Dedicated to the story that shook up Poland in 1983, when high-schooler Grzegorz Przemyk was beaten to death by militia, Venice’s main competition entry “Leave No Traces” is not your usual historical movie, argued helmer Jan P. Matuszyński during the press conference.
“I see parallels between the case of Grzegorz Przemyk and the case of George Floyd,” he said. Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer was filmed by teenage Darnella Frazier, Przemyk’s ordeal was witnessed by a close friend. As recounted in Cezary Łazarewicz’s non-fiction book “Leave No Traces. The Case of Grzegorz Przemyk,” the tragedy – and the trial that followed – sparked widespread protests yet the culprits were never sentenced.
Matuszyński, who debuted with “The Last Family” and was born a year after the events took place, admitted it took a lot of effort to recreate the world of 1983. He didn’t want to “make a postcard,” however, more interested in showing the workings of an entire system and the general theme of oppression. He decided to take some liberties with the story, where historical figures – such as Przemyk’s mother Barbara Sadowska and General Czesław Kiszczak – coexist with fictional ones, led by Tomasz Ziętek’s Jurek Popiel.
“I told myself that because Sadowska was a poet, and Grzegorz an aspiring poet, I could drift away a bit,” said Matuszyński, also mentioning New Hollywood cinema as an important inspiration.
“I went back to Coppola’s ‘The Conversation,’ films by Roman Polański or Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’ because of its voyeuristic approach. In ‘Leave No Traces’ [Grzegorz’s friend] Jurek saw the most, but did he see everything? Did he know everything? I like to think of this film as a meditation on all these questions.”
Asked about any possible similarities to the current situation in Poland, with its conservative government drawing criticism for, among other things, its judicial reform or controversial media bill, Matuszyński mentioned Przemyk’s decision not to show his identity card to the authorities, which ultimately led to his detention and death.
“This gesture was about exercising civil rights and it just seemed important to me. I value freedom of speech very much, but when making films I don’t want to impose one clear interpretation or thesis. I believe in the viewer’s freedom,” he said.
One of his actors, Jacek Braciak – acclaimed for his turn in Wojciech Smarzowski’s “Clergy” and now playing Jurek’s conflicted father – admitted he also appreciated the film’s ambiguity.
“I remember when allusiveness and metaphor were the only effective tools to fight communism, the system, parochialism, enslavement and restrictions. It was a breath of fresh air,” he said, echoing Matuszyński’s references to the important films from that period, including so-called “cinema of moral anxiety.”
“After 1989, it turned out that now, we can say whatever we want. For example, that the president is stupid. But it just doesn’t work! It doesn’t push the artists, if that’s what we can call the Polish showbusiness, into making an effort.”
Produced by Aurum Film and co-produced by Les Contes Modernes, Arte France Cinéma, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes-Cinéma, Canal Plus, Background Films, Magiclab, Czech Television and Mazovia Warsaw Film Fund, the film is sold internationally by New Europe Film Sales.