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Poland’s Bartosz Kowalski on ‘Playground,’ Child Violence, Polish Cinema

Kowalski’s fiction debut world premieres in competition at San Sebastian

SAN SEBASTIAN — If San Sebastian were to give a prize this year for its most shocking film, “Playground” would surely be the clear winner.

It kicks off with its Polish director, Bartosz Kowalski, displaying his documentary origins by chronicling, seemingly in real time, three teens having breakfast before heading off to their school for its end-of-year speech day. One girl lives in a luxury chalet in a leafy conurbation; a boy lives in what looks like public housing with his wheelchair-bound father; and another boy lives in a slum, with his wailing baby brother, indifferent elder sibling and exhausted mother.

But nothing prepares the viewer for an act of violence that recalls a real-life crime that shocked Poland. Since the release of Oscar-winning “Ida,” the roster of new Polish directors attracting international attention for films often grounded in a grim or dreary social reality has grown. With “Playground,” Kowalski is bidding to join the club. He spoke to Variety about the film.

“Playground” records one act of sudden, shocking violence so ghastly that it was the first time that this journalist can remember not being able to look at the screen. The film begins documenting the breakfasts of the two perpetrators of that violence, high school students. You could say that both…are hugely hostile towards a parent and may feel unloved. That said, that is just not enough of an explanation for what they do. The film suggests…that there may not be a total explanation. 

Child psychopathy (we should call it “conduct disorder”) poses dozens of questions but hardly gives any definitive answers. That’s the scariest thing about it. Of course there are hints that might suggest reasons behind such acts of violence, but it is all complex speculation. Broken home, broken heart, sibling’s death, aggressive father, video games, violent movies and so on….The list of stereotypical suppositions goes on forever. Anything could be a possible cause of a sudden act of violence.

But at the same time, not everyone whose parents divorce becomes a criminal. Not everyone who plays violent games goes out on a rampage. I’m a huge horror movie buff since I was little, but that never led me to hurting animals or fellow human beings. So maybe it is all human nature, maybe some people are just born evil, or maybe it’s a bit of both. I don’t know. There is no definitive answer. And that is terrifying.

One thing  which “Playground” has in common with a considerable number of other films at San Sebastian is a portrait of a huge chasm between authority and the young. The school principal’s end-of-year speech seems irrelevant, from a bygone age, to the concerns of the students; parents are either distant, absent or ineffectual.

The principal’s speech is something I remember from my school. Perfectly chosen words spoken out to a group of well-brought-up, well-dressed, polite youngsters. Pompous quotes, grand statements – and the pupils just wanted to get out for a smoke. These words became important, meaningful when I grew older, but at that time my peers and I, we didn’t listen, we didn’t give a damn.

I dug deep into the subject of the “conduct disorder” while researching the script. I spoke to psychologists and a police investigator. I’ve learned that a lot of caring and loving parents have no clue what their kids do after school, not to mention the teachers. And that’s the figure of our school principal, proud of her accomplishment and full of ingenious advice. It’s her calling to pass wisdom on to a young generation. She believes that she’s making the world a better place.  But she doesn’t because nobody understands, nobody cares.

When it came to your decisions on how to direct the film, what were your guiding principles?

I wanted the film to be as realistic as possible. That defined three major choices. First of all, we decided not to hire any well-known actors. We thought that any recognizable face would somewhat jeopardize the credibility of this specific story. Secondly, camerawork: We decided to go hand-held all the way. Any kind of fancy dolly, crane shots, etc., would over-stylize the film and therefore weaken the reception of the ending. Thirdly, we shot only with natural lighting. I wanted the film to feel [as though] the camera, in a way, just happened to be there. Like we’re simply following these kids around, witnessing this one seemingly ordinary day in their seemingly ordinary lives. I didn’t want anything to distract the viewer from the kids. Set design, lighting, color palette, etc. – everything was there to serve the performances.

What made you want to make “Playground”?

The film is inspired by true events from about 15 years ago. I came across that story by pure accident and it left me absolutely shocked. I couldn’t comprehend it. Why was there no explanation!? That’s when I started researching the subject and realized that things like that happen everywhere, everyday, that we share this world with human beings like characters from “Playground,” whether we like it or not. The more I’ve read about similar cases the more devastated I was. I guess I wanted to try to share these emotions and one day I just sat down and started typing the script.

After an Academy Award win for “Ida” and festival recognition for other films, Polish cinema, and especially a new generation of filmmakers, are attracting a lot more international attention.  Do you feel there is in any way a new Polish wave? And if so, what would be its hallmarks?

I don’t know if it’s a new wave, but something is up for sure. Back in the days (I mean back in my days, like the 1990s) a lot of Polish films were pretty much unwatchable. Apart from a few exceptions, I feel like most films were made for nobody, and the fact is they eventually went nowhere. Nowadays, I get to see a movie like, for example, Małgośka Szumowska’s “Body,” and I go, like: “Holy s—, this is some top-notch European cinema!” I’m really happy that more and more Polish films get international recognition. They deserve it, ’cause a lot of them are good. But what are the hallmarks? No clue.

What are you working on now?

I’m going to try to get my second feature off the ground. It’s a story of an 80-year-old man who escapes a grim reality of a nursing home inside his own imagination. It’s going to be a mix of a “Playground”-style social drama with fantasy and horror elements. I know it’s going to be a long journey, but I believe that the sky is the limit if you’re passionate about something. I just hope we can get it financed and shot before I myself end up in a nursing home.

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