From the opening moments of “Close Ties,” you wouldn’t think there was ever a whiff of conflict between Barbara and Zdislaw as you see them in adjoining rooms, the latter shaving as the former does calisthenics, with Zdislaw playfully joining in from the other room as Barbara counts down her leg stretches. This is more or less what Zofia Kowalewska thought too when she was considering making her first film about her grandparents, a married couple for decades now living a quiet domestic life in Krakow. But Kowalewska soon learned that there was a reason you would largely only see them in separate rooms, albeit under the same roof, and decided to use turn her camera on to help her understand how long the chasm existed and grown.
“Close Ties,” which was shortlisted for this year’s Best Documentary Short Oscar and makes its North American premiere at Sundance this week, is the kind of discovery that one can spend a whole festival searching in vain for, with the charming portrait of the loveably cantankerous couple cutting through the din of well-meaning but often impersonal social issue-driven docs or personal films made without skill to match their passion. It’s difficult to believe that Kowalewska hadn’t made a film before this, but as “Close Ties” wears on, with Barbara and Zdislaw’s complaints over balancing their checkbook giving way to tussling with far more intimate matters, the film manages in its 18-minute runtime to brilliantly convey the distance between them through cinematographer Weronika Bilska’s exceptional use of framing and the carefully curated scenes of the couple’s daily routine. The cool precision of the filmmaking ultimately cedes to the warmth of the central duo as their complex emotional relationship is elegantly untangled, demonstrating why they’ve stayed together in spite of what happened in the past, and the film culminating in a joyful family gathering.
Kowalewska, who has spent the past year balancing her ongoing cinema studies with accompanying the film to festivals all over Europe where it’s picked up awards left and right, recently spoke about the surreal experience of finding how universal this personal story has been, as well as how she became interested in filmmaking, how her relatives have taken to the film, and the craft that went into creating such an indelible portrait of her family.
How did this come about?
It’s quite a funny story because I was 18 at the time and desperately looking for a topic [for a film] because I wanted to get into the film school. I was really inspired by the Polish Film School of documentary, meaning the classics by Kieslowski and Pawel Lozinski, so I wanted to do a short piece like them and I was looking around for a subject, but none of this worked out. My last idea was to go to my grandparents and see whether there’s a film there. I actually witnessed the scene when my grandpa got back home and he bought an ironing board and a clothes dryer without consulting my grandma first, so a huge quarrel came about. It lasted for two hours, and it [ended] very rapidly [when] my grandma said, “You have no right to rearrange furniture around here because you haven’t been here for eight years. You lived with someone else.” It was quite a shocker for me also because they never talk about that.
That gave me the first spark of the idea for the movie [because] I knew the situation [since] I was a child when this was happening, but I never knew they were actually going through such a difficult time and covering it up with this bickering. [It was] this funny, ironic relationship that I knew, so when I [saw] that they’re actually struggling with very difficult emotions, [I thought] that there might be a film from that. Also, the fact that I was so close to them and I knew no one else could have done this because it’s so intimate and so personal to me, that was the exact moment [I wanted to make a film].
You can’t help but love your grandparents by the end of the film, but was it a consideration to tell a story that doesn’t always put them in the best light?
It was difficult in the way that I had to reconcile two roles – as a filmmaker and as a granddaughter – and I was double accountable. This was an especially difficult when I had to edit it and I had to edit it in a way that would not hurt anybody. I didn’t want the film to be another thing to quarrel about in my family, so the approach [was that] I’m just there as a loving granddaughter to help them go through difficult emotions that were pouring out anyway and maybe my loving, very careful look at this might actually help them. I had reservations of course, but I think that in every documentary, not only about family, you have to have this special awareness of the fact that you’re dealing with real people.
My family never has gatherings like the one in the film, but I asked my grandparents whether we could have a family gathering and my grandpa proposed the marriage anniversary and I’m like, “Ok, ask Grandma.” Then this beautiful thing happened during the anniversary, so I would say if not for the film, that would not have happened, so I’m proud of that. I really wanted this film not to be a judgmental and sad film, but rather a funny and ironic story of a difficult relationship that’s inexplicably persevered for such a long time.
Visually, you express the distance between your grandparents by staying at a distance yourself. How did that approach come about?
I had the privilege to work with a very talented, very inspirational and very experienced cinematographer Weronika Bilska, who’s shot a lot of Polish short documentaries, and we were always in the other room. We used long lenses and we wanted to visually show the couple lives together, but [that] they kind of live apart, so that’s why we used the mirror and the shots are always divided in two where my grandparents are never really next to each other. Also, the fact that the camera is so distant was a good way to make the couple feel comfortable because it would not be that natural [or] that real if we were in the same room with them.
There’s one particularly jawdropping scene when you use the entire length of the frame to show them in separate rooms. How did you get that moment?
It was an accident at first. They started talking through the wall and Weronika, the cinematographer, saw the mirror and said, “Okay, I can see it all in one frame.” We loved the shot and we would make other shots based on the mirror and I also used them in editing to give the sense that there’s a lot of rituals in their lives and every day is the same.
You can feel that in the rhythm of the film’s pacing too, though it isn’t repetitive. Was it challenging to get that structure?
Yeah, it was essential. It took me about a year partly because I was in my first year at the film school, and I did other projects simultaneously, but it’s good I took my time to do that because I wanted it to have this rhythm that the characters have [where] they fight and then they are in separate rooms not talking to each other, but then they’re trying to have the dialogue again and they’re trying to understand each other. It usually happens all over again, so it’s very ritualized and it was very difficult to achieve that [in the editing] because I had about 40 hours of materials that I gathered over a long time and I had a really a lot of good things, [but] the film happens all in one apartment and it’s dialogue-based. It’s not a sensational political or social story, it’s just very intimate, based on the emotions of elderly people that have the same kind of love and hate and jealousy and need for understanding one another as everybody else, [so] this is what I based my film upon in the editing process, and because I was a member of the family, I felt extremely responsible for doing this right and for being fair to my grandparents.
Your grandmother sings a few bars of a song that’s played in full over the end credits. Does it have any special significance?
My grandmother used to be an opera singer in Poland and that’s why she sings a lot, but now she sings usually while cooking. She sings a lot of songs from Polish opera, and I really liked the words, “Just love me” because I felt it really fits the topic of the movie, the fact that these are two people that have had a very difficult past and right now, they’re trying to get together again and work through this. And you can see they love each other, but they struggle with each other, so I really liked the lyrics and initially, I wanted the film to have the title “Just love me.” I gave up on that idea, but it’s in the credits. [laughs]
The arts clearly run in your family – I’ve read that your father’s a theater director and your mom is an actress, but how did film directing become what you wanted to pursue?
My parents initially were both actors – my dad gravitated towards writing and directing [later] – and I grew up behind the scenes of the theater, so I was always in touch with acting and plays in general, and I had this artistic background, but I never actually wanted to be anybody involved in arts. As I grew up and the more life I observed externally, the more I realized that telling stories is touching and important for me, and there are some stories that I feel only I can tell, so this is something that needs to be done right now. We’ll see how that goes. I’m in my third year of the film school right now, so it’s not decided yet, but I would really love to [continue to] do it.
It blows my mind since this is so accomplished. What’s it been like to take the film out into the world?
It’s amazing because the first screening of the film was the first screening of any film of mine ever in public, so I didn’t know what to expect. Anything that happens now with the film really exceeds my expectations and I never imagined it to happen, but I’m thrilled. The first screening was also big because it was where my grandparents saw the film for the first time, so I held my grandpa’s hand and my grandma’s hand and we just watched the film together as a family. Everybody cried and it was great! (laughs) It was a very lovely screening.
I went to a lot of festivals with it in Europe — Doc Leipzig where we won the Golden Dove short documentary international competition and at IDFA where I won a student award, and we’re going to screen at Sundance, so this is really exciting. I’m really happy about what’s going on with the film and the fact that it resonates with the audience. They identify with the characters and they identify with the issue because I feel this is something that everybody knows. No one really talks about [these kind of relationships] because it’s something that’s usually hidden under the rug or private, but I feel when it’s out there, you can talk about it and it’s easier to get through difficult emotions. It was in the case of my family.
“Close Ties” will play at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Documentary Shorts Program on January 20th at 6:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City, January 22nd at 9 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema 6 in Salt Lake City, and January 23rd at 5:30 pm and January 26th at 9 pm at the Yarrow Hotel in Park City.