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Kacper Lisowski • Director of Judges Under Pressure

“I had to stay close to those faces”


- In his documentary, the Polish director shows people who, despite their government’s recent actions, refuse to be “muzzled”

Kacper Lisowski  • Director of Judges Under Pressure

Polish judicial independence has been under threat ever since the right-wing Law and Justice party came to power – those who don’t toe the governmental line are at risk of losing their jobs or being arrested. Treated as dissidents, people like Igor Tuleya, Waldemar Żurek and many, many others refuse to sit by and let this happen, leaving the courtrooms and talking to the streets. We spoke to Polish director Kacper Lisowski about his documentary Judges Under Pressure [+see also:
film review
interview: Kacper Lisowski
film profile
, which examines this issue and which has just screened at Poland's WatchDocs.

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Cineuropa: Why the decision to talk about such a topic? Despite also being covered abroad, it is still very much a local issue.
Kacper Lisowski: The idea came from Iwona Harris, who was a creative and participatory producer, and who showed incredible courage in making this film. She met with judge Urszula Żółtak and realised there was a lot going on. The judges were going to rock festivals, meeting people. Going into this profession, many assumed it would be safe and peaceful. Suddenly, they found themselves on the front lines. It wasn’t clear how much we had to explain to make people engage emotionally with their situation, however. Once, I was filming this judge, Paweł Juszczyszyn, at one of the demonstrations. I was focusing on his face; I could see the nerves. It turns out that even if we don’t know every single detail, seeing this man, fighting for his dignity, makes us feel for him anyway. From then on, I felt I had to stay close to those faces.

One judge is sitting around shirtless, another says that at this point, he’s driven only by nicotine. Were you trying to show them in slightly more intimate settings?
I needed to make sure they felt safe. It was a long process because they were subjected to hateful attacks for so long. Once we’d started shooting, it was discovered that the Ministry of Justice was behind some of the online hate directed towards them, then came the “muzzle law” [a controversial draft law aimed at disciplining judges who question governmental judicial reforms]. The conflict escalated. We wanted to show how these people are being crushed, show their shaky hands. The reality shown in the media is perfunctory; it leaves you indifferent. We needed to find another way. There was a meeting with citizens where prosecutor Krzysztof Parchimowicz made a speech. Initially, I wanted to show him with Igor Tuleya, in an informal situation, having a cigarette, but there was this room full of people, and he was saying great things. I think the hardest thing was balancing the informative and the emotional layers of the story. I felt so relieved at IDFA, where the film premiered, when it turned out that the audience was able to follow these characters without any problems.

Many probably recognise these situations – various countries struggle with authoritarian tendencies. Someone mentions here that the worst could be yet to come. How do you make a film, knowing this might be the case?
These are beautiful people – the judges, but also the citizens, who refuse to back down. They don’t always have a camera in their hands; sometimes it’s just a piece of paper. This is a film for them. When the pandemic broke out, we had no contact with our characters for six months. We were afraid that if we waited too long, the film would become outdated. In this legal world, everything happens quite slowly. The idea of waiting for some spectacular punchline didn’t make sense, although there were quite a few important events taking place later on. We mention them in the credits.

The soundtrack is intriguing, as it gives the whole thing a bit of a punk-ish edge.
That idea came from this rock festival where we saw the judges for the first time. Now I see that the music also allowed us to convey a certain point of view – to say things they couldn’t, because they are too cultured or too restrained. That’s why we translate all the lyrics. Thanks to these songs, the film has a rebellious character; there is anger here. It’s not some polite, boring documentary about lawyers. It gave it energy.

This energy also comes from the scenes showing the protests, which are still very much ongoing.
Yeah, you don’t even know what to protest about any more. It’s terrifying. When the narrative of those in power was in force, the judges were described as a caste, the “judicial aristocracy”. But they are the ones who defend us from abuses of power! Which is why we needed to show other people as well, the citizens. This controversial court ruling, imposing a near-total ban on abortion, gave us a good excuse – also because these things are connected. How can you introduce such a radical, controversial law without any debate, through the back door? I don’t have a legal education, so I keep comparing it to a three-legged table. If you ruin one leg and break these foundations, everything will roll off it. That’s what we are seeing in Poland right now.

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