Piotr Domalewski • Director
"A film that depicts a small community and serves as a metaphor for something bigger"
by Ola Salwa
- Polish writer-director Piotr Domalewski talks to Cineuropa about his stunning debut feature, Silent Night, which only purports to be a simple story on the surface
Cineuropa: Silent Night [+see also:
interview: Piotr Domalewski
film profile] is your feature debut. How did the idea for this film come about?
Piotr Domalewski: Inspired by Turkish, Romanian and Iranian cinema, I wanted to make a film that depicts a small community and at the same time one that serves as a metaphor for something bigger and more universal. I knew that I needed a very simple story, and also, I wondered what was close and relatable for me, a 34-year-old man. And the answer was: a multi-generational family and the issue of economic emigration. In Eastern Poland, where I come from, every other family had someone who left the country and went to the West in order to find a better job. In my case, it was my brother.
The action of the entire film takes place on 24 December; why did you choose this date?
Christmas Eve is a very interesting setting because it has its own dramaturgy. Everything starts with the preparations for dinner, during which people try to check each other out and adjust to being part of "the family bunch", which is often an oppressive thing. Then the more substantial part begins: everyone sits down at the table, involuntarily taking their usual place in the family – also metaphorically speaking. The kids, even if they are all grown up and came with their husband, are still “kids”, and no one sees them as adults. It resembles the Christmas nativity, where every figure is glued to its spot. For example, the father, played by Arkadiusz Jakubik, was absent for years and he drank heavily. Now he can see that there is no place for him in this family, which he has been cut out of, and all he can do is drink alone. In Silent Night, I showed a Christmas Eve that I remember from my childhood, but not necessarily from my own family home. Interestingly, when the film was presented to the diplomats working in Warsaw, it was equally interesting and understandable to an Israeli, Chinese or Turkish member of the audience. Even though the religion or customs were different, they all understood the family context.
Every member of this family, not just the father, has his or her own, complicated story. How did you write the script and then direct the scenes so that all of these details added up into a coherent narrative?
When I was writing the script, I imagined that I was every one of the characters. And each one I either liked or at least understood. Sometimes it proved to be difficult, like with the character of Adam’s brother-in-law, who beats his wife but believes that he is protecting her interests and doesn’t allow her relatives to steal from her. Then I had some very intensive rehearsals with the actors, which was an opportunity to polish the script. I already knew that I would be using long shots, so on set, there would be no time for experiments or doubts. Everything had to be planned precisely before shooting, and as a result, about 90% of the scenes were played out exactly as they had been written in the final draft of the script. I was afraid that if I had not been well prepared, I would have made a mistake or a wrong artistic decision, just because I would have been under time pressure or tired. I also prepared myself for shooting Silent Night on a physical level: knowing that I would mostly be working after dark, I changed my daily routine. I planned the shooting schedule so that the majority of the scenes were filmed before the lunch break, which was actually in the middle of the night.
The family scenes are very powerful, and their emotional impact is reinforced by the simple and modest cinematography. How did you establish the film’s aesthetics with DoP Piotr Sobociński Jr?
We both knew that this story had to be told in a realistic and discreet manner, so that no visual fireworks would distract the audience from the characters and the on-screen world. The camera moved around easily and freely; it could almost make a 360-degree turn, so that it could capture the actors’ emotions in the fullest possible way. I think that the magic of the film lies in what happens between the actors, and our job is to photograph them in a way that does that justice.
Silent Night is a film about family and tradition; do you feel as if you are a successor of any particular Polish director?
I’d rather point to a Polish writer and playwright, Sławomir Mrożek. He described the condition of Poland and Polish society in a unique, incomparable way. His plays and short stories are full of absurd situations and great dialogues. I’d love to think of myself as his successor.
What are you working on right now?
I am developing a new feature-film project within the ScripTeast workshop. I’m applying for different subsidies and looking for foreign partners. I really want my next few films to be international co-productions, which would make them even more European and universal.
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