TORUN, Poland – “The Naked King,” a documentary chronicling parallel revolutions in Poland and Iran, has proven a timely work at a time when mass demonstrations are sweeping the globe.
Directed by Andreas Hoessli and produced by Peter Zwierko, who also served as cinematographer on the film, “The Naked King” examines the 1979 revolution in Iran that toppled the Shah and the Solidarity movement in Poland, which, in 1980, resulted in the creation of the first independent trade union in a Warsaw Pact country.
The film, which won best film in the international category at this year’s DOK.fest Munich in May and screened as part of the Documentary Features Competition at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival, also tells the personal journey of its Swiss director, who lived in Poland as a young research fellow and met the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose work connects the film’s narrative arcs.
Shooting in Iran and acquiring footage of the revolution and of the events surrounding the 1979 hostage crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran proved challenging. Zwierko said the team sought to obtain the necessary permits from the Iranian government to film in the country but were not always successful. They did not want to shoot in secret in the country as other productions have done. “This is a big risk. … And also, the kind of film we wanted to do, we needed time, we needed to work with a big camera and take our time to make a lot of shots at one place. There was no way we could do it in secret.”
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The filmmakers visited Iran in spring 2016 and witnessed the great optimism that resulted from the signing of the international nuclear deal in 2015 and the hope that the country could again join the international community. On their second visit in fall of that year, however, the optimism quickly disappeared.
“We were in Iran shooting. I came down to eat breakfast with the director, Andreas, and he told me that they just elected Trump,” Zwierko recalled. “So you can imagine the atmosphere in Iran. … Everyone was very surprised but also terrified about what would happen.”
The challenges continued in Poland after the rightwing Law and Justice party won the 2015 parliamentary election, particularly at Telewizja Polska (TVP), which co-produced the film.
“The commissioning editors who decided to become a co-producer on our film, after the change of the government, they were all gone from television.”
Hoessli and Zwierko were shooting in Poland when tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the aftermath of the election. “We joined the very first massive demonstration in Warsaw – it was the biggest demonstration since the Solidarność movement,” Zwierko pointed out.
“During the production I really had the feeling, wow, what’s happening now? History repeats itself. There’s another movement of people and the people were taking to the streets at the same time we were shooting a film about people taking to the streets 35 years ago. That was quite powerful.”
“The Naked King” was also one of the final works of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who died in February. Ganz narrates the German version of the film, while Sam Riley narrates the English version.
“It was very important to find a voice of an actor,” Zwierko said. “We didn’t want a professional narrator like you hear on TV a lot – it has no soul for us. It is a character, a protagonist in the film itself, this first person narrator, and a very important one.”