In Conversation with Bartosz M. Kowalski: Director of Playground (PlacZabaw)

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

By Anirban Lahiri

Playground (PlacZabaw), movie still, Bartosz M. Kowalski

For the last five years, a consistent image of the contemporary culture hovers over the Indian film festival circuit. All screenplay writers have been shameless to suggest violence and sex to be the primal ingredients for a successful dramatic structure. Some called it tension and eroticism, some (like Godard) the girl and the gun (of course, the mention of the girl signifies the male point-of-view). But, the celebration of violence was always there, sometimes hidden in ornate metaphors (as in Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1970)) and sometimes explicit (Kill Bill (2003 – 04); Bad Guy (2001)).

In the recent world cinema, as well as Indian flicks, violence is celebrated in a continually increasing way. Last year, in many festivals, Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatipadamhas bagged the best film award. The film portrays eye-for-an-eye kind of violence. This is not the only instance for the average Indian celebrating muscle power and bloodbath. Bahubali (2015), although wrapped in the silverlining of the epic, provokes the same emotion in the average viewer.

The situation is probably worse in the contemporary Europe, especially in the Eastern blocks, since the official disintegration of the Soviet and the internal warfare. The ISIS and the subsequent refugee crisis have made the matter worse.

Playground (PlacZabaw), movie still, Bartosz M. Kowalski

Violence is rampant. Xenophobia and homophobia are on the rise. People are impatient.  Freud could not have explained these simply as the civilization in discontent any more. Marx would have seen these as the faultlines of capitalism. But, an Ease European State, such as Poland, has seen enough of practical Marxism to stay away from that.

Kowalski, a documentary filmmaker of some repute, made his debut in feature-length fiction with Playground. The film revolves around three teenagers of diverse background, and the school President’s speech on a normal day.

Playground (PlacZabaw), movie still, Bartosz M. Kowalski

In a quite meaningless manner, insane violence breaks out, leading to homicide. The incident is based on the reportage of a similar event in the Great Britain. The location is changed to Poland. The intent is to comment on the general possibility of such an incident, and the process behind that, anywhere in the world today.

The Director of the film, Kowalski, and the Executive Producer, Mirella Zaradkiewicz were present in the 15th PIFF to discuss the film with us.

Samar Nakhate, the Cretive Director of the 15th PIFF, initiated the conversation, after which A Potpourri of Vestiges and other media took over.

Q. As a Director, when you began working on this topic, how did you plan your approach?

A. We researched a lot. Violence is mundane these days. I wanted to trace the roots of violence. This particular incident caught my attention because it taps the unprovoked violence – the violence in the air – quite nicely. I came to know about the incident from newspapers. Afterwards, I sought out opinions of professional psychologists and psychiatrists who specialized in the behavioral conduct disorder of psychopaths.

Q. Was there any deviation from the original event?

A. Yes. In the actual event, it was two teenage boys. I added a girl. I wanted to show that violence was not gender specific, although the exact narrative of violence may change when the gender changes. That happens because of the sociology of the gender itself.

Q. How did you prepare for the shoot?

A. I made elaborate researches. I had lots of questions in mind. Why people want to injure other people or their properties. The kind of pleasure one derives from meaningless, or meaningful, violence. The film showcases this process of questioning, partially. However, most of my questions remained unanswered.

We took 9 months in casting, and location scouting. Coming from documentary background, seeking a realistic answer to the history of violence, I was determined to employing non-actors, realistic locations, natural light and hand-held camera for the film.

I did not want to glamourize violence. Hollywood and most other cinemas do that. I wanted, instead, to see violence as a tremendously negative phenomenon, with questioning eyes.
This is a performance-based film. There is no stylization in shot-taking. The actors had to be themselves, with gut-reactions to impromptu actions sometimes. Nothing was easy. Sometimes, there would be 25 takes. At other times, the first take would be fine.

I got intelligent, instinctive actors. They had the rawness in their eyes. That came out perfectly in the Close Ups.

Q. How did you come to decide the look of the film?

A. I had already shot two HBO documentaries with the same producer and DP. They knew my intent and style. For Playground, there would be no stylized lighting or movement. We wanted to teleport the potential audience there. We wanted to make it look real.

There are some other critical comments on violence if we look at the contemporary serious cinema. But, most of the things happen outside the frame, in those films. We did not want that. We did not take on violence in any metaphorical way. We wanted to show it, without glamour, on the screen.

Q. Question for the EP – When the script came to you, how did the production and creative logic conflict work out? How did you handle that?

A. It was an easy-going approach as our working relation was already two films old. We made two documentaries for the HBO prior to Playground.

From the production side, we chose not to interfere with the Director’s intent and execution. This was a completely new subject. No film on such a subject has ever been made in Poland.

The film has had a theatrical release in Poland and in Spain. It has had a god festival run too. Everywhere the reaction has been pretty much the same.

Some people have thoroughly rejected the film. Specially older people refused to believe that such a thing could happen.

Q. What is the contemporary filmmaking situation in Poland?

A. After the 60s and 70s, Poland went through some kind of intellectual and cultural drought. However, in the last few years, things have changed drastically. A film like Szumowska’s Body (2015) could be made in today’s Poland. That was unthinkable even a few years ago.

I could think of making Playground, a thoroughly research-based serious film, because of this change in culture.

Q. When you showed the three teenagers before the strike, you showed them from high angle Close Up. During the violence, the camera comes down to low angle. Did you consciously comment on the eyes of the authority looking down on them when you took the camera higher in the beginning?

A. Yes and no. Sometimes it was conscious. At other times, the cameraman’s hands were fatigued. You see, it is not always a conscious power position to be sustained. You do not see the reality from the same angle all the time.

Q. Do you feel that the return to a communist socialist system might ease out the general discontent and erase some violence in the air?

A. No. We have had enough of that experiment. We do not want that back. I do not know what could end such nonsensical violence. In many other films, there is a reason behind violence. Broken, malfunctioning families, poverty, revenge situations. But, in Playground, the violence erupts without any provocation. There is no reason behind such an eruption. That struck me. I wanted to know how that violence instinct or culture works. I put up a lot of questions. But, the answers are not there.

Playground (PlacZabaw), movie still, Bartosz M. Kowalski

Playground (PlacZabaw), movie still, Bartosz M. Kowalski

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