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Writer-Director Agnieszka Holland on Early Work in ‘Pictures of Life’

In her long and celebrated career, Polish writer-director Agnieszka Holland has written films for legendary helmers such as Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski, and garnered Oscar and Emmy nominations for films like “Europa, Europa” as well as series such as “Treme.” This year, Holland earned raves for directing episodes of “House of Cards.” But it was her work on the Polish omnibus film “Pictures of Life” in 1976 that brought her first mention in Variety.

Your section in “Pictures of Life” is one of nine short films. Was it a big step in your career?

In 1976 Andrzej Wajda was the most talented director working in Poland, and he became head of a creative group that he called “X.” After 1970, there was a liberalization, so he had a large degree of freedom of development, but (the shorts) still had to pass through official censorship and communist party censorship. Most of Wajda’s contemporaries saw this as his project, and perhaps because of creative jealousy, they didn’t want to be part of it. So except for one director, all of the others, including me, were recent film school graduates.

You went to FAMU film school in Prague, not the famous Polish film school in Lodz.

I went to school in Prague because there was no chance for me to be accepted at Lodz. My father was a well-known Party member and journalist who had been arrested on false accusations, and committed suicide by jumping out of a window while in custody. His death was an important event. Also, at FAMU, I was politically engaged, and I was also arrested and sentenced. Then, around 1970, the situation improved in Poland and it became unbearable for me in Czechoslovakia.

Considering the circumstances, how was Wajda able to give you such an important opportunity?

He was brave. He had a lot of problems, because none of my scripts could get passed by the censors. It was a good move to put my film among nine others. It made it more difficult to target me. Wajda was so committed to my well-being that he literally offered to adopt me, if needed.

You met another key creative partner during this period: Krzysztof Kieslowski.

In 1974, we became close friends and began to creatively collaborate. He also tried several times to help me by petitioning for me to be accepted into Lodz, but it was too difficult.

His career was also just beginning.

He was already a person of great authority. Everyone looked up to him. But he was much more fun then. Success did not free him. He seemed to suffer under the weight of responsibility. We all knew that he was special, with a special eye and gift for directing.

Did you have the resources to make the kinds of films you envisioned?

Money was not so important then. It was a communist economy, so the money was not real, and we could take a long time in shooting a film, and we could build big sets. However, film stock had to be exported from the West, and we had to shoot a one-to-four ratio, which is nothing. It’s a good lesson, however, because it teaches you how to edit the film in your head.

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