Agnieszka Holland’s “Mr. Jones,” screening in the Berlinale main competition, recounts the story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who risked his life to document the atrocities of the Stalin regime from inside the Soviet Union in 1933, a time when most Western reporters were satisfied with superficial state accounts of happy Soviet workers. Jones exposed the truth about the Holodomor, a man-made famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 that left millions of Ukrainians dead. The film, produced by Stanislaw Dziedzic at Film Produkcja, Klaudia Smieja and Andrea Chalupa, who also wrote the script, stars James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard. It was shot in three countries on an indie budget, but conveys the richly textured atmosphere of pre-war Eastern European society. Dziedzic describes the three years of wrangling and collaboration behind the premiere.
What was the deciding factor for you in taking on this project?
It was 15 July, 2015, when I received and read the script. I realize that “Mr. Jones” is a very difficult story to tell, but I always try to see things optimistically and I saw hope in this story. I asked Klaudia Smieja to read the script and she shared the same feelings. We decided to meet with the author of the script, Andrea Chalupa, who became our producing partner.
Does “Mr. Jones” represent a new level of challenge for a company like Film Produkcja?
Yes, but I didn’t realize that until just recently when someone told me that this is the first English-language film produced on this scale by a Polish company and by predominantly Polish producers. When we started out on the project, we didn’t foresee what was to come. It was a challenge and a learning experience, all at the same time.
Andrea Chalupa has said the “Mr. Jones” is more relevant now than ever with its portrayal of the dangers of reporting truthfully about corrupt regimes.
Definitely. If you look around at the political scene, how the world is manipulated when the media is controlled by politics and money. Eighty-five years on from the Holodomor, time has passed, but history repeats itself. We have to try to prevent this. I hope that with this film we will help.
Do you anticipate that the film will do as well or better internationally as in Poland?
This is an English-language film with an English and American principal cast. Agnieszka is also very well-known, internationally. We have a story that works on many levels: a historical story, based on a real-life Welsh hero who discovers a Ukrainian tragedy. The film questions politics, journalistic integrity and the power of literature via George Orwell’s commentary, and his defining novel of the time, “Animal Farm.” It is a universal story and intelligent filmmaking. Audiences will learn what happened in the past and observe what is happening now. It’s a warning to us all not to repeat the same mistakes.
How did the resources for the project come together?
The Polish Film Institute was one of the first to support the project, with more than 10% participation. They helped us to finalize the financing of the movie at the end as well.
The biggest challenge I think was probably the financing. We managed to raise the money from a few different countries and via private equity. On the location side, we spent a lot of time researching and chose the best, most accessible places for our budget. Three different shooting countries wasn’t easy!
How was this international cast assembled for an independent project?
Firstly we approached Agnieszka’s agent and asked her to read the script. Once she agreed to direct, things started to move forward. It wasn’t easy, especially when you are not recognized as a producer on an international level and don’t have an experienced international producer on board. Our casting agent from London worked with us very closely and with their connections, things started to move quickly. Dealing with Hollywood agents was another new challenge. When you make a local film, it is like working in your neighbourhood, you know almost everyone, but once you move outside then an unknown challenge awaits and you have to start from scratch.