EDN Member of the Month – Konrad Szołajski
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for January 2019 is Konrad Szołajski, Founder of ZK Studio Ltd., Poland.
EDN has among other things talked to Konrad Szołajski about his company ZK Studio, the importance of pan-European and cross cultural collaboration, and the upcoming screening of his film The Good Change: Poles Apart / Make Poland Great Again at the EU Parliament in Brussels (more info here).
Over the past decades, Konrad Szołajski wrote and directed many documentary and fiction films, which were shown in cinemas, TV networks and at many Polish and international festivals. He is known for his satirical views of contemporary Poland and humorous approach to serious subjects including Polish national complexes and religious themes.
He worked as a film tutor at Warsaw University, Silesian University, Łódź Film School and SWPS University, Collegium Civitas and was a member of the Polish TV Programing Board from 1999 to 2003. An EDN member since 2006, he launched his film production company ZK Studio in 2005 and created fiction and documentary films with a strong social hook, aiming at international markets. Among the documentaries he directed are Good Morning Lenin! (2009), And God Created Sex (2011), The Battle with Satan (2015), The Good Change: Poles Apart (2018) and many others. He also started writing novels, the first one - ‘Wisłocka” - was a bestseller in Poland in 2017.
EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and your road into the world of documentaries?
I was a student of Krzysztof Kieślowski at the Film Department of Silesian University. My first ‘real’ film was a doc – supervised by Krzysztof – a film about journalists who worked for the communist government creating an Orwellian world under martial law in Poland in the 1980s. Later I got involved in fiction film making but having directed four feature films I realized that my artistic and thematic freedom is very much limited. Financing institutions were breathing down my neck. Simultaneously I was working on several subjects which I decided to touch in a documentary way – and I succeeded.
I also decided to produce films through my own company ZK Studio which I launched in 2005. Since then I’ve been working independently, finding support both at home and more and more internationally. This is an extremely challenging task in many ways and requires a lot of perseverance and stamina. Yet it also opens possibilities of going my own way and dealing with topics which I find worth covering. And I learn a lot working with young people whom I earlier taught in the film school and who now are contributing a lot to our company – such as Małgorzata Prociak, who is ‘a documentary addict’ with whom we made my three most recent docs. And last but not least – more and more often I discover that reality is often more unexpected than what we can imagine.
EDN: One of your filmic trademarks is to look at serious topics from a humorous or satirical angle — do you have some examples illustrating this approach and how did you come to develop this particular style?
I have always been attached to stories with a comic and/or ironic approach towards life: Voltaire, Diderot, Gogol and Mark Twain are my favourite writers. Philosophically speaking life is a mixture of many elements, including tragic and funny moments. My films reflect the way I see the world around me – which means that I do not avoid comic elements if I notice that something is funny and/or can be a subject of caricature. Humorous approaches help to discover weaknesses and flaws, and attract the audience as well – people like to be entertained and laugh.
The first film in which I used semi-comic style was shot in 1995. It was a documentary black comedy which we could call “lost body seekers”. I followed a Government Commission which was appointed by the Minister of Culture to find the remains of Witkacy, a great Polish artist, who used to write grotesque plays (earlier than Ionesco and Genet) and was very fond of performing practical jokes. The Commission finally discovered remains of a young woman in the artist’s grave… This was perceived as a last, posthumous joke by the unconventional artist. Later I shot a documentary about MPs who treated their work not as seriously as one could expect, rather as a good fun, which strongly shocked Polish audience.
EDN: Your film "The Good Change" was pitched as a project at Docs in Thessaloniki three years ago. Can you tell us a little bit more about the film itself and how things evolved for the project after the pitch?
At the beginning I was following Polish opposition activists who protested against the far right government and its controversial doings which they saw as breaching law and dismantling democracy. EDN tutors and commissioning editors at the forum encouraged me to continue the work but with a new angle. They wanted to learn more about the other side of the political conflict and made us look for motives of the government supporters who believed that the far right party is going to reform the country and ‘make Poland great again’. I actually managed to get quite deep into the world of populist thinking and examine the reasons for which this party won elections and kept power and popularity despite criticism from the EU and Polish Western orientated liberals (like myself).
EDN: The film will be screened in Brussels on 19 February 2019 including a debate featuring EDN director Paul Pauwels and SVT commissioning editor Axel Arnö. How did you come up with the idea to organize a screening of "The Good Change" in Brussels at the European Parliament?
The film is showing the growing political division within Polish society. The rising conflict is pushing us to a brink of civil war. Recently a very popular and respected liberal politician, a mayor of Gdańsk, was murdered – stabbed - by a guy, who believed in right wing propaganda which permeates state controlled media.
My film was meant as a warning: we must stop the growing tension, we have to avoid violence which can lead to a bloodshed on a wide scale. The documentary was shown in cinemas in Poland and it received surprisingly good and similar reviews both in the liberal and right wing press. Encouraged by this, I wanted to show it at the Polish Parliament to ‘wake up’ politicians who should find a compromise. But I am still waiting for a decision of the Speaker - earlier my crew was not allowed to shoot there, maybe we can screen what was finally made.
In the meantime Polish MEP Michał Boni offered to organize a screening in Brussels – as the production of the film was supported by the Creative Europe MEDIA programme.
It should be emphasized that international cooperation and the EU support (which we have received) are of key importance for the creation of documentary films. It enables docs to travel and get shown in many countries. Thus the idea of examining and sharing European cultural diversity is achieved. And last but not least – it actually prevents censorship. If we can get support internationally, authorities in a particular countries cannot censor films which do not comply with current government policies.
EDN: With ZK Studio, you are mainly producing for international markets. How do you experience the current co-production landscape in terms of finding co-production partners and getting the financing into place.
We have been making films this way because there was less and less financing of documentaries on the domestic market, especially if they touch taboo subjects – and this is actually our speciality: Catholic sex, communist reminiscences, possession and exorcism, dismantling of democracy. As a company we managed to find interest for our films internationally (HBO and European public service broadcasters) as well public support – Creative Europe MEDIA, CNC in France thanks to a French partner Delphine Morel (TS Productions). It would be naïve to say it is easy and possible without a lot of work – we have to find subjects and angles which garner interest and work hard to raise financing. Nevertheless I hope that since we manged to prove we deliver what we promised (with good ratings) we can expect our partners – like Axel Arnö from SVT - to go on supporting us.
EDN: And last but not least what lies next for you in the busy doc calendar?
We are researching a subject which I believe can fit the bill for many broadcasters. I have called it “Waitergate” or “Rebuilding the Wall”. It is a political thriller in which we investigate secrets of… I do not want to say too much too early. But I can reveal it will be a story about eavesdropping politicians. Is it possible that the EU democracy is being quietly converted into an autocracy - fulfilling a diabolic plan? A conspiracy theory put into action? And if this comes true - who are the creators of the plot which has already turned Poland upside down and is soon going to reach for the rest of Eastern Europe?
For an overview of all previous EDN Members of the Month, please visit: