May 29, 2023
From Silent Land

INTERVIEW: Aga Woszczynska on her confrontational political drama “Silent Land”


The setting is quite familiar. A couple (jumped out from an Ikea advertisement) visits a villa (that looks like a listing in a travel brochure) on the Italian coastline for holidays. The wide shots of the Mediterranean scenery, painted with pastel colours, prepare just fine the viewer for the tragedy that explodes literally at the feet of the flawless couple, Adam and Anna.

It may seem that this film is all about contemporary, pasteurized relationships. A common theme among anti-romance European cinema. Indeed, this is the case with “Silent Land”, only because it brings up the cause and the effects of them: emotional poverty and minimal social interaction. Adam and Anna are caught red-handed, but the epidemic indifference all around clears them out. They are left confronted with their own decision to take the guilt or be modestly silent about it.

Nonetheless, the film has more interesting readings, such as the migrant crisis. A subject that European directors have been surprisingly silent or uncreative. Aga Woszczynska, the director from Poland, achieved a unique perspective on the political portrait of Europe and started to give reasons why migration is still an issue of conflict.

These layers are enough to open up the appetite and call in the director for an insightful conversation about her film. Keep in mind that the following conversation may contain spoilers.

Thank you for your film. It was both beautiful and terrifying in its way. I will go ahead and name it: you give us the tense reality of social indifference and emotional distance. Not only through the main couple of the story, but also through the relationships between all the characters of the film. What triggered this theme? 

hey are afraid of feelings. It is easier to live without experiencing bad emotions. They want to cut themselves out from other people’s emotions and from the world. To disclose themselves in this kind of comfort zone. They can identify happiness with being just focused on themselves, without thinking of the world around them. But they don’t live in the middle of the forest, and we also don’t. There are always other people around us. We cannot just cut ourselves from the tragedies that are happening around us. So, on one hand, there is this emotional distance between my characters, and on the other hand, there is the emotional distance between my characters and the world.

You developed your characters in your latest short film, Anna and Adam. On this one, which is your first feature film, you take time, and you use “naked moments”, musicless scenes, to let us sink with the characters. Did you aim for understanding and association with the decisions of the character? Or is it that you give us time to self-reflect on our own reality?

My main goal was to leave the viewer as much space for interpretation as I could. I did not want to indicate and tell them what to think and where to pay attention. That is why there is no music in this film. There is only sound design—which is somehow so precise that we can call it like that. To me, music emphasizes on the feelings. I did not want to tell the viewer, “now you have to laugh.” I wanted to leave the space between the audience and the screen. The same goes for the cinematography of the film; there are no details in my film. There are only some close-ups. The first close-up actually appears with Rahim, the worker. After this, we only have a few ones on my characters. I did not want to tell my viewers where to look, e.g. the shaking hands, or what to take from the image. I do not want to lead you as a director. Not only that, but I strongly believe in the intelligence of people who are watching films.

You brought characters from various nationalities together. While there is not a focus on that per se, you present quite a few times the body of Adam, a white European, and the body of Rahim, a migrant. It seems that you are making a political comment. While your aesthetics and photography resonate with the Scandinavian cinema, more than we are used to from a polish filmmaker. Why did you decide to place the story on the Mediterranean coast, like in Italy? 

First of all, I don’t consider my film a Polish film. Of course, my characters are Polish, because I am from Poland and I live there. But I think they could be also Czech, Scandinavian, or any white people from Europe. There is one scene in my film where they are both half naked on the balcony watching from up to down where Rahim is working, also half naked. That is very symbolic, but it says everything to me. It says the truth.

And where is the silent land? Europe maybe?

Yes. I wouldn’t like to blame just Italy. I made this film after thinking of the tragedy that happened on Lampedusa, in 2013. It was not the first tragedy with migrants trying to approach Europe, but it was the most well-known. Then it was Greece. Everything was happening in Southern Europe. Right now, where are we? In Poland, we have people dying within the borders, because our government doesn’t want to let people in the country. But on the other hand, we opened the borders between Poland and Ukraine. Because these people are white, and the others are not. Unfortunately, this film is updated.

We initially started making the film into a dystopia, with the characters living with irrational fear. Then, we had the first wave of the pandemic, and I could see the image of police and military people walking down the streets during the lockdown. My story had that also, but unfortunately, it is not a dystopia.

Your couple follows a very systematic lifestyle. Healthy eating, daily exercise, very controlled way of expressing themselves. Nevertheless, they are not prepared to deal with their plain human reaction to their action, such as guilt. They will burst into laughs or remain apathetic to the feelings of others. Which sits very well with the tourist environment in Italy, a very well-preserved one, as you also show in points with your film. You have this direction even with the French diver (played by Jean-Marc Barr), who seems to be peaceful in a religious way, even though he has some things to be regretful of. Is this something that interests you as well, when thinking of the promoted style of wellbeing vs reality?

My characters are people. On the one hand, they can lead a proper life, trying to take care of themselves. But they take care only of themselves. They don’t even have a kid or a dog. I think it is very realistic. We are playing different roles in society and in life. All of these roles are real.  Similarly to my characters. They are taking care of their lives, but they don’t care about their role in society.

Somewhere after the middle of the film, we watch the couple drifting apart. So far they have been sharing the same ideals and same attitude towards the surrounding events. But then, Anna will join the folk dance and take up diving lessons, while Adam will abstain from these activities. He will even isolate himself from Anna. How do you see this difference in the reaction? Why did you decide to have Adam experience a change and not Anna or not together?

Because I love guys! Of course, I am a feminist, but I prefer to be a healthy one. When I work with two characters, one woman and one man, and they both see the tragedy, I want the reaction of both of them. I don’t want to blame guys for all the bad things that are happening in our lives. I know that in our time, in the #metoo era, people would expect me to defend the woman. But I think both sexes are human beings in the end. Adam in his development is more vulnerable and takes the guilt. Anna is stronger when she has everything under control. But when something doesn’t go in an expected way, she starts losing this control, and she becomes weaker. While he understands his guilt, and so he becomes stronger.

This film is actually your debut film as a professional film director, made outside the safe environment of a school. It took you 5 years to complete it. Sounds like a dream for a young professional like yourself, to reach the standard of high qualitative cinema, with a film that stands quite nicely in the intersection between independent cinema and genre. What can you share from this experience?

Suddenly I have to be in front of cameras or on magazines and radio stations. I would prefer to work on my next film. But it is a very interesting experience. For example, it was an honor for me to be at the Toronto International Film Festival. Being outside Europe and having distribution for my film in six countries is amazing. Some of my friends are making films without even having Polish distribution. I am really grateful for this. It is amazing what is happening with this film. I even think it is better perceived not in my country but abroad. So I am really happy.

Silent Land” is released on 23rd September in cinemas.

2021, Country: Poland, Czech Republic, Italy | 113 mins | Dir: Aga Woszczynska | Writers: Piotr Litwin, Aga Woszczynska | Stars: Dobromir Dymecki, Agnieszka Zulewska, Jean-Marc Barr, Alma Jodorowsky | Cinematography: Bartosz Swiniarski

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