Polish director Piotr Domalewski, whose film “I Never Cry” screens this week in El Gouna Film Festival’s Out of Competition section, is facing a growing controversy surrounding his next project. It centers on the Nangar Khel incident, when Polish soldiers fired mortar shells into a wedding party in an Afghan village in 2007, killing six civilians. It became known as “the event that changed the Polish army.” “Some monstrous online discussion has already started,” Domalewski says.
The film is an adaptation of the book “Betrayed” by journalist Edyta Żemła, which investigated where the blame lay for the incident, and itself had an explosive effect, mostly because of Żemła’s claim that “in Nangar Khel, it wasn’t the soldiers who tarnished the honor of the Polish army, but the politicians.” Żemła will act as a consultant on the film, which has the working title “Nangar Khel – Zdradzeni” (“Nangar Khel – Betrayed”).
“I am interested in the emotions of the people who took part in these events or were responsible for them, or the people who wrote about them afterwards,” Domalewski says. “I would never want to claim if something was right or wrong – I make films trying to determine why it has happened.”
“I Never Cry,” which screened at San Sebastian Film Festival, was inspired by real events too. “I like to have a real story at the core of my films, something I can believe in myself,” Domalewski says. “A friend of mine told me about it on the set of another production, because it happened to him. He had to go abroad to bring his father’s body back after his tragic death. Everything else – the social background, the reason for emigration – is my own invention.”
However, he opted for a female protagonist, with teenage Ola (Zofia Stafiej) traveling to Ireland after her father dies on a construction site.
Having a female lead wasn’t a challenge for Domalewski. “I have four younger sisters, so it wasn’t difficult,” he says, with a laugh. “My protagonist, Ola, talks like one of them, moves like another, is aggressive like the third, and smokes her cigarettes like the fourth. I have watched them for many, many years.”
Domalewski, who has an acting background himself, adds: “Acting, for me, is not about playing a character, but trying to imagine his or her situation. That’s the only thing I asked Zofia: to imagine it has really happened to her. I know what to say to my actors, because I know what I would like to hear.”
Following the release of his acclaimed debut feature, “Silent Night,” Domalewski acquired the nickname “the Polish Ken Loach.” “I guess we both prefer simple matters,” he says. He often focuses on family in his films. “In my culture, rooted in Catholicism, it’s an important subject. In a family, everyone knows their function – love and other emotions are less important than these officially established obligations. I have a big family and I’m struggling with it too, so I guess my films are my therapy.”
In “I Never Cry,” he is also addressing stereotypes surrounding Poles working abroad, with “pierogi” – Polish dumpling – being the first thing that comes to mind for some people. “Someone hears ‘Germany,’ and says ‘wurst.’ Or ‘Italy’ and they go ‘pizza’! Everyone struggles with such stereotypes, but I think it’s finally changing,” he says. “My brother is an emigrant and he lives in Scotland, and the opinion about Polish workers has changed [for the better].”
Despite his progress as a filmmaker, Domalewski remains unsure as to what the future will bring for independent cinema, with streaming platforms taking the lead. Fittingly, he is currently editing a new Netflix show, “Sexify,” co-directed with Kalina Alabrudzińska, about three young girls who create a sex app.
“It shouldn’t be compared to [Netflix hit] ‘Sex Education,’ as our series is about something else,” he says. “These girls are already in college, so they don’t discover their sexuality, they deal with it. I don’t agree that being a man, I can’t talk about women – as if a woman couldn’t make movies about men. Following that logic, only miners should talk about miners, foresters about foresters and teachers about teachers. I like making films about people. I don’t know if emotions have gender, probably not. Love has no gender, although in Polish it’s actually a woman. Anger has no gender, nor does jealousy. I like making films about emotions.”