Piotr Domalewski “I wanted to tell a story about a family with a bond not even the greatest drama could sever”
Polish director Piotr Domalewski (Łomża, 1983) likes intimate dramas. And since there is no better place to push feelings to their limit than family life, he chose a Christmas Eve dinner as the context for his directorial debut, Silent Night.
The members of the family portrayed in the film are condemned to one another, but there is not warmth, understanding or closeness in their collectiveness, only a tie of blood. The main character returns home from Holland, to where he has moved in search of a better future. He is not the first member of the family to leave the country, his father had previously moved to Germany and his uncle to Belgium. This story, in fact, portrays emigration as part of the Polish people’s destiny.
The greatest fear of a young director is…
The fear of not being equal to that complex effort which is directing the shooting of a film. And also of not being able to do it in a way that means the crew won’t realise what it’s costing me. Then, of course, there’s the stress bound up with whether or not audiences will go for what I’ve dreamed up. And with whether it’ll be my own, original statement.
What was your starting point for Silent Night?
As far as the violence, relationships and tension linked to a small, inward-looking community is concerned, the starting point could certainly have been The Dark House, but Asghara Farhadi’s A Separation was much more important to me. When I saw it, I thought to myself that, after those two hours in the cinema, I knew a small piece of Iran, that I knew how the people there think, that I’d encountered some kind of truth about them. I expect the same of my film. That audiences, particularly
those abroad, think to themselves that now they know a bit more about us, about the Poles. They know what amuses us and what appals us. What we have problems with and what matter to us. I wanted to tell a story that’s played out between the members of a family. It’s a superb space for an intimate drama. What I wanted to portray in Silent Night is something that doesn’t exist; the family members are condemned to one another, but there’s no warmth, understanding or closeness in that collectiveness. All that holds those people together is the tie of blood. But paradoxically, it’s a tie that not even the greatest drama can sever.
Before Silent Night, you made six shorts.
I’m very happy about that. The older I get, the more pragmatic I am. I brought a lot away from shooting my earlier films, because it seems to me that what film is and how it’s created has to learned all over again every time. Each time, the shooting revealed new secrets of the craft to me. I can’t imagine being set to make a full-length debut after one short. In that case, what was the road that brought you to this full-length feature? As is normally the case, the screenplay came first or, more to the point, yet another version of it. Yes, but that was necessary, to me and the film alike. Together with producer Dariusz Dużyński, I submitted the first version to the Polish Film Institute’s Screenplay Development programme. And the committee sent it on to the screenwriting scholarships section. In other words, it was sent back for rewrites, along with something I found alarming; a note saying that nothing happens in it. But that was exactly what I was after, the fact that the central characters wanted to establish various relationships with each other, that it was important to them for something magical to happened during that Christmas evening, but unfortunately, in their case, to quote Mrożek, “The party’s happening somewhere else”… Nevertheless, I took the committee’s comments to heart and approached what I’d heard at the institute seriously. I revised the material, while sticking to my original concepts, and I received a scholarship.
You’re an actor and you appear in theatre productions and television serials from time to time. What did your acting background give you when it came to making your debut as the director of a full-length feature?
It’s an armament. You know how to direct an actor in order to achieve a particular effect on the screen. But it’s also connected with a certain danger, of course; normally there’s a distance between an actor and the director. The director has relatively limited knowledge of an actor’s work. So a distance is born and, paradoxically, that makes a greater trust possible; it means that you don’t step out of your own space and enter into something that’s beyond your competence. The director has to accept that some of the actor’s knowledge is out of bounds to them and that there are areas of that profession which remain a secret. But when the director is also an actor, that distance vanishes. An actor comes to the actordirector to ask about everything and to review everything critically. There are no barriers. If an actor doesn’t like something, then you’ll generally know what. And if an actor comes and asks for a retake, then, in general, although you liked the scene, you have to admit that they’re right and do the retake, even if it sometime goes against the grain.
In that case, what should a film artist who’s just starting out pay attention to if they’re going to experience the luxury of being satisfied with the day’s shooting?
I’m sure that it’s different for everyone and that something different is important to each of us. From my point of view and in my experience, one thing emerges; you have to be extremely certain about what you want to do. Because then you walk onto the set and all you really have is some paper in the form of the screenplay in your hand and people have to follow you and that document. If something doesn’t chime there, then it won’t chime on the screen. The second thing is the choice of producer. That worked for me. I’m really happy. And I’d recommend a situation where the producer also knows what you want to do and accepts it. There can’t be any fighting along the producer-director line; there has to be full support and understanding. That pays off at every stage of work on a film. Shorts rarely make their way to cinemas, which means they rarely come into confrontation with audiences. This time, it’ll be different.
Do you have any expectations, or aren’t you thinking about that?
I want the film to amuse the public and move them. “With Silent Night, I’m trying to say something truthful about people. It’s my truth. What matters to me is that audiences see it at all, that, amidst the flood of cinematic offers, they come to the conclusion that they’ll buy a ticket for Silent Night because something about that Polish film stand out and intrigues them. I hope they’ll see themselves and the people closest to them in the story. And it’ll be enough if, once the film’s over, they nod as they reflect, “Yes, that’s how things are”.