“There are no silly questions,” Paweł Łoziński assures me when I nonetheless know I’ve asked something surely naive about the technical limitations about filming off the terrace of his street side home for his latest film “A Balcony Movie.” For the filmmaker whose warmth and inviting nature has provided him entrée into other people’s lives for the better part of four decades, building upon the legacy of his father Marcel, a documentarian himself who Pawel put in front of the camera for his 2013 road movie “Father and Son,” Łoziński knows that placing any limits on a conversation will inevitably guide it towards a more obvious and less interesting conclusion.
That can’t be said, however, of what happened when he placed a camera on his ledge and asked people passing by below about their lives over the course of two-and-a-half years, opening up one conversation after another with his neighbors by asking “Who are you,” sometimes getting back answers as rudimentary as noting their gender but others more profound as they feel more comfortable confiding in a stranger than with those they are closest to. The camera may be mostly stationary, but the film proves to be one of Łoziński’s most adventurous to date as people keep coming back to offer updates on their health or look to entertain with song and dance, a menagerie that reflects the breadth of human experience when people are obliged to speak about their hopes and fears, ranging from young and old, as they go about their daily lives.
“The Balcony Movie” could be seen as a culmination of Łoziński’s career when he’s looked all around his native Poland in search of people making connections with each other and with the past, first causing a splash internationally with “Birthplace” in 1992, following a Polish-American who survived the Holocaust returning to the town where much of his family was apprehended and condemned to death in the camps, and subsequently finding that he needn’t stray too far from home to uncover secrets of the universe in such films as “The Ukrainian Cleaning Lady,” a portrait of his housekeeper who keeps her sense of humor while overcoming hardship, and “Chemo,” a visit to an oncology clinic where the specter of death leads to some powerful epiphanies.
Honoring the director’s generous spirit, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York will be presenting many of Łoziński’s films at the largest retrospective of his work to day in the U.S. from December 2nd through 4th with the director in person, timed to the release of the crowdpleasing “The Balcony Movie,” which will be made available to stream anywhere on November 30th. Recently while Łoziński was in Los Angeles, he spoke about having a movie literally unfold right outside his door, getting out of his own way when trying to replicate the experience of discovery he had during filming and what it’s like to have a body of work worthy of a retrospective.
How did “The Balcony Movie” come about?
My previous film “You Have No Idea How Much I Love You,” was about psychotherapy, and after this film, I was bit stuck with looking for new ideas and it’s good I have a balcony because sometimes I could relax and drink coffee or tea with my wife. I realized that eavesdropping people’s dialogue, I was so curious [about] who they are, where they are heading, and what they have in their heads and their hearts. Sometimes I got pieces of the dialogue from them, like somebody was crying or laughing or somebody had flowers and was heading towards I don’t know who, so my curiosity was so high that I decided to ask them who they are. But you know, I cannot do it without the camera because it would be very strange, so the camera was an excuse for me to ask them delicate questions.
I was thinking maybe my passersby neighbors will equal a film at the end and normally, when I’m making a film, I’m looking for protagonists all around Warsaw and other cities, sometimes not only in Poland. But this time I was thinking, let’s change the rules. It means that I’ll be in one fixed place and they will come, I’ll my have camera and then we’ll chat. So my question was is it possible to have the entire sociological cross-section of people with psychological depth by putting the camera on the one fixed place? That was the field experiment, and I didn’t know the result.
The only people that I knew from before was the janitor and the old lady with a [walker], but the others I didn’t, so when I started to put the camera on the balcony, the whole story just started to [unfold]. At the beginning, I was greedy for new characters, and I was asking myself will they keep coming in front of my camera and telling their stories? I was asking them, “Please come back and in a couple of days or weeks, let’s chat.” And after a couple weeks/months, I realized that they are in need as well to have a conversation with me, so it was a kind of secular confessional that was created by me and by the camera.
Did the physical distance from your subjects actually change the dynamic at all?
Yes, at the beginning, I was afraid because almost all of my films are made in close-ups and I’m interested in psychology of my protagonists, so I like to look into their eyes. This time I was like, “I have only a wide-angle lens, so how would it be?” The main question was if it’s possible to open them [up to conversation] in the middle of the street. Is it possible to have intimate contact, to build a bond between us? But I realized this distance of five meters gives them the liberty to enter my frame or get out of my frame whenever they want, so they felt completely free saying, “Goodbye, today, I will not talk to you” without having the impression that they will offend me. It was like a scene in a theater. People enter, somebody can say something or sing a song or dance or just appear for five minutes and I was here for them. Sometimes I was saying, “Here’s the camera and if you want to say your story, please go on and give your story to to the audience.” But the camera was just a supplement for our meetings. They were not playing to the camera. They just had a conversation with me.
From what I understand, there may have been early ideas to leave the balcony when you came across some interesting characters. What made you stay in place?
That was one of my initial ideas because my idea was maybe the start of the film will be the balcony and then I’ll catch up with protagonists like Robert, the jailbird, for example and follow him in a regular, normal way because I was afraid it would be difficult for the audience to look at the reality from the same point of view, seeing the only same film frame. But I realized that I have so many interesting characters with so many interesting stories that they approach me with their most intimate things, like the guy who was coming out 40 years after living with his partner or the lady who was talking about how sad she is on the day of her birthday that I realized that I have it [already]. Of course, I was greedy for the new material. That’s why I was standing there for two-and-a-half years, having 165 days of shooting. It’s my personal Guinness record.
With all that material, was it daunting to edit?
It took us a whole year to edit the film. We had two other editors on set — [Bartlomiej] Piasek and [Maciej] Wójcik, a duo of two great young editors, and our question was how to edit in order that we would not lose this feeling of randomness that I had standing on the balcony. What kept me there for such a long time was curiosity – who will be next entering my frame? That’s why I was standing days and nights, waiting for the people, [wondering] who will be next? We would like to transfer this feeling to the audience, and we had more than 2000 encounters and then we selected 700 which were labeled “okay, maybe,” but then at the end of the film we have maybe 80 protagonists.
Of course, we choose the best ones and I try to remember this first feeling I had during shooting. The editors call it the virgin eye when they are watching the material for the first time, they have to remember the feeling during the watching because the director is shooting something and he remembers that he was freezing at night, so that’s why [they think] the material should be in the film and the editors’ virgin eye helped me a lot with choosing the right material. But we had a lot of material of very good quality that we unfortunately had to take out because at 100 minutes, it’s long, but at the same time, it’s very short.
It certainly feels brisk. And I’ve heard there were over 50 rough cuts…
55, yes, but that’s normal. The film was constructed [around] the main characters, like the janitor who is one of my favorites because she has her own history with her husband who was a heavy drinker. [but still] she is cleaning the world for us every day and she was cleaning my frame. [Then there’s] this great guy Robert, [who] appears completely from the street because [my] second rule was that I’m not casting for any protagonist. It means I’m not calling my friends asking them to come before the camera or other neighbors. It was just blind chance. So it’s like a stream of life, and of course, we are all human beings. We all have our sorrows, we all have our dreams, and we are very fragile as human beings. We are very strong at the same time. We are aging, we are grieving, we have a lot of problems, but still life is worth living, so that was what I can say was my message.
And I’m so happy that it’s so universal. I didn’t want it to be a film about Poland. I tried to catch the whole world in my frame, and it’s not about Polish society or politics. There’s a scene with [agitators] shouting out against the minority section, and I decided to put it in the film because our government is a very right-wing government right now, and they are trying to exclude the LGBT community from our society, so I was thinking [about] they are trying to exclude and I will include it in my movie. I will show that everybody has a right to love.
You’re en route to a wonderful retrospective of your films later this week in New York at the Museum of the Moving Image. What is it like to have a body of work to look back on like this?
This is very special for me. I’ve been making films for 30 years already and it will be my first retrospective in New York, so I’m happy that my stories are universal and I’m happy they are not aging because the first film I made in 1992 and it’s still not only watchable, but it gives to the audience strong feelings. Now I see that I’m making films about the small universe around me. I believe the interesting stories are very close to us — next door or on the street or in a hospital nearby or in a psychotherapist’s room or in another district of Warsaw. I’m not so curious to chase for new stories around the world, which of course could be interesting for another director, but I prefer to tell the intimate stories and I’m always searching emotionally very close to me.