The Locarno International Film Festival invited Polish director Krzystof Zanussi to be guest of honour of the Ecumenical Jury. Zanussi presented his film The Illumination (Illuminacja), which received the first Ecumenical Jury award in 1973, as well as the Golden Leopard and the FIPRESCI prize. Despite this outstanding triumph, Krzystof Zanussi was then unable to attend the festival due to travel restrictions imposed by the Polish communist regime. Zanussi’s visit to Locarno this year was therefore a very special occasion to discuss his work at a roundtable event on August 5. The success of The Illumination was the starting point of an international career as a director, scriptwriter and producer. Invited to give a masterclass, Zanussi revealed himself to be an excellent storyteller as he presented extracts of his films, pointing out the principles of storytelling and scriptwriting.
In my interview with Krzystof Zanussi in 1997 during the Damascus International Film Festival he expressed points of view which are still valid now. (This interview was published in Arabic in Ibdaa, a monthly Egyptian magazine.)
Fawzi Soliman — After this long and rich life in the world of cinema, can I ask you what cinema means to you?
Krzystof Zanussi — May I change your question to: What does cinema not mean to me? Cinema is not a means to gain money — there are other ways to get it easily, and much more of it. Cinema is not the way to fame and popularity — there are other better ways. I even don’t think that cinema has the task of changing the world. I do think that cinema is the best channel towards communication in the world, where we can express ourselves and transfer our experiences to others for the simple reason that if somebody speaks to others he donates to them a part of his own self. Cinema is the memory of the past too, it helps us to go on in our life. We have to remember that humanity was once savage, and this savagery has been repeated from generation to generation. Have a look back at your own country Egypt and its old civilisation. Look at the golden periods of Islam and to other civilisations. Humanity has deteriorated, fallen down, and now is trying to rise. Film is one of the methods of transferring our memories and feelings to the new generation in order to understand the great values of our old civilisations.
F.S. — You lived and worked in a country that had adopted the communist system. Why — in your opinion — has this system collapsed?
K.Z. — All ideologies have tried to get some of their principles from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, such as social justice. Communism failed to achieve spiritual values, to assert real social justice, and to overcome selfishness.
F.S. — What was your role as a filmmaker in the “new” Poland after the collapse of communism?
K.Z. — I have always been involved in politics, and now I respond to whatever demand my country makes. I hold many responsibilities, like consultant to the cabinet of ministers, which could seem contradictory to my obligations towards cinema. They proposed to me that I become Minister of Culture. Now I am counsellor to the Pope, a visiting professor in the university, and I write a column in a popular political newspaper, which means that I have many possibilities to express myself, but film has always been and will always be the most important one. Recently I have published a book entitled Time for Death, in other words death is coming. It was well-distributed and translated into Russian and Italian. I think that the world in which we were growing up is coming to an end, meaning a new world will be born. The philosophers of early Christianity said that the human being must die in order to be born, and must have the courage to leave behind all that it represents of the past and look forward to the future with hope and optimism. As for myself, I am an optimist. I believe that the civilisation that we knew was evil. It was the civilisation of world wars, imperialism, totalitarianism and fanatical ideologies. A new era has begun, and is the era of the audio-visual. The written word has vanished, abstract ideas had more importance than they deserved in western civilisations. We neglected our hearts, our emotions. I think that the audio-visual civilisation could be better. It is more sensitive, more balanced. When I see somebody on TV expressing important ideas, I look into his eyes. I don’t merely judge his thoughts, but also his honesty, his own true self.
F.S. — Let’s go back to cinema, to your last film Our God´s Brother.
K.Z. — It is an adaptation of a play that Pope John Paul II wrote when he was a young priest in Krakow about a famous, successful Polish painter, who had a kind heart full of love.
F.S. — One last question: As chairman of the jury of the Damascus International Film Festival what do you think about the cinema of the Arab world?
K.Z. — I noticed that many of the films reflect ideas and styles that have come from Moscow or Paris or whereever the Arab filmmakers studied. I think that the essential problem they face is how to confirm their own cultural identity, which is quite different from those of foreign cultures. Nevertheless I am an optimist. Some of the films I saw here in Damascus or other festivals are promising. I’d like to mention the Egyptian film The Captain (*). It reflects a different and authentic style, a narrative style, a story coming out of a story as in Arabian Nights. This film has something specific, quite different from Hollywood, and does not apply the principles of Greek drama. You cannot find such an innovative example in European culture. Everything in this film is authentic. I am looking always for identity in the Third World. I appeal to the cultural elite and intellectuals to not escape facing their own problems and realities, and not to distance themselves from the real people, who could be very simple and not educated. They need respect and you have to give them a feeling of dignity, you don’t have the right to look to them as inferior. They should behave like Charlie Chaplin, who was successful in combining philosophical ideas with very simple ones. This was the reason that his message reached the people easily. We must have popular cinema and philosophical cinema at the same time, which is not an easy task.
(*) This film by Sayed Said was awarded the Grand Prix (Ex Aequo) of the Damascus Festival.
© FIPRESCI 2012