//Controlled Freedom// – Katarzyna Pielacha talks with Bodo Kox about film, independence and ‘existential itching’
Controlled Freedom – Katarzyna Pielacha talks with Bodo Kox about film, independence and ‘existential itching’
Katarzyna Pielacha talks with Bodo Kox about film, independence and ‘existential itching’
Bodo Kox (Bartosz Koszała, b. 1977) – film director, actor, scriptwriter. Author of several dozen short movies, which earned him the status of an icon of the Polish independent film. In 2013, cinemas presented his film Dziewczyna z szafy [The Girl in the Closet], a professional feature debut. He currently studies at the Film and Television Directing Department of Lodz Film School and the Wajda School of Film Direction.
KATARZYNA PIELACHA: Do you feel free as a film director?
BODO KOX: I have this impression that each attempt at doing something, at creation, inevitably restricts your freedom. I think that true freedom can only live in your mind. I try to do only things that make me happy, about which I can say they are mine. This is never fully possible, however, when you are working with other people. Films are an art of compromise. But maybe it’s good? Maybe if I could do whatever I wanted, the effects would be horrible.
If film is an art of compromise, is auteur cinema even possible?
Film is a discipline in which it is difficult to create something that would be yours only, from A to Z. You cannot escape outside inspirations. The final result is always a product of mutual relations between stronger and weaker individuals. I think that even great personalities, artists with incredible charisma, such as for instance Stanley Kubrick, are subject to certain restrictions that limit their freedom. More freedom and independence is attainable in domains such as art, poetry or music – P.J. Harvey, let’s say, just takes a guitar and sings, an artist may paint an image or graffiti. They just use themselves, their own minds, media they have mastered, to express their own feelings. Whereas in film, especially with a bigger budget, freedom is always more or less limited by the constraints of money, creativity of your co-workers, and by your own talent. If you have excellent financial standing and co-workers that are either as talented as you are or, better yet, more gifted, the creative freedom may spread and yield outstanding results. Auter cinema does exist, but it is always a team effort.
What about the financial part of the equation? Can you earn a living in Poland without making mainstream movies, non-financed by the Polish Film Institute for instance?
If you wanted to earn a living by making such films and nothing else, I guess you would need to eat once a day and only vegetables, not to have to pay rent and have no other expenses. This is simply impossible. If I wanted to live by only making independent films and succeed in the sense that my name and my ideas could attract investors that would offer their complete faith and financial support, it would probably take 20 to 25 years. In reality, making movies is always about some sort of a ‘deal’ with the producer. You get the opportunity to make your movie, but some things are not for you to decide. I am referring here to people of my age, my experience and my name; in other words, the average beginners. This is why I am now directing a TV series – to pay my bills and then have a break to focus on a new, auteur project.
Artists also lose a part of their money through piracy and illegal circulation of films. People don’t go to the cinema, don’t buy DVDs – they just download movies.
I have a sort of a moral dilemma when it comes to this issue. On one hand, I would like all of these nasty pirates to get arrested and their servers to be destroyed, because they just steal from artists. On the other hand, I also quite often watch things that have probably been posted in conflict with law. I am a fan of YouTube. If a million people watched my film for free and I knew that some of them had been moved and I had changed their lives, it would give me more artistic satisfaction and happiness than a million dollars, which I probably would have spent quickly on some nonsense. Actually, why not make access to culture free of charge? It is a complicated issue...
What inspires you?
What makes me work, create, mull over new ideas? There is just something in my brain, some wiring that turns me into a sort of a lens that focuses reality, transforms it, filters, reformats and sends it on its way. I get up, I go to a shop and then, something happens – I hear a song, I meet someone, I miss something. This is when individual scenes, situations and stories start popping up in my head. Only then do I create the construction in a concrete, analytical manner. Music helps me a lot. I listen to a lot of music when I embark on a new project.
In what kind of an environment do you work best? Is it when you feel safe, you have money and everything is working out, or rather when you are constantly worried, afraid that everything will just fall apart?
I had no money for most of my life but I hope it will change soon (laughter). I always wanted to ‘do my thing’, and ‘doing my thing’ at the beginning of your career means that you never have any money, because you are nobody with this ‘thing of your own’. Sometimes you get lucky, though, there is a certain hole, a need, you enter a niche and boom! Everything clicks. This has just started to happen in my case and I can be more relaxed now. I hope this will not affect my work. Obviously, pain, missing your lover or feeling that life is pointless, this kind of existential itching, is more inspiring to me than absolute happiness. When I am satisfied with my life, I am just full of good energy and don’t have to do anything with it. Only when there is some problem to be solved, a question that needs an answer, I start feeling the ‘vibe’ to do something about the situation. The creative need usually springs from being at odds with the status quo.
Do you believe in the agency of film? Can a film start a revolution?
Many films carry a certain potential, they would be able to affect people in many ways, but there are just so many of them, and people have been too anaesthetised by the unlimited access to everything, that this potential goes to nothing. These films fail to carry out their mission. I do believe, however, that art can and should affect people. We need to invest in culture, because culture will survive us.
The only question is what kind of culture will survive?
If we could know this, we would create only masterpieces, things that are unforgettable. There are probably some people who try to figure out what is trendy at a certain moment. I am talking about artists, not art dealers. Art is created for sensitive people who understand a certain kind of abstraction. In everyday life, we are kept at the lowest possible level of living, just to eat, shit, fuck and sleep. Art is for those who, apart from satisfying these basic needs, feel that there is something more. It may be easier to reach such audiences, but they are so bombarded with stimuli that it is still an extremely hard task. We used to publish very few movies a year and going to a cinema was quite an event. Now, even a mobile ad looks like a short film. I think that the speakers and their message, as well as films and art as such, did not change all that much; it is us that are so indifferent. It is just hard to really feel anything. Just as when you take drugs – you gradually need to up the dosage.
What do you expect from your movies?
I would like people to be left with some kind of emotions when they go out of the cinema. Any emotions. When I shot Dziewczyna z szafy, I wanted people to leave with a lump in their throats. I wanted to make a movie that would mess with their heads, not just make them laugh. With my previous films, I was all about laughter. This was something I was good at. Gags and fun. I am now trying to graduate to the next level – create something that not only makes you laugh or cry, but also affects the way you think. This is another level of expertise. I will not talk about films that made me change my life, but there were some that definitely did affect the way I saw things. And it’s not about documentaries about tortured animals... Even before I saw it, I knew I didn’t want to eat meat anymore, the film just confirmed my resolution. But I don’t want to be so blunt, I prefer to come up with stories that make people care. Or just make them really, really angry.
Is there anything you would not do in film? Limits that would definitely not transgress?
I don’t want to say I would definitely refrain from doing something. Sometimes it is well worth breaking the rules if it serves a purpose. Maybe I would even kill a cow for a film, if I was a hundred percent sure that it was necessary, and the film would play with people’s heads in a certain way and transform them. Sometimes you need to offend, hurt, piss someone off, if there is a bigger idea behind this provocation or crime... I know, the Nazis also said that. But I am talking about an idea that may lead to a positive effect. You give somebody a pounding to bring them back to their senses.
In art, provocation often goes hand in hand with offending religious feelings or broaching cultural taboos.
I once shot a movie entitled Chłopak z Wadowic [A Boy From Wadowice]. It was never finished. I used Islamic symbols in some of the scenes. I need to rewatch it now, check if I didn’t go too far. Maybe it’s a good thing it was never published. On the other hand, it is sometimes good to laugh at a problem. Muslims are increasingly becoming an issue though, they have no sense of humour, and in a while the Islamic baby boom will take over Europe. And then, we will no longer be allowed to laugh at anything.
Poland is also a very serious country. You showed a lot of courage in your approach to history when you shot Rura [Pipe], a film study. You showed what pop culture could do to history.
I shot it during my studies at the film school in Łódź. We had to make a short movie on a given topic for our school’s film library. In my case, the theme was New Clothes of the Myth. I had to refer to Wajda’s Canal and Kudła’s Sisyphus. I wrote my script according to the class topic but with a multifaceted approach. On one hand, I wanted to make something closely inspired by the Canal – similar style and perspective – and on the other, to create something surprising, like colourful fruits falling on the ground. I also wanted to make it all ‘flat’. I thought that after a while, all these historic events and their anniversaries turn into a sort of a computer game. In my film, the soldier is literally put in a canal jam and becomes the hero of a computer game entitled The Plumber. The insurgents were also put in a jam. They thought they were fighting for freedom, and meanwhile Uncle Stalin refused to help and everything went to pot. I had all those questions ringing in my head... Is there a way out? Do we have a way out? We are following the same direction in reality, although it is constantly transformed, just as in The Plumber. I like this film.
Do you think that Polish cinema is able to adopt more perspective in its approach to historic events?
We will see what happens after Jan Komasa’s Miasto 44 [The City 44]. It is the first film about the Uprising after a long break, directed by a young man with a young team. It could possibly be quite surprising. War veterans, with all due respect, will probably be disappointed, but it is a young man’s film for young people. He has the right to improvise, if he did get such an opportunity. Poland has this tendency to be mediocre. You shouldn’t be too creative – you seemingly make original things but in the same way as everyone. People who evaluate these projects are just all too vanilla. You need to be careful not to step on their toe, not to make a controversial decision, because you could lose out. Everyone wants to keep it safe, balanced. If you want to talk about sickness, be sad, about stupidity, be funny. But it is slowly changing, the new is replacing the old. So, Old Guys, the universe is ready for you! Then in 30 years some snot will sit down and say ‘Bodo Kox, the universe is ready for you!’. And I will give as much of a damn about him as they now give about me.
What will the cinema look like in 100 years? How will people’s sensitivity change?
I think that sensitivity will not change that much... We will, of course, remain people. The universal things that carry the gist of what affects our emotions will always move us or make us laugh. We will always laugh when someone slips on a banana peel and we will always be sad and heartbroken when we see a child being taken away from her mother by force. Only the distribution media will change. Maybe we will have some plugs stuck up our asses or heads, or maybe we will have a wireless chip and will just have to close our eyes to log onto YouTube.
I know that everyone keeps asking that but... Why Bodo Kox?
People have to grow, they should strive towards excellence for themselves. I wanted to change my life, so I changed my name, to work towards being the person I would like to be. I want to be increasingly aware of my own self and the surrounding reality, although I do tend to be in conflict with it and despise it, like the girl that hides in the closet. For me, Bodo Kox is something so natural that I actually feel weird explaining this decision. It is like a person who went through a sexual reassignment surgery, but even before had always felt they were someone else. I also felt I was someone else with this Bartosz Koszała. I was used to him but I was constantly looking for something that would suit me more. And evolution gave rise to Bodo Kox. My daughter’s last name is Kox, Roma Kox. I would like her to have a positive impact on humanity.