Michał Szcześniak on not giving up and winning Best Short Documentary at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015

For Polish director Michał Szcześniak, being shortlisted for Best Short Documentary at the 2015 Academy Awards was just a drop in the ocean of a host of explosive successes last year.

Michal’s film Starting Point also scooped the Short Doc Award at the last Sheffield Documentary Festival 2015, as well as being included in the Sundance Institute’s 2015 Short Film program and being given Special Mention of the Jury at DocumentaMadrid.  In the story of the enigmatic Aneta, who at just 19 was sentenced to nine years in prison for murder, the filmmaker’s talent for approaching his subject with subtleness, warmth and intimacy is undeniable.

Despite his achievements, Michal didn’t always plan to enter the documentary world. It was only after a series of unexpected events changed his path that his talent for filmmaking emerged. We caught up with him to find out how exactly his exciting career began, what inspires him to go further and what advice he would give to any up and coming filmmakers.

How did you first get in to documentary film?

By accident. I was applying for a narrative directing course at Wajda School in Warsaw, and there was a girl working at the school, Agnieszka Rostropowicz, who convinced me to apply for the documentary course too. I had no previous plan to do so, but she seemed to know what she was doing better than I did (as sometimes happens, even to directors). That day I had all the necessary prepared documents with me, which were the same for both courses, but I lacked one thing; an idea for a documentary film, one which I would like to develop in the school. That’s when I first came up with the idea for Starting Point. I only got in to the documentary course, and actually what happened during that next year changed my life in many ways. The most important things that I did were: I watched a huge amount of documentaries, participated in brainstorming sessions lasting weeks, and met best friends and mentors.

Aneta in Starting Point | Image © Michał Szcześniak

Is there a documentary or filmmaker who has particularly influenced or inspired you? 

Marcel Łoziński, Jacek Bławut, Dmitry Kabakov, and Joshua Openheimer. All of totally different styles, but something they all have in common is a search for an honest main character.

What’s the most surprising encounter or situation that has triggered a story for you?

This was the first day of shooting Sashka, Sashka. Olga, the mother of the main character, came to me and said “If you make the film about him, it will kill him.” So I stopped shooting, but we spent some more time together, and soon she began to like the whole crew very much. Suddenly she said “You have to shoot this film!”. Actually, the film up until that point was supposed to be about a group of kids living in a Russian derevnya (cottage), growing up and trying to understand the world. It was about everyday moments: when they meet together, play, make friends, fall in love, swim in the river, occasionally smoke a cigarette, hide from their parents. From that moment on when I met Olga the film was about Sashka.

What changes have you seen in the past few years?

The big one. Documentaries bring crowds to the cinemas. People meet, and share thoughts during the festivals. It looks like this is the new trend. I hope it will be a long lasting one.

Image © Michał Szcześniak
Image © Michał Szcześniak

Where would you like to see the documentary genre going and why?

As people get used to cameras we can get very, very close to our subjects (nowadays cameras are everywhere, which is a topic of conversation in itself). I look forward to intimate films that get under the skin and into the close relations between people. The camera should be organic, like for example in Something Better To Come by director Hanna Polak. On the other hand, I anticipate films that describe our current state of globalization, answering the question of who we are now as the strangest of species, in this stage of civilisation where we know so much, yet don’t do enough to save the planet for the next generations.

What are your recent favourite films and why did you particularly enjoy them?

My favourite films this year were Hubert Sauper’s We Come As Friends (a sad surprise in that it wasn’t nominated for the Academy Award this year), and Joshua’s Openheimer’s The Look Of Silence. These films move slightly closer to the structure of the narrative film and its cinematic styles. This improves the film in terms of lighting (minimalistic, but professional), cameras, image quality and dramaturgical structure, but we need to be careful to keep featuring scenes as they happen, in real life. I recently discovered that people talk, and act, how they learn to from cinema and TV. They are unconscious actors, and life has begun to be much more film. My film Starting Point has often been considered as narrative cinema. It’s not at all. It all happened, and Aneta was not an actress. The key thing for documentary filmmakers is to make sure that they are always prepared, and to be aware of when an interesting scene might happen. At the same time I think docs should be in the cinemas just as often as fictional film. Not huge multiplexes, but special places, with organised discussions and group talks. This is already happening in Poland, and in the USA with huge success.

Image © Michał Szcześniak
Image © Michał Szcześniak

What’s been the most memorable moment for you whilst filming? 

Meeting Miss Hela, the best friend of Aneta, the main character in Starting Point. Her room was full of light and warmth within the sad, cold home of an older person. Hela has had disabilities since she was 6 years old, and she was the most optimistic person I’ve ever met in my life, with an incredible magnetism. The other moment was when my best friend said he want to meet Hela personally, and when I realized that they had become close friends.

Who do you think is an exciting up and coming documentary filmmaker? 

Agnieszka Elbanowska’s Henry Fast took audiences by storm, and was an incredibly deep film about loneliness, with a surprisingly great sense of humor. Agnieszka  has an incredible ability to pick interesting main characters. Another two of my favourite emerging filmmakers are Brian Bolster, and Marcin Podolec. Brian made One Year Lease, a film which gets more and more interesting with every viewing. It is a documentary about him and his partner as they are spied upon by a landlord. Marcin on the other hand combines animation and documentary to create beautiful and nostalgic films like Document.

What’s the best piece of advice that you would pass on to up and coming doc makers? 

Don’t give up. When I almost gave up on directing, all the best things happened in my film life. At the same time don’t forget you have a life. and don’t live only for your passion. Go for a walk, for a beer, and meet friends. Cheers.

With special thanks to Michal and producer Michalina Fabijańska for answering our questions and for all of their help.

By Megan O’Hara