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Impulse to direct

By William Foreman

As a film student in the 1960s, Agnieszka Holland marched in the streets during the Prague Spring, witnessed the movement get crushed by Soviet tanks and spent some time in prison for her involvement. She went on to direct 12 feature films. Three of them received Oscar nominations for best foreign-language film: Angry Harvest (1985), Europa, Europa (1990) and In Darkness (2011).

In America, the Polish director is better known for her work in television, which includes directing episodes of the critically acclaimed series The Wire and Treme.

In a talk at the University of Michigan on Oct. 9, Holland shared her thoughts about her youth behind the Iron Curtain, writing, directing, actors, television and many other subjects.

Here are a few excerpts from the event:

Getting swept away by the Prague Spring as a film student:

Prague in 1966 and 67 was a very interesting place. It probably had the most exciting European cinema.

Czechoslovakia was also the communist country that in some way opened up to some democratization, which exploded in 1968. I noticePolish director Agnieszka Holland (Credit: William Foreman)d it only after a few months because I was very against politics. I thought politicians were dirty, corrupted and fake and that if I want to be a filmmaker, I have to be an artist, and an artist is interested in philosophical, existential questions and not things as superficial and stupid as politics.

But after two or three months, I was walking on the streets, and suddenly I saw some type of demonstration. The young people were walking with instruments and banners, and they were shouting and singing. It was ’68 and the wave of the hippy freedom also came there. So it was such an interesting mix of joy, freedom, drugs and rock and roll, so I started to march with them, and I marched for several months. We eventually met Soviet tanks and the marches were crushed.

My first really grown-up political experience was to observe how easily this movement, which looked like a national movement, touching practically everybody in the country, at least a large majority of the people, had been broken. How easy the people resigned. How easily they accepted the repression as an inevitable part of their life.


Preferring directing over writing:

I think I prefer directing. With age, I’ve become lazy and directing is the work for lazy people. A writer has to have some kind of inner discipline. You have to force yourself to sit every day at the table or computer and focus on the writing.

With directing you have so many people and money and producers and the crew and everything forcing you to do your work. You are just floating on the surface of that, so you just have to be active or pretend that you are active.

Working with actors:

I love actors. I especially started to love actors when I left my country and had to work in different places like Germany, France, the UK, the U.S. I realized the people and crews are very different in those countries. They have different habits and work ethics. They have different interests. But the actors in every place have been exactly the same. It doesn’t matter if they are provincial actors from a small Polish city or if they are Hollywood stars. They have exactly the same kind of needs, behavior, connection, courage, openness, generosity, fragility. They are like a separate race in some way. So actors have been like my country or homeland. In every country that I’ve been shooting, I immediately connect with the actors, and they felt trust in me.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Credit: William Foreman)

Directing The Wire and Treme:

I love to do David Simon things because I think he is the most courageous political writer on television, not only in the United States but in the entire world, probably. It was like making a deep inner journey into American life. I think that by making a few episodes of The Wire, I know more about the drama of contemporary cities and life than a lot of Americans do actually.

It’s the same when I venture into New Orleans. Its culture, music, problems and struggles, I feel I learn a lot about the place in American history and culture.

While I was doing that, I was projecting my own experience in many ways. For example, when showing New Orleans just after Katrina, of course I was thinking about Poland just after World War II. There are lots of things that can be taken from there.

Advice for young filmmakers:

I can tell you it’s not easy. And I can tell you it’s more difficult today than when I started. Much more difficult actually. Not just for females but for males, also. Especially for filmmakers who want to talk about more complicated questions, not only make pure entertainment. And for the women, making the entertainment is much more complicated. So if you don’t absolutely need to do it. If it’s not a strong inner urge, just try to do something else. But if you have to do it, just do it.


Holland’s talk and other events in the program were sponsored by the Copernicus Endowment; Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies; Department of Screen Arts & Cultures; Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures; Michigan Theater; and Polish Cultural Fund-Ann Arbor.