Relationships fall apart. I wanted to show two equal characters

It all began in high school?

I desperately wanted to make a documentary in order to get into film school. I had no experience at all and tried my hand at different topics at the same time. During one such attempt I took the camera and went to visit my grandparents. I shot a scene in which my grandfather brought home an ironing board and a clothes airer which he had bought without consulting my grandmother. The result was a two-hour argument, funny at times. It finally ended when my grandmother said: „You turn up after eight years with another woman and want to turn this house upside down”. Grandparents sat silently to lunch and none of them spoke again. At that moment I realised that underneath the silly bickering, underneath the sarcasm to which as their granddaughter I had been used to, there are difficult emotions that my loved ones were trying to process. I felt there was a film in it.

How long did it take to shoot the film and edit it?

Two and a half years. I was already a student at Lodz Film School and simultaneously with this film I was shooting and editing two student films. The editing took over a year.

Why did you want to tell that story? What else was behind it?

This film is very personal because it tells an intimate story of two members of my family. In my life I have seen many relationships fall apart. My parents split up when I was little. I actually have not known relationships that would be long-lasting and happy. Breakups have always been more familiar. Based on such experience my grandparents’ decision seemed all the more moving and worth sharing.

I was moved by it too.

They chose to do something unorthodox. After a long separation and breakup, they decided to get together again. I supported them with all my heart. The editing process took so long because I wanted to be honest about the whole situation. I did not want to judge but to show the emotions resulting from their life under one roof. My grandparents were trying to patch things up, to reach an agreement in order to be able to live together again. That is why the film does not concentrate only on scenes of conflict. I was looking for moments in which my grandparents truly tried to talk to each other. I observed to what extent they managed to find a common ground and how many times they failed in that attempt.

Editing was important because I wanted to show two equal characters. I did not want to place the blame on either of them but to show that the situation proved difficult, both for grandma and grandpa. They have a common goal, because they both decided to be together again.  Grandmother took grandfather back in. It is extremely important in the context of our whole family, as my mum, my sister and I are all part of that relationship.

You must have made some uneasy compromises.

From the very beginning I had to reconcile two roles: of a granddaughter and a filmmaker. I wanted my grandparents to feel comfortable.  It is a delicate and intimate story so there was a need for a lot of care in order to balance everything. I tried to tell a story of my grandparents from my point of view as their granddaughter, with love, affection and compassion towards the characters. Only in that way could I talk about difficult emotions without crossing any boundaries. It all led to an anniversary celebration when an apology took place. Of course, in life just the word „sorry” can rarely fix everything. But I believe that something good can happen between people that may take their relationship to a different level. All of a sudden, it is easier to get through to one another.

It is a prelude to deeper empathy. Let’s talk now about your charismatic characters, because they are very filmic. This unresolved issue drives the conflict of the film.

In that sense, the film is well structured. There is a strong conflict that does not reveal everything in a straightforward way.  

There are a lot of hidden emotions there. How were your grandparents reacting at the beginning? What did they say having watched the film?

They are very open and accustomed to artistic activities because their daughter, my mum, is an actress. My dad is a dramatist and theatre director. We treat each other like partners. They were fine about me coming to visit them with the camera. My grandmother wanted to be an actress once and she used to sing at the opera for a while.

For the next stage of production at Munk Studio I had to shoot more material, so I came back to their house with a crew. With cinematographer, Weronika Bilska, and soundman, Krzysztof Ridan, who apart from being talented film artists are also incredibly warm people. And they have huge experience in making docuentaries. They intuitively fitted into this house very well.

Suddenly, there were two additional people from outside the family in the house.  

We got used to one another. It was a very familial atmosphere. During the filming I stayed at my grandparents’. My grandma insisted on cooking lunches for us all. We would sit down to a meal in the middle of the day and grandma would ask how the filming was progressing, grandpa would show us some photos from the time of his youth. It all turned into a nice family circle. I think of that time very fondly now.

How did they react to the finished film?

It was a great experience for them. They saw the film for the first time at the premiere with a full house at Kultura cinema.  

So late? That also proves they were brave.

There is always this sort of fear of watching yourself on the big screen in a room full of people who have the right to judge you. I was stressed out before the first public screening. After all, it was a verification of my work. I was no longer objective. My grandparents were most important to me, I held my grandma’s hand with one hand, and grandpa’s with the other. I watched them more closely than I watched the screen. I observed their reactions. People laughed. That is why at first I was afraid whether I had made them look ridiculous. Did I show them in a way that would make people like them? Would the viewers sympathise with them? Fortunately, my grandparents laughed with the rest of the audience. I think the wave of warm emotions they got from the viewers during and after the screening helped them deal with the stress of appearing on the screen.

Later, in our family circle, we talked about what the anniversary changed in their life. Something good happened between my grandparents. Now the film has gained media coverage after being shortlisted for the Academy Award, so many neighbours and our distant family are contacting my grandparents. People on their estate recognise their faces. I just make sure if they are all right with that. This film has consolidated our family to some extent.  

It is easier to get used to the thing that has been said out loud. You do not present only drama, but also those good situations. Life consists of happy and sad moments after all.

I tried to draw some value out of it. Such difficulties tend to happen and we all try to deal with them as best we can.

Are you planning on making more documentaries?

A documentary is a chance to meet people, it is a film equivalent of the thing I have been always doing, namely observing reality. I would like to do fiction as well because it offers different storytelling opportunities. In a documentary you have to be careful not to hurt a living person with it. Fiction does not come with such limitations.

I keep making student films at Lodz Film School, and I study at the documentary course at Wajda School. The work on Close Ties was unique, intimate, important. I am looking for more stories like that.