Miss the winner of our Exberliner Film Award at Achtung Berlin this past month? Well, here’s your chance to catch a special screening with English subs and cast and crew in Q&A on Monday, April 29, 8pm at Lichtblick Kino.
What happens when three eco-conscious vegan neo-hippies from Berlin live with Polish farmers whose livelihood relies on cows and crops? Can we achieve harmony with nature and with people who speak a different language and have a different philosophy of life? How do we live ecologically and close to nature at the same time? The winner of this year’s Exberliner Film Award at Achtung Berlin is… Village of Swimming Cows, a film that deals with many prevalent questions of our time, in Berlin but also globally. At once humorous and self-conscious, it beautifully portrays hilarious “lost in translation” moments and goodwill between the two sides without judging – an honest, poetic, multifaceted and well-balanced modern tale which inspires us to think about our interconnected world of present and future, our relationship with nature as well as with one another. We spoke with Polish director Katarzyna Trzaska about country life, German and British tourists in Poland, creating a scene and more…
How did the idea of bringing these two worlds together come about?
It wasn’t a person but rather a place that gave me the idea. My father was born in this very small village in eastern Poland, which is described as the “village of swimming cows” in German guidebooks because cows swim across the river Biebrza twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, to eat grass on the other side. In fact, Biebrza National Park is a symbol of a place unspoiled by civilization, famous for wild animals and water birds. When I visited my cousin, a milk farmer there, I met German and British tourists who considered village life to be primitive but also idyllic and close to nature. Yet I know how my cousin lives and that farmers all over the world have a very pragmatic approach to nature. In fact, life in a village has changed dramatically. People there watch a lot of TV and go shopping in a supermarket. They eat unhealthy food and are generally unconcerned with an ecological lifestyle. There is a huge paradox between villagers who dream of urban life’s comfort and city-dwellers who desire to return to nature. So, for me this film is about the meeting between people with very different life philosophies. What we see face to face is different from what we think and presume. Maybe our prejudice is wrong, so, as we say in Polish, do not throw everyone into one bag.
Why did you come to Berlin to look for your protagonists?
It was 2013 when I first had the idea. My friend moved from Dortmund to Berlin and I fell in love with Berlin when I went for a visit. It’s like an island, with a lot of young and old people living very free and alternative ways of life. I like the eco-trend ideas in Berlin, which are much more advanced than in Warsaw.
It then took four years to finish the film…
The process is very much based on financing. We first made some material so that the potential funders can see and decide if they would give me money for the production. Looking for protagonists also took some time. I found Mario first at Spirit Berlin. Then I found Jonathan. Ellen came to the project at the very last stage. She is a great person because she shares a lot about her life and is true to what she believes in. The process is always like a puzzle. The element of risk is always very present in documentary filmmaking, probably more than in fiction filmmaking. You are never sure if you are on the right path when you are making a film. This film really feels like an experiment.
The film is very honest but also beautifully made, with some carefully planned shots. How do you balance between authenticity and aesthetics?
I believe that if you are working with documentary protagonists, you do not have to work like a TV reportage crew who observes everything with a camera on the shoulder. You have to understand what looks good and what doesn’t look good. I am not afraid of repetition if it is necessary. For example, when we changed the camera position and did not record a sentence that was important, I would ask my protagonists to repeat the last sentence. We didn’t shoot long fictional scenes, but this is very much a matter of montage. If you try to edit like in a fiction film, you always need a few more reverse shots of people listening in order to mix them. At the same time, we only have one camera because we would like the set to feel more intimate. The smaller the crew, the better. The DOP I work with, Andrzej Wojciechowski, is very talented. He also believes in the idea of a “scene”. Even in a documentary, we make “scenes”. We don’t shoot everything. We try to squeeze a situation into a scene. In that sense, this is a work of fiction. I believe in beautiful cinematography in documentary filmmaking because for me a film is a film. When you have a bit of a theoretical film and when you want to say something, cinematography helps lift the film to a higher level.
There are some brilliant “lost in translation” moments in the film…
The whole film is possible because there is a lot of good energy from both sides. Their communication is possible because they want to communicate. They are not forced to communicate, but they are interested in one another’s life. My crew members and I were truly surprised at the beginning to see how much they could understand each other without any translation and with a lot of gestures.
How did the village respond to the film?
The screening took place last October. We screened it in a hall which could accommodate 200 people and it was full. People from this village and the surrounding villages came to see their neighbors. Stanislav and his family were terrified to see themselves on the screen, but after the screening they were truly relieved. Everybody applauded. The local TV team was there to do interviews with them. The vice-president of the region was there too and congratulated Stanislav and his family.
Your next projects?
Now I am adapting a Krimi written by a friend, a Polish novelist, for a film script. It’s about six women who meet up for a party and then one dies suddenly, and the murderer is one of them. It’s a very feminist piece and I am a feminist. As a director, I believe that I should let women voice themselves. It’s a crime comedy with some social observation, called Six Women in Snow, Not Counting the Bitch.
EXBlicks: Village of Swimming Cows, Mon, Apr 29, 20:00 | Lichtblick Kino, Prenzlauer Berg