generation of students and ideas look to be taking the school into the future. Rath told me: “Łódź has a very particular energy that I greatly appreciate and find very inspiring. Łódź’s backbone and no-bullshit character helps me to keep perspective from this sometimes dreamlike film student reality.”_
Roman Polanski visiting the School. Archive PWSFTviT