Interviews: Going for Gold

Mateusz Tarwacki and Georgiana Mușat talked to Ksawery Szczepanik, the director of Going for Gold (2020).

The Psychology of a Star
by Mateusz Tarwacki

Going for Gold by Ksawery Szczepanik is a documentary about the icon of Polish athletics, Władysław Kozakiewicz. The pole vaulter became famous at the Olympics in Moscow in 1980, not only winning the gold medal and breaking the world record in pole vault (5.78 m), but also thanks to a triumphant – and offensive – gesture directed at the Moscow audience. This gesture became one of the symbols of the resistance movement against the communist system in Poland, and its name – “Kozakiewicz’s gesture” – is alive in the Polish language to this day.

The documentary turns out to be surprisingly rich in content for a brisk 60-minute movie, and Kozakiewicz’s story is a perfect excuse for a universal conversation about being a star, idol self-centeredness and the need for attention, which requires constant applause and the search for new fans.

During the 36th Warsaw Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere, I met the director and – together with other participants of the FIPRESCI Warsaw Critics Project –  had a chance to talk about the protagonist of the film. According to Szczepanik, being a star is not something easy. Not everyone can withstand the pressure of these 15 minutes of fame and not everyone can transform this moment into something positive – they will sooner become addicted to the admiration of the environment. This is the tragedy of many athletes and celebrities in general. 

Szczepanik said: “And Kozakiewicz is the guy like this. He likes to be in front of the camera, he likes to talk about himself. As you probably noticed, back in the Communist times, he was a star and, in my opinion, he cooperated a little bit with the system, he became like an advertisement for the system. He needed that attention all the time. And in a way he falls apart, he dies at the moment when he’s being forgotten. When the interest of the media moves away to some other people, he suffers”. 

For the Polish creator, holding on at the top of the game as a star is something extremely difficult, and at the same time, this need is the driving force and sense behind the athlete’s actions. The director suggests that Kozakiewicz’s famous gesture was overly symbolic – it was not political. On a basic level, it was merely a gesture of triumph and insolence. It just fit in the right moment in history to become a symbol of resistance, and the athlete himself was able to use these 15 minutes to raise iconic capital. So it was part of the mechanism behind the psychology of the star – using circumstances to get attention. 

Szczepanik added: “Władysław Kozakiewicz was telling me in the film this was just a spontaneous gesture and it was just interpreted by the media as an anti-soviet gesture and I suppose that he was smart enough to use it, to use this moment and build himself into a political icon”.

The fall of a star is always painful, and there is no way to come back from the afterlife of oblivion. It is a sad and lonely journey. Despite the fact that the director did not intend to do so, the absence of Kozakiewicz’s wife in the movie is symbolic, as if she also remained only in the memories of past successes. Szczepanik said: “Maybe if we had the budget, money for a longer film then in the end she could appear again and they could appear again and question if they really keep on dancing together all the time is answered. And the answer might be “no”, because, well, the star wants to be a star and a star doesn’t want to dance with his wife any more, he wants to be a star”.Although the film would certainly look different, if the budget had allowed Kozakiewicz’s wife to be included in Going for Gold, one can clearly sense the vibe of sympathy and compassion, as well as the director’s interest in the character and mechanisms that were behind his behavior. And as the director said: “I didn’t want to make a film against my protagonist. I wanted to just show a fate and a journey that has its high point in the moment of greatness.” And he undoubtedly succeeds in doing that.

How a Spontaneous Gesture Becomes Political
by Georgiana Mușat

In Going for Gold, a documentary using a mixture of talking heads, archival TV and personal footage, Polish director Ksawery Szczepanik takes a glance at the highs and lows of Pole vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz. Whereas getting gold medals is something any sportsman devotedly works for, Kozakiewicz managed not only to take the gold home, but also surround himself with a rebellious, anti-establishment aura. 

During the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, when he competed and won, he deliberately made an obscene gesture against the booing Soviet crowd, which was interpreted as a political statement. He was a hero of the voiceless and a national emblem for years, even after leaving Poland for good. Kozakiewicz’s luminous smile, still unwithered by age, often turns into tears as he revisits some key moments from his career. After all, going for gold also feels like a shot of inexpressible bliss – once you get to that peak, it’s almost impossible to settle for less.

I met Szczepanik at Warsaw Film Festival, and we spoke about how he approached Kozakiewicz, how his gesture could be read today and what makes him such a distinctive figure in Polish history.

How did you come up with the concept of shooting a documentary on Władysław Kozakiewicz?

I tried to pick a protagonist that resembled the fate of the Greek Icarus, who wanted to fly and, well, he flew too close to the sun and this made his wings fall apart, landed in the sea and died. This is something that I look for amongst people that I can potentially make a film about. In the fate and in the life of Kozakiewicz, that’s what I noticed.

Does your drive to make the film have anything to do with your strong interest in sports or was it more about the interest in this figure, the gesture and the whole political context?

My past and my childhood helped me a little bit, my father used to take me to the stadium and make me run rounds. I knew the taste of sweat and I could feel the same emotion as probably Kozakiewicz was feeling, only he was feeling it on a larger scale.

It’s not every day that you see a national star bursting into tears. How did you manage to make him open up so much?

I’m not sure if I managed to open him up so much, but he did open a little bit, because he surprised me with his tears. When he’s talking about his career, he says “All the doors were open to me!”. In a way, presently doors open in front of filmmakers as well. In a documentary film, either doors are locked and will never open, or they are opened really quickly. And this was the case with Kozakiewicz.

Was he comfortable talking about his rise and fall of his career?

He was definitely comfortable about speaking about his rise, but I did push him a little bit to be able to talk about this period of his career when he wasn’t the best pole jumper anymore. The scene that’s in the film was shot when there was a break in the shooting, and he and I were sitting together. The camera was on, of course, because this is something that documentary filmmakers do, they never turn the camera off, and perhaps this is the moment when Kozakiewicz just sat relaxed and started talking about the moments when it didn’t go so well for him. 

I was curious about the formal aspect of your film, integrating archive footages, both official and personal. How did you negotiate the balance between these two?

My inspiration was Asif Kapadia’s film about Senna, it’s a documentary that was made only with archives and I found it great and we thought we should do it in Poland as well. 

How is Władysław perceived today? How is his gesture perceived today against the Soviet Union?

We have this saying in Polish, “Kozakiewicz’s gesture”, I think Poles know about the gesture, but don’t know too much, especially younger generations. I wanted to answer this question and show a little bit how this spontaneous gesture became a political gesture, became something that he didn’t intend it to be and took him all the way up to the sun and the consequences of all this.

Speaking of the consequences, what’s your take on Władysław leaving Poland permanently? And, if you were him back then, in the days, would you do the same?

Leaving Poland is totally understandable, especially because there was a Communist state, and there were tens of thousands of people at the time that could not take the system anymore. The question that was bugging me was his appearance as a German sportsman at the end of his career.

And beating Poland.

And beating Polish contenders. I just wanted to raise this question. Would you, dear viewer, do the same or not?

Edited by Amber Wilkinson