Masterclass Malgorzata Szumowska

While in Sofia, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska met with Bulgarian moviegoers for a special FIPRESCI Masterclass. The discussion was led by Savina Petkova, journalist and member of the international federation of film critics. Here you can find some  highlights from the conversation.

Savina Petkova (left), Malgorzata Szumowska

How did you first decide to be a film director?

Mine is not a typical story, because I studied art history and actually I wasn’t aiming to become a film director. I was just searching for some creativity in my life. I found out that art history was kind of boring. And I was trying different artistic activities at the time. At some point I decided to prepare for the film school exam and I did it super quick  within a month. And I was actually very surprised when they let me in. It wasn’t a choice. I have the feeling that film chose me. I started making my short films, as part of my studies, and then I was pretty successful with them, which was also kind of surprising. At some point I started to think that was what I wanted to be – that I want to be a film director, that I love cinema, but in the beginning I actually just loved arts in general. Poems, literature, classical music, and not only classical – it was everything.

The themes of your films cannot be summarized, we can not say that you make films on a certain topic. But you have also written most of the scripts you film. So where do you find the first kernel of your ideas?

It’s very much about my collaboration with my cinematographer Michal Englert, who is also my co-writer, my co-producer and sometimes co-director. We are more and more turning into a director duo. That’s our goal.
I have the feeling our ideas were never planned actually – what topics we chose, what kind of style. Everything was driven by our artistic instinct. So it was kind of childish in a sense. When my father was still alive, and he was a very great journalist and documentary filmmaker by the way, he was always annoyed by this – that I don’t know what I’m doing,  that I don’t rethink everything twice, that  I don’t have any particular plan what kind of director I want to be and what I want to say and what style it is. So maybe he was kind of right. But I have the feeling that now is that moment. It’s the time in our careers, mine and Michal’s, that we’re ready to set up the right tone and the right language. After all these diverse projects we’re closer and closer to our own vision and style. 
I have the feeling that for me film-making is still a road. I am still a traveler. I am searching for something. I’m not the type of a filmmaker who knows exactly… and also it keeps me very much alive. I don’t think any door is locked for me. I am still on my way to get somewhere in film-making.

Your films are often about things that transcend limits or borders – transformations, trans-nationality, then “Woman of…” it is about the life of a transgender woman…

It’s hard to say, because I am not very coherent. I am still searching. Sometimes I feel almost ashamed that I don’t know exactly where I should go, but maybe it’s a part of the experience. Maybe it’s a part of being a very conscious filmmaker. I transform everything. There were moments in my career when I only wanted to tell Polish stories or only about the Polish transformation. Then I wanted to escape and I hated my own country. Then I started thinking of making movies in Hollywood. Then I thought Hollywood was bullshit. Then I’m thinking I should do something in Europe, Western European cinema, because maybe I feel more of a westerner, but then no – it’s a challenge to find my own identity. So maybe my films are about searching for identity. Maybe I’m searching for my own identity.

All your films deal with physicality and somehow do it with great care. How do you work with your protagonists because it always feels that the film cares for them?

I’m always trying to love my protagonists. Because if I don’t it’s always visible on screen. It’s very hard to identify with people who aren’t loved.  Sometimes it’s hard work, but I try to always feel empathy – what would I feel in this particular situation? The physicality of my characters is very important, because I do care about physicality. I’m telling stories which are very connected to the body and soul. And I think there’s a link in physicality. I am also interested in death, in the aging of the body – in the transformations. I am always trying to look at my own character with a love gaze.

Spirituality seems to also be an important theme in your films…

It’s a real fight inside of me. That’s why my films have this dynamic. Because I am a very pragmatic person, but on the other hand I am a very spiritual person. I used to be very religious. Now I am not anymore. But somehow, when I arrived yesterday in Sofia, I went straight to the cathedral and I found myself in front of the patriarch. I honored him. So why did this happen? It’s always like this in my life. I am starting to accept the fact that I am very much driven by the spiritual experience in my life and I would like to share this experience with the audience, but on the other hand I am cynical and ironical – it’s a paradox in me.

The conversation was registered at the occasion of the Sofia International Film Festival 2024, where Malgorzata Szumowska was honored with the FIPRESCI 90 Platinum Award. The entire masterclass can be seen on Youtube, Youtube Link.

See also Savina Petkova’s portrait of Malgorzata Szumowska.