I don’t think it’s an accident that the greatest filmmakers in history survived the Second World War.
He should have known better. Violence doesn’t bring back the dead.
Based on Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, Agnieszka Holland’s woodland-set eco-thriller Spoor—directed in collaboration with daughter Kasia Adamik—follows a militant animal rights activist who becomes embroiled in a series of local killings.
In a mountainous village on the Czech-Polish border, Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka), an elderly schoolteacher—also a retired civil engineer and astrology enthusiast—leads a modest life in a tumbledown cottage, smack dab in the middle of a state-sanctioned hunting zone. In Holland’s world, hunters and poachers are so evil—if anything, look at their gambling ways, total embrace of prostitution, and the skinning of live animals—as to appear inhuman and beyond moral bounds. So you can imagine the friction between Duszejko, a blend of squishy feelings and crusading righteousness, and these obtuse monsters reaching new levels of awkwardness when a spate of men’s bodies, killed in various mysterious ways, turn up. The true extent of Duszejko’s possibly wily nature and how far she might stick her oar in to save her beloved critters is slowly revealed.
Anthem met Holland, the Polish master behind Europa, Europa (1990), The Secret Garden (1993) and In Darkness (2011), at this year’s Seoul International Women’s Film Festival in South Korea. Since 1997, SIWFF has empowered female filmmakers: “See the world through women’s eyes.”
Spoor picked up the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. SIWFF runs June 1-7.
[Editor's Note: The following conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.]
Something worth mentioning about your work is that the scope is big. Spoor is majestic from the opening shot. Do you still get intimidated at the beginning of each new project?
Yeah, but not everything. When I’m doing a TV series, I’m not so terribly intimidated. But TV is always a challenge because you have to figure out somebody’s style and make it your own. You have to stay faithful. It’s a different kind of work and a stylistic exercise. Every time I do a movie or a personal miniseries, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it. It always feels like the first time. I have routines and know certain things: I know how to build a good crew and how to make actors feel well. At the same time, I don’t know how the movie will come together. I don’t know if I will find the form, if the storytelling will be appealing to people, or if it will work on several levels.
So it’s clear that Spoor is deeply personal if you compare it to something like House of Cards.
Of course. And it’s not a question of TV or not TV. It’s a question of the format. When it’s episodic TV series, it’s less personal. When it’s a TV film or a miniseries or a future theatrical film, they’re similar. The important thing is that I express myself through the visual storytelling and look at the distribution format. It’s a secondary question in some ways. Of course, when you’re not showing the film in a movie theater, it’s a different feeling than if you’re just showing it on television.
As I was heading into your film, I couldn’t help but notice that you were leaving after introducing the film. Do you not like to watch your movies with an audience?
I watch the first two or three times. After that, I feel in some ways tired of the film. But maybe I will watch it tomorrow. Maybe I’ll watch it with the audience to see how they react.
Is Spoor your first film with your daughter, Kasia [Adamik], in a co-directing capacity?
No—after we co-directed one film, if she was available, I would ask her to shoot several scenes and help me find ideas. She did storyboards for several of my movies because she was a storyboard artist before starting to direct herself. In some areas, she’s very strong. She’s very visual. She’s good with special effects, the more action scenes, and things like that. She’s a very good director. She’s very generous. She gives me her time and ideas, even if she doesn’t have full authorship.
You were just at Cannes. What conversations did you have with your colleagues in that setting? What should we be paying attention to right now in cinema?
It always depends on the time and place, right? It became more political because the situation in our countries, Poland and America—the challenges and dangers—is brutally changing. The film community feels that our artistic freedom is at stake. Suddenly, after many years where they didn’t talk about politics so much, it became political again. On another hand, there’s the gender issue in world cinema because it became much more relevant. In the last two, three years, we’re talking more about the underrepresentation of women in the film and television industry.
At Cannes, I was part of three conferences: one about European distribution, one about how the European Union can encourage and support cinema, and the third was about equality between men and women. For example, the Swedes decided that, by 2025, there will be parity, and some countries will join, like Norway. But this is always a very problematic issue. When you encourage creative work with parity and quotas, it’s always dangerous. Women filmmakers feel that the glass ceiling is so strong. It’s impossible to just break it without some kind of institutional help. So it was very much about the politics this year. And not only the big politics—you have someone like Donald Trump—but also the change in the economy as it relates to cinema, which influences what cinema will be. There was the controversy about Netflix, which financed one Korean movie, right?
The controversy with Netflix was that they agreed not to show those movies in theaters, which to Cannes is like the plague. They showed the TV miniseries, Top of the Lake and the new Twin Peaks, but this was because of its filmmakers, Jane Campion and David Lynch. It’s old-fashioned. At the same time, it’s more and more difficult to find the money for independent and ambitious cinema. In this market, you can’t say, “We’re not interested in Netflix or Amazon offers,” because filmmakers need this distribution and this money. It’s a very difficult issue: Will independent cinema find a place with only VOD platforms or can we find the economy where it will be possible to continue making theatrical movies? And so on and so forth. The times are changing. We’re certainly in a moment of some kind of revolution with big politics and film politics.
Another big thing that happened at Cannes was Sofia Coppola winning Best Director. It’s only the second time that a woman has won. And it’s shocking, but is it really shocking?
Why is it impossible that it’s shocking?
Because, like you said, it goes back to being old-fashioned. How is it not sexist?
Women filmmakers have it very difficult. I think the film critics, the festival selectors, and the distributors are part of these male-driven priorities. I know many women films from the past thirty years that could be awarded, prized, and selected at Cannes. The women selection is like, “Now we need it because of the criticism.” I haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s film, but she’s a star. She has the name and the aura, so it’s good to have somebody like that at Cannes on the red carpet, you know? Of course, this year was better anyway because Lynne Ramsay is a very talented director, I think.
At the post-festival press conference with the jury, Jessica Chastain was saying that, looking at the female characters portrayed in this year’s line-up, she found them very disturbing.
I don’t know what she meant by that. But it is true that most works that you can see in the movie theater are from the men’s perspective. It’s very few but, of course, you have some guys that are very sensitive in portraying women, like Ingmar Bergman. You still have some male filmmakers that are trying to view through women’s perspective, but it’s not exactly the same.
So you were born a few years after the Second World War ended. I understand your father was a Holocaust survivor. Your mother was an underground fighter during the Warsaw Uprising. Just how much does life experience inform your filmmaking?
I think it helps, you know? Film is a very polyphonic art form. It’s a medium of the dialogue. You have different characters and different points of view, and you have to create the drama out of that. If your knowledge of the world is very limited and very subjective, it’s more difficult to make it full. I don’t think it’s an accident that the greatest filmmakers in history survived the Second World War. In Italy, Poland, Russia, or Japan even, they’ve been going through this disaster and seen human beings at their best and their worst. They’ve seen how fragile things can get. They’re trying to answer questions like, “Where was God then? What is human nature? What are we capable of?” The big, difficult questions are not just from a group but from the right experience. I think it made many of them really great. When you look at Western cinema of the generation of the 30s, 40s, 50s, and today, you can feel that the perspective is very limited. Sometimes, of course, there are geniuses—they’re like Marcel Proust, having very important, artistic expressions inside a room number. But mostly, I feel that cinema after those giants is less challenging and less relevant when it comes to speaking on what the world is about. There are personal exceptions. Michael Haneke is one for me, and some Iranians and Russians. Again, they went through more complicated experiences. In Iran, you have a dictator. In Russia, you have another kind of dictator where you have to fight for your freedom. It gives you a little wider perspective. So I think it helps.
I read that both of your parents were journalists. Were you ever drawn to that world?
No. Very early, I realized that what was called communism in Poland—it wasn’t really communism, but something else—didn’t give you enough freedom to make films from a journalistic point of view. So it was out of the question for me. I found that I cannot do anything political in this country, except being in opposition to it. And being in opposition meant prison time, which I did once. Also, the visual side was important because I consider myself visual. And fictional storytelling was for me more interesting than documentary storytelling.
There was a specific moment in Spoor that gave me chills—it’s really visionary and full of emotion. It’s where Patrycja Volny steps outside the shop and we’re abruptly in slow motion. How do you script something like that? It’s one of those impossible-to-describe things.
On paper, it was very simple. The events were described. It’s the Communion of her little brother, and things like that. To find the visual equivalent of that, it’s discussions. And it was my daughter who shot all those flashbacks. I needed a little different style and different approach for that.
I don’t think you can put everything on the page, you know? That’s the beauty of it. When you’re shooting, you’re finding new ideas, new realities, and new tools of expression. With a movie like that, you cannot predict everything. You cannot predict the light, the weather, the special combination of clouds—even things like that are important in this movie.
I often feel foolish asking these kinds of questions because so much of the filmmaking process is immaterial. The Dardenne Brothers once told me that they were essentially lying to all journalists because they’re demanded answers to questions they can’t possibly answer.
Right. I think this intuition aspect of movie-making is the most important. Of course, you have few filmmakers who are very precisely preparing everything, storyboarding everything, and planning the camera movements. You have films like that, but I’m always bored by this kind of cinema.
Did Kasia storyboard Spoor as well? How much of the film was storyboarded?
Not too much. Kasia storyboards my movies, like the action sequences or if it’s quite complicated special effects. For example, in the middle of Copying Beethoven is this sequence with the premiere of Symphony No. 9. The sequence has some plot: Beethoven wanted to conduct, but he was deaf, so a young woman in the orchestra pit conducts with him. I can’t remember exactly how long it is, but it’s around ten minutes. We wanted to express the entire Symphony No. 9 in that short time. I think it works. When we were making it, people were crying, which was strange. It was highly emotional. We shot for two, three days with five or six cameras. We storyboarded it to be very precise. After Kasia storyboarded the entire sequence, she animated the storyboards with the music—we were precise. Without this, the sequence would just be reportage of some musical performance. So that’s why we storyboarded. With normal scenes, I don’t really storyboard.
How do you feel about conversations that skew in the direction of: “Don’t ask black filmmakers why there aren’t more black leads in movies. They’re already fighting for it. Ask white filmmakers with great influence why minorities are underrepresented”?
I’m always slightly afraid when people try to put very precise borders on who can do what in terms of creation. It’s this logic: I don’t have the right to show male characters because I wasn’t born a man? At the same time, I feel quite comfortable about showing male characters. During a conference at Cannes, the Norwegian guy, I think, said they would also introduce a rule where, if we have two important male characters, it must also include two important female characters.
And, you know, I told him: “Listen—what if I’m making a movie about a male prison? Now I don’t have the right to do it? There’s no room for women characters. What about the military?” We have to be very careful with this kind of encouragement with quotas. But I think if women feel that they’re allowed to give their voice, they will feel encouraged. They feel voiceless. I didn’t see a lot of movies at Cannes. I saw maybe two. But I read about some films where the female actors have been really strong. What is also interesting is that you can treat Spoor as a kind of revenge story, right? It’s a bit Tarantinian. In Cannes, there were two other movies about female revenge: one was Indonesian by a young woman filmmaker and another was a German film with Diane Kruger.
In the Fade.
Yeah, so everything changes. And I think the change is coming from politics. The gender issue became one of the most important catalysts for this new, counter-revolution awakening of the right wing populist like Trump or [Jarosław] Kaczyński in Poland. It’s directed quite strongly against women’s rights. Women’s rights, which has been achieved already and women’s rights that are in our future. Women reacted to it very politically, in waves across the United States and Poland also. The new way this generation is suffocated, it’s different from previous generations. Girls are encouraged to have more voice, and they can feel this change. Now they feel the danger: What they achieved—what their mothers achieved—can be taken away from them. It creates an organized political movement for the feminist that’s totally new, and much more conscious and thought out.
Men have issues with losing power. They lose power from globalization. It’s because of the Internet. It’s related to women’s emancipation and the fact that, when women are emancipated, they don’t want to procreate so much. Suddenly, men feel that they’re really losing it. It’s a very interesting and dynamic situation, which can finish with a big war or big changes made in society.
I would love to get your thoughts on Patty Jenkins’ return to the big screen. It feels like a sharp statement, in a good way, as it’s Wonder Woman of all things. It’s hard to believe that her last film was Monster, although she did work in television in those intervening years.
She did the pilot for The Killing, which I directed several episodes of as well. It was brilliant. The pilot was brilliant. She’s certainly a brilliant director.
There was an incident in Texas recently where some men—I don’t know how many—decided to boycott Wonder Woman in response to a movie theater organizing a women-only screening. Then the theater responded by adding more women-only screenings.
[Laughs] It’s interesting. Of course, it can always go too far. It can get stupid. Until now, women have been following men. If it was ever something for women, it was like fashion magazines or that kind of shit. They were practically excluded from serious matters: from big earned money to big entertainment. So I think Wonder Woman for Patty Jenkins is a very political act, not only a career act. It’s exciting for her to have a big budget and be paid much more than she was ever paid before. I think it also has this kind of satisfaction, like, [Holland gives the middle finger.]
What’s key to maintaining good mental health these days, especially for the angry ones?
It’s a lot of anger. On another hand, it’s some kind of autism. We’re connected to this [Holland holds up her smartphone] and the fact that people are closing themselves off into bubbles where they feel comfortable and only encounter the same kind of opinions and facts. I feel this anger inside of myself sometimes, too, you know? Sometimes I feel a wave of anger, which I didn’t feel ten years ago. And it’s global. It’s in every country. Maybe this situation is impossible to solve without a bloodbath, but I don’t know. It’s visible that people are losing control of their emotions.
With North Korea recently, I had some friends back in the U.S. ask me why South Koreans weren’t in more visible panic. I try to explain that when you’re under constant threat—this dates back to forever now—you get tired. I think it’s normal that people get exhausted by it.
It’s human. When I did In Darkness, what was interesting for me is describing the life of this group of people in the depths of the sewers. What was most exciting, surprising, and important to me was that they managed to have a normal life down there: loving each other, fucking each other, playing with the children, and quarreling about little things mirror life. You become accustomed to everything and your survival instincts push you to normalize the situation, which actually is normal in some ways. In Israel, you have the same situation. It’s a country that’s under constant threat and you don’t feel it when you’re there, except you see things like armed military. The same with South Korea, you cannot constantly think that at any moment some missile will come here, because you will become insane. On the existential level, you’re not thinking constantly that you will die. You will die, but you’re not living your life with this perspective. At the same time, some kind of denial is dangerous. It’s good to rationalize it, intellectualize it, and analyze the situation to see the dangers and try to understand what you can do to prevent and minimize those dangers. And you need to feel some hope in possible stability, but now we’re in a situation where the hope has disappeared because someone like Trump is totally irrational. He can do whatever. He’s just a huge, you know, narcissistic balloon with the finger on the nuclear button. On the other side, you have a similar kind of narcissistic monster. At some point, things can get very easily out of control. With Trump, it’s also dangerous because you can see that he decided to retreat from the Paris Accord. 90% of his advisors told him not to and he still did it. He wanted to say, “I can.”
Yeah, it’s scary. But what’s really scary is that people elected him. You can say that North Korea is impossible to understand. How is it possible that the country is still there? It’s supported by China, of course, but why exactly? Who’s interested in North Korea? Anyways, that’s something that’s out of the control of any population. In America, Trump was elected by Americans. That’s scary.
What can you reveal about your next film called Sarlatán?
It’s about a real person. It’s about a very famous healer who lived through the 20s, 30s, and the Second World War. He spent some time in Czechoslovakia and kept healing all the time. It’s a very chamber-like film. It’s quite minimalistic.
And he was marginalized, right? He was living at a time when he had to remain closeted.
Yes, but it’s more complicated. This is quite a famous, real person. He was healing Nazi officials and many other high-ranking Communist officials. At the same time, he was fighting his own demons. At first, he appears to be somebody who’s very strong with the strong belief that he’s right, but later, we see that’s he’s much more complicated. So it’s an ambiguous story.
What stage of production are you in?
I think we’ll do it by the end of next year. There’s another project so I don’t know which will come first. The script is ready. It’s quite a small budget so we’ll be able to get the money. We’ll probably be able to shoot it in four or five months, but maybe I will push for more.
Do you ever have actors in mind when you’re writing, or is that kept entirely separate?
I never really did that, actually. It will in some ways limit me. Sometimes I will have in mind, if it’s not based on real facts, somebody I know or seen some place, but they’re rarely actors.
That could be dangerous, right? It’s dangerous if you get so fixated on somebody early on.
I think so, yeah. But sometimes it’s possible, I think. But my brain doesn’t work in this way.