This week, Kafkadesk spoke with prominent Polish film director Konrad Szołajski. His most recent documentary, ‘Make Poland Great Again’ (Dobra Zmiana) explores the current state of politics in Poland, examines the government’s landmark ‘Good Change’ program and paints a harrowing picture of the ever-growing polarization of Polish society.
First, could you tell us why you decided to make this documentary?
I’ve directed both fiction and documentary movies throughout my career. Recently, I’ve been focusing on documentaries for the simple reason that it gives me more independence. If you want to direct a fictional movie in Poland today, the options are very limited due to censorship. Not an official one, but a ‘financial censorship’ so to speak, which is almost worse: if the theme of your movie or how you treat a certain topic displeases highly-placed people, you won’t be able to find sponsors and partners to fund your project. That’s not the case with documentaries, as I’ve long been working with foreign broadcasters and producers who agree to provide funding without strings attached.
I chose to make a movie about the current political landscape in Poland because, for the fourth time in my life, I feel like I’m witnessing a historic moment (the first three ones being the birth of the Solidarity movement in the 1980’s, the fall of communism and Poland’s membership to the European Union). We’re experiencing an unprecedented polarization of society between supporters and opponents of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. I had to cover it. Initially, I thought I would have to compete with many similar projects. But not at all, “thanks” to the financial censorship I mentioned.
Is this censorship a new development?
No, it’s been there for a long time, but has reached a new level in recent years. Before, it could still be difficult to find sponsors to fund projects that might seem controversial, but you were still able to find backers eventually: the political and administrative landscape was still marked by pluralism. Today, it all boils down to PiS, who has an absolute monopoly over these issues.
Did you encounter any difficulties in shooting your documentary in Poland?
Most definitely. Our goal was to present a balanced view of the Polish government’s policies, exemplified by its ‘Good Change’ program, and give the floor to both its supporters and opponents to paint the most comprehensive picture. It was a lot easier to meet with opponents to the current government, who were much more willing to talk to us and answer our questions. That being said, it was also sometimes difficult for them to trust us after we told them we were also speaking to PiS supporters. That gives you a pretty good idea of how much the two sides distrust each other today.
Your documentary paints a rather distressing picture of the state of Polish society today. You even use the term “cold civil war”.
Yes, the precipice between the two sides of Polish society is huge and growing. Poland has never been as divided as it is now. We need to be aware of the warning signs, of the noxious climate of hate speech. All this could very well end up in bloodshed. Actually, it already has, with the murder of Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz. His assassination could very well be described as “a political murder”, and is seen by many Poles as a direct result of the Polish state television’s propaganda machine. His murder was absolutely shocking, but not that surprising. Many of us knew something like that was hanging in the air and could happen anytime.
How do you feel about the current state of Polish politics?
Poland stands at the crossroads and a decisive moment in its history. The European elections will be crucial and show the level of support for the current government. Law and Justice is trying build a strong, independent Poland between East and West, that can rely on and take care of itself alone. That’s a very dangerous gamble: we’ve tried in the 1930’s to stand alone between East and West, and we lost that bet. Poland cannot be alone. We belong in the European Union. That doesn’t mean it’s all been perfect, and many people have been left out from the process of EU integration and growing prosperity.
The Polish government claims that the country has been taken advantage of and exploited over the past decades, by the EU, by Germany or by foreign multinationals.
I don’t think Poland has been exploited the way the PiS propaganda tries to show. What is true, however, is that the previous governments didn’t take care of parts of the population who needed it, and left many people feeling abandoned, neglected and excluded. Previous governments also failed to invest enough in education and culture, which would have prevented the current spread of propaganda and falsehoods, and explains why the PiS propaganda apparatus is so efficient today. Previous leaders should have been cleverer about forecasting the future and put more money into education, culture and pedagogy: instead, PO-led governments were mostly thinking about making economies and saving money, something PiS has exploited. I’m afraid the population will only realize it when the time comes to pay back their debts.
‘Make Poland Great Again’ also addresses the issue of the Polish Catholic Church’s influence in politics.
The Church is as divided as the rest of Polish society. In that regard, it’s quite uncertain which direction it will take in the future. Some bishops are cut from real life, live like princes, treat Pope Francis like a heretic and are behaving like members of a political party. But other Polish priests know that the Church might be sabotaging itself from the inside, including due to the ticking bomb of pedophilia and sexual abuse.
The Polish Catholic Church recently released a report on this issue.
Yes, but that report is not credible at all and completely underestimates the extent of the problem. It was a very big mistake to do that: they simply should have confessed and redeemed their sins. But they keep pretending pedophilia and sexual abuse are not a Polish problem.
Is the Catholic Church as influential as it was before?
Although Poland is still one of the most devout Catholic nations in Europe, people are leaving the Church very quickly. The process might be similar to what happened in the West: when the average living standards go up, the Church progressively loses ground. But it’s hard to say whether these people are just leaving the Church or leaving the faith. Although Poland might be going through a phase of growing criticism towards the Church, it doesn’t mean that the faith itself is losing ground. For instance, the Czech Republic is supposedly one of the least religious countries in Europe, but large parts of its population have spiritual beliefs, without needing to join a religious institution per se.
I’m guessing you’ve seen the movie Kler?
Of course, and I’ve really liked it. It might be one of the most important Polish movies from the last twenty years. And surely Wojciech Smarzowski’s best since his first feature film The Wedding (Wesele, 2004), which I loved. Kler is a great movie, very well constructed and based on a great screenplay. It truly sheds some light on the mechanisms of corruption and sexual abuse in Poland’s Catholic Church. It doesn’t condemn, but simply shows the problem. I think every parish in Poland should organize a screening of the movie. Obviously, that’s not the case.
How was he allowed to shoot such a controversial movie, given the censorship you mentioned?
Actually, that’s probably because his previous movie, Hatred (Wolyn, 2016), was very well received by PiS and Polish nationalists. That’s why they didn’t hesitate to give him money for his new movie without really looking at what he was doing with it. There was a hole in the financial censorship apparatus, and Kler was the exception. They realized it too late.
Are you working on any new projects right now?
I will have a novel that will soon be published, Assignment: the Battle with Satan, based on the eponymous documentary I made about exorcism. I’m also working on a new documentary, directly linked to the last one, on ‘hate speech killing’ in Poland. We actually launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the project. Those who value independent culture and would like to support the production of my new film are kindly asked for donations!