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Pawel Pawlikowski on the Power of Making Movies With ‘Barbarians at the Gate’

Academy Award winner Pawel Pawlikowski says he’s watching “with horror” as political developments increasingly divide countries across the globe, and admits that he’s reluctant to take a stab at documenting modern life after the success of his two critically acclaimed period dramas, foreign-language Oscar winner “Ida” and thrice-nominated “Cold War.”

“I don’t have a hook on contemporary. I don’t know how to do it, because I’m living it and watching it with horror,” he tells Variety. “Everywhere it’s the same conflict between these two parts of society which are split down the middle, and there’s less and less common ground. You don’t need to make a film about it. You just see it.”

Pawlikowski is attending the Sarajevo Film Festival, where he received the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award “for his outstanding contribution to the art of film and his lasting friendship with the city of Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” according to fest organizers. One year ago Pawlikowski opened the Bosnian festival with his jazz-infused period romance “Cold War.”

The director spoke to Variety about how Oscar success has done little to change his approach to filmmaking, and why he chose to return to his native Poland in 2013, more than four decades after he moved with his parents to the U.K.—a decision that came at a time when he felt “a certain need to touch the ground, to find a foothold in life again, and to find a foothold in cinema again,” he says.

Pawlikowski began his career in film in the U.K., where he married and raised two children. He left not long after losing his wife to illness in 2007, living for a time in Paris before returning to the place of his birth. As a filmmaker he could already claim considerable success, earning a BAFTA for best British film for 2004’s “My Summer of Love” and directing A-listers Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas in the Paris-lensed “The Woman in the Fifth” (2011). But he says he was feeling “a certain kind of impatience with cinema—with the normal way of telling stories.”

“I went back [to Poland] and started making ‘Ida,’ which is basically a photographic film. Very static shots, a lot of them inspired by family albums,” he says. Part of him believed the black-and-white drama, about a Polish nun’s discovery of her Jewish past, would be his last film. “I really felt that ‘Ida’ was some kind of craziness that would have no audience.”

The movie would win him an Oscar instead, for best foreign-language film; four years later, Pawlikowski would earn a second nomination in that category for “Cold War,” along with his first nod for best director. Speaking in Sarajevo, he appreciates the ironic turn his life has taken: four years after wondering if his next film would be his last, he’s become one of world cinema’s most celebrated directors.

But while the accolades have given him a certain degree of cultural (and actual) capital – he estimates he can raise up to €6 million ($6.6 million) for a feature “without superstars” and not compromise his artistic freedom – he insists the fundamentals of making movies haven’t changed with his newfound status.

“If you don’t want to go to America to make films there, then all that Oscar stuff is not necessarily that useful,” he says. “It’s nice to have nominations, but…[you have] the same old problems. Creative problems. What film do I make now? Which of my many stories that I come up with—which one has legs? Which one do I want to spend the next three years of my life with? Which one will mean something to me in 10 years’ time?”

Pawlikowski’s success hasn’t spared him from controversy. During the Oscar campaign for “Ida,” the director came under attack from right-wing critics in Poland who questioned the film’s depiction of events that transpired there during the Nazi Occupation. Nationalist lawmakers have in recent years attempted to criminalize speech that suggests the Polish government was complicit in the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes.

Pawlikowski’s supporters defended him against what many saw as a right-wing smear campaign. Among the critics of “Ida” were nationalist politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party. “They paid no attention to ‘Ida’ when it first came out,” Pawlikowski told Variety at the time. “It was black and white, starless and arthouse. But when it reached a worldwide audience, started winning awards and threatened to win an Oscar, they used its growing exposure to their own advantage.”

Since then, Law and Justice has consolidated its power, and the public broadcaster has increasingly become “a bilious propaganda machine worthy of the Third Reich,” says Pawlikowski. For the time being, though, the Polish film industry has maintained its independence, and in recent years, a wave of emerging filmmakers has given Polish cinema a fresh look.

“The filmmaking community is very vibrant. There’s a lot of interesting films—new voices, old voices,” says Pawlikowski. “The electricity that’s in the air, created by this tension and this feeling that the barbarians are at the gate, actually gives people a kind of energy and inspiration to do stuff. And not necessarily about politics. There’s a feeling that everything we make is important.”

Pawlikowski is in the early stages of developing his next feature, telling Variety he’s “writing two stories to see which one pulls me further.” Having directed two critically acclaimed dramas set in Europe’s past, he says he’s reluctant to turn his gaze to the present.

“I don’t want to just tell what’s obvious. I can’t find an angle,” he says. “I need to be attracted to the world and the people and the landscapes. I need to really love it to spend time with it, to work in it.”

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