There have been many films made about the destruction wrought upon Polish Jews by the Holocaust, but few films examine the experience of the community that survived. “Farewell to My Country,” a 2002 film by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Krakowski, focuses on the continued persecution of Jews in Poland in the 1960s and 70s. Krakowski, who will be at Wesleyan on Thursday, sat down with The Argus to discuss his film and the history behind it.
The Argus: Why did you make this documentary?
Andrzej Krakowski: It’s not really a true documentary. It’s a docu-drama. It’s slightly different. It looks like documentary, it feels like documentary, but it’s a drama.
A: How did you choose the topic of Jews exiled from Poland?
AK: The idea of this film came about in 1997 from a Polish television company. They were preparing to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the March of ‘68. In 1968, the entire Polish Jewish population was purged and expelled by the Polish government. It was ethnic cleansing. Nobody noticed. The Polish television company said, “We would like to make a film by someone who was a victim of it.” I said to them that it’s a very touchy subject, the Polish government didn’t do anything to mitigate the problem, and the company said, “no, no, things have changed.” So I went on the Internet and I asked my colleagues who were part of the same immigration to submit their diaries, memories, and stories of how they were treated, what it was to grow up in Poland after the Holocaust, and other things. I wrote the script and sent it to Polish television and they ran away. I thought I wasn’t going to make this film. But then I noticed that in American Jewish society there is a lot of prejudice and a lot of misinformation regarding this whole issue. To them, the Jewish life in Poland ceased to exist with the outbreak of WWII. That necessitated translating everything into English because American audiences don’t like subtitles and the people who were part of this story did not speak good enough English. I didn’t want them to look like uneducated bumpkins, so I decided to make this docu-drama.
A: Did you dramatize the story at all, or did you just use actors to tell the true story?
AK: They are all true real stories. Originally we got the cooperation of the Bendheim Performing Arts Center and they have a stage. There was an idea that maybe we should make this into a play, but then I realized it would take too many actors. So I said, “Just let me have the stage and I’ll just make a film out of it.” They got us very good American actors, but that didn’t work out. Like Jerry Orbarch. They had good intentions, but it was not coming right on the screen. What was missing was the idea of the family being fragmented, when all of a sudden the life they knew ceased to exist. In reality, when we tell our stories, it is more of a casual conversation. When we talk about it today, there is a lot of humor about it; there is none of this drama. I dismissed my professional actors and decided to recast it. There were four criteria for each actor: he or she had to know the author of the text, so there was some relationship. They had to physically resemble these people. They had to go through a similar process or the same process themselves. They had to speak good or passable English. The result was that I totally recast the film and some of the actors were not professional, they were amateurs. Today I don’t think you can say who’s who. All of a sudden, it all worked. There are many times I let people listen to it and get drawn to the stories, and they find out that the people are actors by the end of the credits. I didn’t want people to look at faces on the screen and see actors. I want them to be drawn by the stories. On top of that, what I wanted to do in this film was tell one story with many voices.
A: You said when “we” tell “our” stories. Do you have a personal connection with this subject?
AK: I was part of that group. It is part of the film actually. We talk about it. Most of the Jews were forced to leave. In order for them to leave, they actually had to ask the government for permission to renounce their Polish citizenship. I went through this a little differently. I was an established filmmaker and all of a sudden I got an offer for a scholarship. So I came to the United States for six months but then I was supposed to go back to Poland and share my knowledge. But, three weeks in to it, the Polish government took away my passport and I got stuck. I would still like to meet the bureaucrat that did that. They could have sent me to Siberia but instead they sent me to Hollywood.
A: Did you like or dislike being stuck in America?
AK: It’s not a matter of liking or disliking because I didn’t have a choice. Had I planned my immigration I probably would have ended up in Paris. All my contacts were French and centered in Paris. But once I got stuck in the United States, I had no choice. I had to be on top of it. I had a sister with me who was one year before high school graduation, so I had to educate her. I had to support my father, living penniless in Germany. I was a physical laborer working in a shelf factory, and then I became a cab driver, and then I ended up working in a clothing factory, and then I got accepted to the American Film Institute and somehow went back into working for my passion, and that was my profession. By the time I had time to reflect, I had a family and I had a career going on.
A: How did the experience of filming such a personal event effect you?
AK: It was a very interesting process. When the Polish television company ducked out it was not welcome news. We put a lot of effort into it and then I thought, “I’m not going to make this film.” I didn’t want to be confronting the subject matter. My mother-in-law still lives in Poland after 17 or 18 years. When it was not allowed to go back, Poland gave me a visa so I could visit. I took my video camera and shot some vignettes here and there. Someone who I consider to be my sister said, “Are you making ‘Farewell to my Country’’’ and I said I was doing this film with out being conscious of it. I realized that I already had part of the material. So my wife and I decided that I was going to make this film. When the film was finished I showed it to some friends and I realized it was too much information, so we went back and reedited the film. That took about two years.
A: Why are you bringing your film to Wesleyan?
AK: I was invited by Professor [Magda] Teter to show my film because it’s part of Jewish studies. This is a very unique film because I don’t know many films that talk about the next Jewish generation, the children of the Holocaust survivors. It’s not about us; we were young and where we went we created a life for ourselves. It was the biggest crime for our parents. One out of 10 Jews from Poland survived, so their families were wiped out and they started new families. By the time their children were growing up they were kicked out. And they were in their fifties so it’s not a good time to move—you don’t know the language, the customs, the situation, and very often you don’t have a good profession. That’s what I wanted to talk about.
A: How did your career start out? Did you always do documentaries?
AK: I’m a filmmaker but I also work in theater and in television. The way we were educated in Poland, if we were filmmakers we were directors of all media. In film I go after the story if I find a story that fascinates me, that I find important. If it happens to be a documentary, it’s a documentary; if it’s a fiction film, it’s a fiction film. Most of my films are feature films.
A: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
AK: One of the pieces of advice I give my students is to make films about what you feel passionately about. Make films about something you intimately know. Don’t do anything because you feel it sells. If you do anything for commercial reasons you’re dead. What sells today failed five years ago. It takes a long time to make a film. You have to be dog-like about it: you have to follow your instincts. The question is really what you want to talk about. So if you’re going to spend five or 10 years of your life making a project, make sure it really means something. That’s my advice.