“I like wise, jittery, impudent cinema that defies easy categorization” – said Jacek Borcuch. And that sort of energy might just be the common theme in his films. The independent “Kallafiorr” made on a shoestring budget. “Tulips” about a circle of old friends. The punk “All That I Love” which made its way to Sundance and captured the minds of a young audience. And finally, the sensual “Lasting Moments”. Because it’s precisely rebellion and a constant search for something new that had this boy from Kwidzyn knocking at art’s door.
He was born in 1970. I ask him how it came to be that both the sons of a soldier from a small town became artists. “I’ve wondered about that myself” – chuckles Borcuch. “My father was strict, and he raised us accordingly. But he’d go to bed early, and then mom would lay out blankets in the hall and let us stay up late watching movies. There were only two TV channels, and at 8 p.m. they broadcast some Soviet kitsch, but later they’d show the French New Wave, Antonioni, Visconti, Kurosawa. And we ate it all up.”
He makes wise, jittery, impudent cinema that defies easy categorization. The common theme in his films is energy.
When he was six, he found a broken guitar with just one string in the garbage. He played his mom’s favorite melody on it: the theme from “The Godfather”. His mother, a nurse, somewhat against his father’s wishes, decided that both Jacek and Daniel (currently a successful composer) would go to music school. But Borcuch did not find his bliss in butchering classical fugues and perfecting a his craft.
– It was a crazy time – he recalls. – I won’t let anyone tell me that the 1980s were just poverty and shit in greyscale. We, teenagers, lived in a different reality. We didn’t know that people were being incarcerated. We were devouring the world and meeting new people. We were collecting Fanta, Coca Cola, and Pepsi cans from the West. They were like meteorites from outer space to us. We were fascinated by anything that was new and different.
That was also when the punk explosion happened in Poland, and the coastal scene was one of the best in the country. Borcuch recalls Jarocin festivals and hunting for records from outside official circulation – concert bootlegs which were then copied at home ad infinitum. The quality wasn’t great, but the energy and lyrics more than made up for it. “British punk screamed »No future«.” – comments the director. “Ours was different, it was all about the future, it was lined with hope that we can tear this whole thing down and start anew.”
That dream resonated also outside the punk scene. Borcuch recalls that in 1981, he would visit his aunt in Gdansk. From the train, he watched the shipyard and the protesting workers lined outside its walls. He felt that something was in the air. He graduated high school in May of 1989. In June, the first free elections were held. “I felt like I’ve made it to the end of high school and climbed out on the other shore in a free country” – he recalls. But he didn’t have a clear picture of who he was in this new reality. He liked to sing, and he thought about studying in Lodz, but a professor friend of his talked him out of it. He had a brief stint at the Musical Theatre in Gdynia, and then got into the acting department at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Warsaw. But he didn’t find it to his liking either.
“My parents couldn’t understand it: it was so hard to get in, and I just decided to quit – he remarks. – But schools in the early 1990s were a completely different universe. Elderly professors would ride us to just enunciate clearly, and our older colleagues would recite their lines in an affected, artificial way. Meanwhile, I expected everything to change in a moment: cinema, theatre, music.”
He got his Master’s in philosophy. He was in a punk band with his brother, and they toured the country. Sometimes he’d work as an actor. Until Krzysztof Krauze called him up and offered him a part in “The Debt”.
To this day, this film, based on the real story of a businessman ensnared by the mob, remains one of the most vivid accounts of the Polish transformation period. Krauze spotted talent in Borcuch, who had shown him one of his scripts. Two weeks after the shoot wrapped up, the actor stepped out onto a set of his own. Even though amateur – or: independent – cinema was still virtually unknown, and the digital camera with which they shot was something absolutely revolutionary.
Today “Kallafiorr” is an interesting sign of times. It weaves together crime story with sociological study. It’s an attempt at finding your voice in the crude, psychedelic 1990s and has a Tarantino-esque energy fueled by a quasi-narcotic trance. It breathed some fresh air into the run-down, chronically underfunded Polish cinema of that era. Its premiere became an event at the Gdynia Film Festival. Intrigued, Roman Gutek offered Borcuch a distribution deal. And another Kwidzyn native, the head of Kodak, offered to transfer his film onto celluloid tape.
“We didn’t have the technology yet – the director laughs. – So they built a special tent inside which they put the movie on a 100Hz screen, which was cutting edge at the time, and then shot that using a camera.”
“Kallafiorr” made him into a filmmaker. He was one of the first to enter the industry without the aid of film school, on his own terms. Producer Michał Kwieciński took a chance on him and hired him to do TV shows. Then he got another phone call. “It was 6 a.m. – recalls Borcuch. – I pick up the phone and hear the words: “Hello, this is Krzysztof Zanussi. Mr. Jacek Borcuch? You know, I have trouble sleeping, so my friends drop by DVDs, and I saw your film. It’s very interesting. It tears down established dogmas and narratives. It’s something of a slap to my face, but a very stylish one. Could I possibly help you in any way?”
And he did. Zanussi’s film studio, Tor, co-produced “Tulips”. Borcuch changed his tone. He was no longer yelling from the screen. Using excellent, older actors: Małgorzata Braunek, Jan Nowicki, he told a nostalgic, but also humorous tale about late-in-life love, friendship, and closeness. “I feel most attached to »Tulips«” – he comments.
“All That I Love” was based on the director’s memories. The film blazed a trail into a realm that had been completely unknown to Polish filmmakers: the Sundance Film Festival.
Even though his style seemed calmer, Borcuch’s heart still pumped punk. And so he paid homage to it in his next film. “All That I love” was based on the director’s memories. He showed four boys, one of them a soldier’s son, growing up in the 1980s on the Baltic coast against the backdrop of politics and history being made. But their main pursuits are friendship, music, discovering love and sexuality.
The director sensed that there’s an audience for this sort of film: unpretentious, fresh, delivered with a light touch. It was sold to several dozen markets, and blazed a trail into a realm that had been completely unknown to Polish filmmakers: the Sundance Film Festival. At the same time, it acted as a showcase for great young actors, including Mateusz Kościukiewicz, Jakub Gierszał (both went on to enter the prestigious Shooting Stars program), Mateusz Banasiuk. And Borcuch realized something: “I felt like you could be Polish and international at the same time. At Park City, I was approached by Robert Redford. He congratulated me and introduced me to Bill Gates, who looked like an IRS clerk in that suit of his. Already at Sundance, the programing director of Fox TV offered me a chance to do three episodes of a teen vampire series. But I thought: »Come on, now I’m gonna pretend like I’ve made it in America? That’s not the point. It’s a waste of time.« I was on a roll, I had my own plans. Five years later, the »Twilight« movies happened, and for a moment I doubted whether I’d made the right choice.”
Instead of making TV in the US, he decided to experiment even more. To step out of his comfort zone. That’s how “Lasting Moments” came to be. Boy meets girl in Spain, passion ensues. But then there’s an accident, and a man dies. The director created a very sensuous mood. He asked questions about today’s morality, and showed life burdened by a guilty conscience. But today, several years later, he has some reservations. “I overthought it a bit. This is the only one I’d gladly re-cut. I had great material, but didn’t want to make another “feelgood” movie, which is what everyone had said about »All That I Love«. So a little out of spite, I decided to do something completely different.”
He’s decided to slow down. Now he’s preparing another international project – the story of a Nobel Prize-winning poetess who left her country and has been living in Tuscany for the past 30 years. It’s a tale about refugees, disgraced role models, and pointless political correctness. The main part is to be played by Krystyna Janda.
But here Borcuch also intends to maintain his trademark energy. Always a bit punk, he’d rather go against the grain, though always looking for universal themes. Instead of preaching from the pulpit, he prefers leaning in, closer to his characters. And that is probably the most important thing about his work. As he himself claims: “I believe in the magic of cinema. In what happened in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s: in people going to the movies to forget, and to be transported into a different reality, to feel like their life is more fascinating. That’s why I’m all about human emotions.”