Proof of Hypocrisy

19-year-old Urszula returns to her home town after a two year absence. Nobody knows why the girl disappeared or where she’s been during that time. And nobody, she feels, is particularly happy to see her back. Urszula becomes an outcast from this highly religious community, with even her own family turning its back on her. But the teenager is determined not to be a victim. The first interview with Magdalena Łazarkiewicz since she wrapped filming for “Powrót”.

Sandra Drzymalska as Urszula in POWRÓT by Magdalena Łazarkiewicz

Paweł T. Felis: “I’d like to use this film to talk about the spheres of our life that we prefer to push aside, because they are unpleasant and don’t let us feel good about ourselves” – you said a year ago, when you were finishing the script for “Powrót”. Where did the idea for this film come from?

Magdalena Łazarkiewicz: It began with the TV series “Głęboka woda” in which, together with my co-writer Kasia Terechowicz, we documented many real life stories. We were in contact with the La Strada foundation, and through it came across the story of a girl from a small town who was abducted and shipped off to a brothel in Germany. She managed to escape and return home. But her homecoming turned out to be very difficult, for a number of reasons.

You were building upon a real story?

It only served as inspiration. But an important one, because this authentic example was like a magnifying glass that showed in stark relief the mechanism of ostracizing someone who does not fit in, who defies stereotypes, and therefore acts as an irritant.

When the 19-year-old protagonist of “Powrót” returns home at the beginning of the film, her close ones seem more surprised than joyous.

It’s a girl from a very conservative family – a family that definitely does not want to stand out. Urszula disappeared two years ago, she left with her boyfriend. Who then forced her into prostitution. In her home town, she was assumed to be dead, so when she comes back, everyone’s in shock.

During her first bath, we see bruises and scars on her body – there’s no doubt that Urszula has been through a lot.

She has been hurt physically and mentally. She carries the trauma of betrayal, of sexual abuse, of being practically imprisoned. But she definitely doesn’t want anyone to pity her. She doesn’t want to be a victim. In a way, she rebels. She is brusque at times, does things out of spite, or on the contrary – shuts down and doesn’t let anyone help her. But these are not just displays of bravado, they’re the signs of an identity disorder, which no one around her seems to understand.

At first Urszula arouses morbid curiosity, later – disgust and outrage. Because she’s different?

Because she becomes an outcast to her family and the entire community. She is the tangible proof of the hypocrisy prevalent in her surroundings. Her community preaches the Christian love of one’s neighbor, but no one actually practices it in everyday life, not towards her. What’s more, Christian mercy is being perverted and misunderstood, allowing people to use Christianity to punish their closest kin.

And the protagonist’s family is very religious: her father is a pilgrimage driver, her mother often volunteers at the church, and uncle Jerzy is the local parish priest.

That’s true, which doesn’t mean that “Powrót” is an anti-Church or anti-religious film. It’s easy to reduce faith to rituals and to ridicule it in this sense. We wanted to avoid such simplifications. That is why we show, for example, the incredible Paschal Triduum ritual called the feast of fire and water. Even many Catholics don’t know about it, and it’s a beautiful holiday. It takes place in the night, on the eve of the Resurrection. The church is dark, and a bonfire is lit outside. Then a procession enters the church with that fire and starts lighting candles, filling the entire building with light. It’s an incredible experience.

Agnieszka Warchulska and Sandra Drzymalska in POWRÓT by Magdalena Łazarkiewicz

Also in a spiritual sense?

Of course. We shot it as a spectacle. We also included a beautiful song that is traditionally sung during the ceremony – it was recorded for us by a great cantor. Of course, behind this imposing façade there is tension, a family lie sustained for many years, this hypocritical staffage. But this monumental ritual remains a point of reference. Affixed up there, in the spiritual stratosphere, at a level which we can’t attain in everyday life.

There’s also the example of another character from your film – father Jerzy. He is also involved in the family lie, but he’s not a bad priest – he defends Urszula, quoting Jesus: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

We based this character on an exceptional clergyman, father Wojciech Drozdowicz from Bielany – trying to emulate his way of speaking, his mannerisms, etc. Like everybody else in the film, Jerzy is at odds with himself. He has his own secret, puts up his own façade. But he’s also a lonely, and often helpless man. I want to stress this again, “Powrót” isn’t a critique of the Church or its clergy. Rather, it is a story about how difficult it is to live adhering to officially professed principles and values. Even if those values are thoroughly valid and commendable.

There’s an incredible moment in the script when Urszula leaves the psychiatric hospital and, stuffed with drugs, returns to her faith. Before, she was all over the place. Now she finally finds peace. Because it’s easier to finally know what is good and what is evil than to keep going back and forth?

Religion gives you a sense of security. Our lives are filled with ambiguousness, uncertainty, doubt. Religion – in its many guises – offers a refuge from all that. We all feel this natural urge to surrender to it. Including Urszula. Even if, in her case, this false sense of security is doomed to collapse. Quite quickly, she starts to understand that she has been deceived and duped. That the world is actually quite different.

There’s another important topic there – the approach towards women, and especially their sexuality. A woman seduced and forced into sexual slavery is not treated as a victim of violence. Her community treats her as the guilty party. Saying she has “whored herself out”.

Because she’s been tainted. Sullied. Because she doesn’t allow them to sweep the issues of sexuality and male violence under the carpet, even though one shouldn’t talk about those things. One ought to keep quiet about them. It’s the same with the girl’s mother, played by Agnieszka Warchulska, who crafted this character in a very interesting way. She’s not a caustic religious fanatic, but instead a woman who had to rein back her femininity. That corporality is still there, but she has to hide it. And this duality is her tragedy.

There’s one other important woman – Lena, played by Katarzyna Herman.

She was something of a mentor to Urszula. As the head of the church choir, she noticed an exceptional vocal talent in her. She pushed her protégé to try to make it in the world, talking her into participating in a talent show. But when, during that show, Urszula met the man who kidnapped her, Lena was saddled with the blame. You could say that two circles of ostracism were established. One around Lena, who couldn’t handle the social pressure and became an alcoholic, ruining her life. And another one around the young girl who was first sullied, and then would not swear vocally enough by the values espoused by her family.

How did you find Sandra Drzymalska, who plays Urszula?

She came to the first casting and made a big impression right from the start. But there’s always this disbelief: it’s hard to cast your lead during the first round of casting. So I went through a whole cycle, saw a lot of girls. And then came back to Sandra. There’s something English about her. On screen, she’s very sensual, but professionally she’s incredibly focused. She only recently graduated from the Krakow theatre school. Her role in the 30-minute film “Jest naprawdę ekstra” received an honorable mention at this year’s Koszalin Film Debut Festival for “personality and on-screen charisma”. To me, she was a revelation.

And the other parts?

It’s quite an unusual cast, because it was important for me to feature actors that you don’t already see everywhere else. So Urszula’s father is played by Mirosław Kropielnicki – a very famous theatre actor from Poznań; it is his big screen debut. He has never done film before. Which is a shame, because he’s a terrific personality. He would be a perfect fit for Ken Loach. The priest is played by Tomasz Sobczak, and Lech – by Bartek Gelner. Sandra’s younger brother is played by Staszek Cywka, whom we discovered on “Głęboka woda”, and who has since then become a bona fide actor – you might have seen him in “The Erlprince”. The youngest, Karolek, is played by six-year-old Dawid Rostkowski, whom we found during casting.

And he rose up to the challenge?

Yes, he was excellent. And his role was very difficult: Karolek is practically the only character in the film yet untouched by the evil and duplicity of this world. Of course we tried to protect him, provided him with excellent care, but still he surprised us with his maturity. I remember a scene, which I wanted to shoot documentary-style – we wanted his natural reaction to a rather drastic situation. And we succeeded, he was indeed quite scared. I came up to him after and said: “I’m sorry, I know this was unpleasant. Sometimes when you shoot a film, it’s not pleasant.” He looked at me and replied: “Well, that’s how it is in this job!”

Is it just me, or is this film quite light on dialogue?

That’s true. The first line is uttered by Urszula around the 40 minute mark. The script was quite sparse, and then while working on set, and during editing, we tried to trim it even more, get rid of everything that seemed superfluous. We wanted the images to do the talking. This was the first film for which I, together with my cinematographer Wojciech Todorow, wrote a detailed shooting script. At first it didn’t seen necessary: we don’t have complicated setups, many different locations, etc. But it turned out to be a blessing, because it made the film very purposeful in its visual storytelling. And without the shooting script, we probably wouldn’t have been able to shoot it so quickly.

Director Magdalena Łazarkiewicz on set of POWRÓT

How was working on the set?

It was fantastic. The only problem we had was the limited number of shooting days. But we were prepared very well, we’d rehearsed a lot. Also with the camera. And what’s even more important, everyone got so into this project that we found it difficult to part ways at the end. I’m actually throwing a dinner for the actors tonight, so I’ll soon have to go get some groceries and start cooking. I was also spoiled from the production side of things. It’s very rare to have a producer who is as involved in the film from the artistic point of view, trying to support and help you every step of the way, as Lambros Ziotas from Wrocław.

So everything went according to plan?

That never happens, and that’s normal for film. For example, we had terrible luck with the weather. We started shooting in winter, to show the passage of time. Then we shot indoors in Warsaw, practically in a studio lot environment – we built our set in an abandoned building. Then we planned to go to our town for the final stretch, to shoot some early spring. We arrived on the spot, and there was half a meter of snow everywhere. Towards the end of April! It was a nightmare, we were devastated. But we managed to shoot the story around the weather, and you can still feel the passage of time.

Where is this small town?

We shot in Lubliniec – a town near Częstochowa, but located in Silesia. It’s not a typical Silesian town, but rather a borderland sort of place. The world we are showing isn’t beautiful in an obvious way. But Lubliniec has this aesthetic purity and distinctness that spoke to me right from the start.

What are your thoughts after the first weeks of editing?

I’m quite pleased with what we managed to get, but the story is only just taking shape. I already see that it can be told in a number of ways. I’m in no hurry. We will show a portion of the edited film during the Polish Days at T-Mobile New Horizons, but the whole thing won’t be ready this year.

Don’t you feel that “Powrót” – which was written quite a while ago – might end up being very current?

When I see what’s going on around us, I feel like reality is “working” for this film. I mean it in a deeper sense, of course, because we took effort not to make it seem like journalism. Everyone – me, the actors, the crew – put a lot of effort into giving each of our characters their own, personal truth and their own inner turmoil. We didn’t want a black-and-white sort of world, but instead strived to show people who have good intentions, but are also confused, or repressed.

By ‘current’ I also mean the fact that the hypocrisy at the heart of “Powrót” doesn’t have to be religious in nature.

Yes, that’s very important. If you put this story in a different setting, you could easily find comparable situations in politics, or in the corporate world. Because “Powrót” isn’t about religion or religious people, but rather about a certain mechanism. The mechanism of rejection and of being rejected. But it also talks about the fact that there’s a price to pay for lying and acting on false motivations. There’s a moment in “Powrót” when it is revealed that the family has been living a lie. And that’s a terrible poison that spares no one. Of course telling the truth, and speaking up, also has its price. But at least then you remain free in your heart.

Is it a film about the search for freedom?

Also, yes. But above all, it is a film about the fact that we all have our personal dramas. And even if we are sometimes cruel, and choose the lesser, though still terrifying, evil – there’s a reason why we do it. We can point fingers, or we can look at others – and at ourselves – with compassion. I once read this sentence by prof. Barbara Skarga: “Our only divine quality is the ability to forgive.” So maybe “Powrót” is more Christian than it might appear at first glance?

Interview by Paweł T. Felis (translated by Wojciech Góralczyk)

read more about Magdalena Łazarkiewicz