“Tower. A Bright Day”, which she had made even before graduating from the Lodz Film School, won the awards for best film debut and best script. Jagoda Szelc is an artist with everything it takes to become one of the greats: boundless charisma and determination, an ability to attract interesting collaborators, and a truckload of conviction.
She took the 2017 Gdynia Film Festival by storm. Her debut “Tower. A Bright Day”, which she had made even before graduating from the Lodz Film School, won the awards for best film debut and best script. It divided critics and audiences alike, but one thing everyone agreed on: it was one of the most original Polish debuts of the 21st century, an expression of a new visual sensibility. A great talent was born.
But Szelc began her artistic journey not in cinema, but at the Wroclaw Academy of Fine Arts, at the department of graphic arts.
“You could tell from the start that graphic arts weren’t quite for me. A good graphic artist organizes their space, meanwhile I just made a mess – she recalls – I was exceptionally untalented in terms of graphic arts, and spent most of my time in Professor Nicolo Nascov’s painting studio. He made it interesting. I loved painting, but also gradually realized that it’s very elite, it doesn’t reach everyone, and its audience is actually shrinking. Painting results in solitude and requires a different kind of strength.”
The Art Academy period left her with a fascination with painting and a sensitivity to images. A sort of compositional awareness, the ability to think in symbols and to create visual spaces. When listing the artists she considers to be the masters of their craft, directors only come in second. The top tier is all painters: Jan Van Der Pol, Willem de Kooning, but also Poles: Aleksandra Waliszewska, Urban, Pokrandt.
She appreciates their artistry, but also their intellect and the time it took them to find their type of artistic expression. And the fact that they keep questioning their own work. When admiring the beauty of paintings, which it often took many years to complete, she gets slightly anxious about the lifespan of these works of art, about their timelessness. That’s another thing that pushed her towards cinema: “I feel that in a time when everyone carries around a screen in their pocket, a film is relatively less burdened with this responsibility. It can get lost in the deluge of audiovisual content, you can always hide it, put it away on a shelf, you don’t have to burn it – it’s more ephemeral. And I wouldn’t want to leave anything behind. I’d rather there was no trace of me left after I’m gone.” – she explains her choice.
Jagoda Szelc is an artist with everything it takes to become one of the greats: boundless charisma and determination, an ability to attract interesting collaborators, and a truckload of conviction
Her studies at the Academy, and particularly the solitary nature of a painter’s work, quickly clashed with her energy and desire for teamwork. She missed being part of a collective, meeting new people, and being inspired by their work. She wanted to be constantly confronted with new ideas. It was in teamwork that she saw an opportunity for artistic development and creating congenial work. That is why, after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts, she decided to go to the Lodz Film School.
“I don’t regret but three seconds spent at that school. The decision to go there saved my life, but it also tested my character, as I was being constantly criticized personally and artistically. I feel like the film school taught me how to speak. I don’t remember any conversations from art school that weren’t jokes. Film school made me an adult. You could say that I finally matured properly there. Nowadays I’m amazed when I see 40-year-olds still acting like it’s Children’s Day, and death is way off in the distance. I’m surprised by their sense of contentment, in a world where beer is filtered through fish powder, jelly beans are made from pig gelatin, and death is ubiquitous. At the Lodz Film School, you were able to learn a lot – though it all depended on how much you were willing to steal. I’m a good listener… though I’ll admit that I didn’t always listen to the things my teachers wanted me to.”
She arrived at the school with a vague idea about what a film director’s work entails. She hadn’t gone to any preparatory courses, and the documentary film set which she listed in her entry portfolio was the only film set she’d ever been to. During the first year, she decided to catch up to her more experienced peers. She’d take part in all film school productions. She wanted to learn all the aspects of filmmaking firsthand. On filmpolski.pl under her name we see not only the films which she directed or wrote, but also those where she served as an editor, set manager, make-up artist, or sound person. Sometimes she’d just come by to watch the work of others and observe the set dynamics.
“Before applying for Film School, I had never been to a movie set. Of course I had to make my etude to get in, by that was amateur hour. Compared to other students who had done Film Kindergarten at the Wajda Film School or had more experience working on set, I was a complete newbie. So I decided to catch up… in all respects. I badgered all my colleagues who were making etudes to let me be on their set. Even as a clapper loader or a secretary. A bit like an American businessmen: working my way up. I wanted to learn about every rung on the ladder. I had to know what a script supervisor does, how every machine works. So at first I would just carry around cables and bring coffee. And I’m proud of that.”
Jagoda Szelc wanted to learn and knew what she wanted. Working on her etudes, she felt a great responsibility – both for her film and for her crew. She recalls that on her way to her first set, she felt alternating cold and hot flashes. But she treated her film school films purely as exercises. As a way to learn her craft and test herself. To see if it was even possible to shoot something, to edit it, if she could wrangle the narrative and get a handle on chronology. She was exploring, experimenting, always open to failure. She would call a film a success if after it was done the whole crew went home in good spirits. Even though her etudes won awards at festivals (e.g. Tallin, Fort Worth, Monaco), she calls them exercises rather than full-blown films.
But Lodz Film School wasn’t just about meeting other students, – above all, it’s where she met its head, Mariusz Grzegorzek. The director became Szelc’s debate partner and mentor. She learned directing from him, as well as to love art and be uncompromising about it. It was he who told her that films can be failures, but they can’t be false. They have to be made from “good stock”.
“Of course I learned the most from Grzegorzek. He didn’t want to recruit me for theatre, but he let me work on film – I was the assistant director on »The Singing Napkin«. I invited myself in, pestering him until he finally hired me. Probably to get me out of his hair.”
“The Singing Napkin” was a graduate film which Grzegorzek made with the students of the acting department. It became a success, winning the Golden Claw – the main award in the Gdynia Film Festival’s “Different Look” section. Szelc sees Grzegorzek as a great artist and visionary, a completely unique individual. She is inspired by him and likes saying that he made her directing debut possible, and that without his support, her debut “Tower. A Bright Day” would probably never even have been made.
The period Jagoda Szelc spent at the Film School coincides with a shift in its policy. For decades, the only feature length movie made within that school had been Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Identification Marks: None” (1964) (Skolimowski circumvented school policy in a way, by merging several of his etudes into a feature length film). This was changed by Bartosz Warwas’s “The Caged Swallow” (2013). After its completion, the head of the school decided to turn its Indeks Studio into an active production company that would help educate more market-savvy filmmakers. Szelc’s film was in some ways a pioneering enterprise, not just for the director, but also for the team at Indeks.
“My film was produced by Indeks – of course Grzegorzek orchestrated the whole thing. In a way, we blazed a new trail, because there were none of the usual production caveats: no one told us to cast recognizable names, or wrinkle their brow when I said I needed three weeks of rehearsal on location. On the other hand, Grzegorzek told me that I’m not guaranteed a diploma just because I’m making this film…”
“Tower. A Bright Day” is an example of how things can go right when film schools act in this capacity. The film is a brilliant mixture of daring art house and genre cinema, with elements of horror and thriller. It’s something that a first time director would have a very hard time financing under normal circumstances. The film’s genetics differ from most other Polish productions. It is more akin to formal experiments from the likes of Carlos Reygadas or Harmony Korine.
In her debut Szelc deliberately constructs an ambiguous world and uses incredibly convincing naturalism, which is quite rare for Polish productions
Szelc deliberately constructs an ambiguous world and uses incredibly convincing naturalism, which is quite rare for Polish productions. Little known actors and Przemysław Brynkiewicz’s documentary-esque cinematography (a roving hand-held camera, no reverse angles) are juxtaposed with impressionist dreamscapes, and the resulting strangeness is amplified by brilliant sound mixing and editing. These impressionist inserts showcase the director’s particular visual sensibility, and could easily be presented in art galleries as large scale video projections.
Jagoda Szelc’s debut divided the audience at the Gdynia Film Festival, where it premiered. The most frequent question was: “What’s this about? What’s going on here?” That question is paradoxically the film’s greatest measure of success, and a sign of times. Szelc, along with other directors, such as Kuba Czekaj, Michał Marczak, and Tomasz Wasilewski, are becoming the avant garde of young Polish questioning cinema – the voice of the generation born in the 1980s. They are artists who construct their own language without looking back at what came before them. Paying no mind to the rigors of what one should, and what one mustn’t do. They’re doing what they want and what they feel. And their work will change the audience.
Szelc is trying to keep a cool head about her film’s success. She underlines that for her it’s all about trying to leave her comfort zone and to be honest.
“The worst things in this world result from ambition. – she claims – I don’t have financial ambitions, I don’t aspire to be in the mainstream, I don’t have to hear that I’m the smartest, or the most beautiful. I care about feeling my way towards who I really am, about making mistakes, but growing from them. The truth is the ground with no second paths.”
After her Gdynia success, the director reapplied for Film School. She was suspended as a student during the production of “Tower…”. Soon, she’ll be back on the set, directing the acting department’s graduate film called “Monument”.
“The set is a peculiar space, and filmmaking is patriarchal – she thinks. – And I don’t feel like pretending I’m a guy at work. I don’t want to be the film’s father, I want to be its mother. Remember that in Poland there’s not a lot you can do as a woman, but there’s quite a lot you can do as a mother.”
She is also developing two other ideas: she submitted a script for “Delikatny balans terroru”, which she claims veers heavily into “Twilight Zone” territory, to the Polish Film Institute. She also has an idea for another big film… and that’s it. She claims she’s not a filmmaker, she just wants to do this particular project, and then she’ll see.
“The films that I wrote – I definitely want to do them, at all cost. But I don’t care about having ‘DIRECTOR’ on my tombstone. There’s something really weird about having just one job all your life.”
One thing is for certain: Jagoda Szelc is an artist with everything it takes to become one of the greats: boundless charisma and determination, an ability to attract interesting collaborators, and a truckload of conviction.