Interview with Artur Żmijewski

Seeing an Artur Żmijewski film is like seeing reality through the eyes of an other, as the Polish artist starts with a societal issue first and finds a form to represent it in later.

You can see both of them as a form of visual language. And yet there’s significant differences between linguistic expressions within the world of the visuals arts and cinema. Let’s say there’s a reason Polish artist Artur Żmijewski describes the visuals arts and film as two different dialects of the same language. Since the nineties he’s been using those dialects to create his humanistic texts. Trained as a sculptor in Warsaw, he made a reputation for himself as own of the most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Art connoisseurs might know him as a curator of Venice’s Biennale Arte. Within cinephile circles he’s known for his intimate, observatory documentaries. An extensive retrospective honours his film oeuvre at the current edition of IFFR.

The other
Who’s willing to delve into the films of Żmijewski might want to start with one of his latest works. Mostly because Realism (2017) is unlike any of his other films. In Realism he films six men with an amputated leg, that present their prosthetically enhanced body to the camera. According to Żmijewski it’s a study of human forms. He could have made it as a photo series, or a set of sculptures, but the movement of the handicapped bodies demanded the moving image. That’s the kind of consideration Żmijewski always makes whenever he faces a new subject. Form is always in service of content, as it’s this content that shapes our world. In accordance he films refugees (Glimpse), prisoners (The Cookbook and The Making Of), blind (Blindly) and deaf (The Singing Lesson) people, while they’re looking for images, sounds or shapes – languages basically – to express their reality. For Żmijewski it’s never about his own ideas really, but “the fantasies of the other.” 

  • Still: Glimpse

So how does the other find its way in a Żmijewski film? How does he encounter his subjects? Żmijewski takes his time to answer that question, so we’ll get back to that later. He’s careful – hesitant even – in answering questions. In the lively café of LantarenVenster, where the festival fever is raging, he comes across as an oasis of calm. His answers come quietly, surely, but slowly, with long pauses that give space for thought.  Whatever he says is supported by what he scribbles in a notepad in front of him on the table. He doodles small geometrical shapes, lines and a couple of words, while he’s looking for answers. Does he always draw and doodle so much? There’s a pause. “it helps me think,” he answers without looking up from his little book.

Finally, in his notebook we arrive at the centre of what Żmijewski’s art is about. He composes a circle. “I think about the way in which we try to understand and represent the world we live in.” Subsequently he draws little dots in the circle. He adds: “In this world, this space for thoughts, I find specific problems, the refugee crisis for instance.” Żmijewski adds lines that reach outside the circle with it’s dots – a schematic representation of a world filled with issues. “I’m looking for the right utterance of language, the right dialect, to expose these problems. Sometimes that’s through photography, or maybe sculpture. It can also be through film.”

Thanks to this artistic framework Żmijewski decided to take a 16mm camera to four refugee camps for his short film Glimpse (2018), which has its world premiere at the current edition of IFFR. Like the title suggests, Glimpse gives a fleeting insight in the life of illegals in Berlin, Calais, Grande-Synthe and Paris. In sly manner documentary shots are interwoven with shots orchestrated by Żmijewski that suggest national socialist and Soviet propaganda. By doing so he not only challenges his audience to put themselves in the perspective of a refugee. Glimpse is also a denouncement of a political system that made this refugee crisis possible in the first place. 

Film is an effective way to communicate.” – Artur Żmijewski

Scientific conclusions
Although there are often political implications to be find in the films of Żmijewski, it’s not like all of his films are explicitly political like Glimpse. Rather many of his films are looking for an unusual depiction of beauty. The Making Of (2013), according to Żmijewski, is about “beauty being smuggled in prison.” For this short documentary he organized a beauty and fashion show in a Warsaw prison. The imprisoned women are treated with new clothes and make-up. Then they flaunt their new style among the prison cells, like a catwalk behind bars. The film is sweet, intimate and touching, because we can see how the beauty show moves the prisoners. This cosmetic metamorphosis is almost alien, because this kind of beauty that we consider to be normal in our society is very rare within the enclosed environment of a prison. In a typical fashion Żmijewski concludes The Making Of with a stern jailer that brings the fashion show to an end. It’s prison, after all.

These kind of workshops often return in the oeuvre of Żmijewski. For Cookbook he arranged a cooking class in prison. Scenes in which prisoners learn about good food (fresh vegetables, lavish salads and live lobsters) are juxtaposed with images of the prison canteen, where homogeneous food is produced on a massive scale. Why is he so interested in these kind of workshops? “film is an effective way to communicate,” he explains. “That’s why I film actions and workshops, as a way to share the experiences of others with my audience. In some cases, I can make conclusions based on my findings, like a scientist. For The Singing Lesson, for instance, I filmed deaf children that were being thought to sing in a church. My conclusion was that they could create something beautiful together, a certain beauty made from a lack of harmony. I though this was a beautiful conclusion which I could share with viewer through my film.” 

Photo in header: Interview: Hugo Emmerzael