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Elżbieta Benkowska – I do my own thing

Elżbieta Benkowska – I do my own thing

Faculty of Languages
Elżbieta Benkowska 5173

Elżbieta Benkowska – born in the year of the dragon, daughter of a shipyard worker and an accountant, sister of a mathematician, granddaughter of three Kashubians and a citizen of the Free City of Danzig, who decided to become a film director. She is a graduate of Gdynia Film School and Wajda School and is writing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Gdańsk about Polish and Serbian football fans. For her short diploma film “Olena” she received a number of awards, including a Palme d'Or nomination in the short film category at the 66th Cannes Film Festival. She went on to direct the first part of the film triptych “Nowy Świat” produced by Akson Studio. She is now working on the script for her feature-length debut. 



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Despite your young age, you have already managed to graduate from two film schools, Gdynia Film School and Wajda School and enter the film industry with panache. I’d like to remind listeners that apart from the films you made before you got to Gdynia Film School and your later film studies, you also directed “Olena” (several minutes’ long) while at the School which in 2013 was the first Polish short film to qualify for the main short film competition at the Cannes Film Festival and you made, as you called it in one interview, “a group debut”. “Nowy Świat”, a film made up of three studies by three directors, was screened at the main competition at the Gdynia Film Festival. What have these recent film experiences taught you?

They taught me life, of course. Are you asking me about my experiences at Akson Studio and making a film with two other directors or about “Olena”?

I’m asking about “Olena” and “Nowy Świat”.

I got my first camera for my 18th birthday, that was my present, and this year I will be celebrating 10 years in the industry. Then I started making films and then music videos during my Slavonic studies. They are a bit awkward but do have a certain charm and are still available at the site of the Department of Slavonic Studies. I started to develop at the Film School because up until I finally got to the school, at my sixth attempt, I had been self-taught. I had never attended any workshops and the knowledge I had was what I found out by myself − either by reading something or guessing how someone had done it and how it should be done.

At the school I had a lot of classes in scriptwriting with Grzegorz Łoszewski, and in directing. I started to acquire an awareness of filmmaking and of the devices and skills employed. “Olena” was my diploma which cost me a lot of energy but I really learnt a great deal while editing it. I was not that much aware of what I was doing and a lot of things in it were intuitive. My decisions were mostly the result of my intuition and not so much of my awareness or knowledge. With “Żanna” (film study directed by E. Benkowska as part of the film “Nowy Świat”) I already had more awareness because I was richer by the experience of “Olena” and I directed this film with much greater awareness than I had “Olena”.

What did the success of “Olena” bring to your work and your life?

To my life – it certainly gave me self-confidence but with each film and each experience I get more confident because I can see what I have managed to do and how much I can do already. At the Gdynia school I was not a favourite but I nevertheless thought that my film is good, tough I did not really make so much fuss around me. This appreciation by the Cannes Festival, which is the largest festival in the world, with every filmmaker dreaming of being there, and many wonderful Polish filmmakers have not been there, that was something incredible. And with my first film at that! It was like a bolt from the blue. At first I had trouble dealing with it. I remember that one day someone from the school said; “Ela, you’re not a student anymore, you’re a professional”. And I was like: “How come, I am the same as yesterday, nothing’s changed. It didn’t hit me straight away”. I recently said to myself, in my head, that I am no longer a novice, an amateur, but a professional director. Now, I am having a real break because since I started school, I practically have not had a moment free, I was always making some film. Now I’ve given myself some time to think what I want from life and what I want my life to look like for the next few years.

Cannes has also given me the confidence that what I do is good and that I have to strive harder and put more effort into it. And professionally, “Olena” meant that I didn’t have to find a producer or go round producers. All the producers phoned the school themselves and asked for my film. They wrote to me and asked whether I was writing something or making something. They knew my name and I am not an anonymous person for them.  

What sort of cinema and what kind of stories interest you at the moment?

I have three such stories. I am a little tired with the topic of emigrants or women and their love dilemmas. I am now working on a film set in Orunia, my favourite district. I am interested in it because it’s based on my Cannes experience. We dream of mountains of gold, Oscars, fame and wealth, and when we achieve it, it turns out that it does not give us happiness at all, that this is not “it”. After Cannes I knew that it is a great festival but it cannot be the aim. It helps me make further films. It is a means for making films but the filmmaking process itself gives me much greater happiness. It’s super and that’s why I want to make films because I have a few stories to tell. I would also like to adapt a Serbian book. I phoned the author and he says that the film is not as alive as the book. And I said “I know…”. I was speaking Serbian to him and he was so surprised that a girl from Poland phoned him and wanted to make his film that he said “OK, let’s meet up”. Now I have to write a treatment and meet him. I hope to convince him to allow me to adapt his book.

Could you tell me about the way you work with actors and whether working with anyone has been particularly difficult or developing?

Each experience of working with an actor is difficult and developing. I haven’t had an easy experience yet. Every actor is a different person and there are different methods in which they can be directed. I want something different from every actor. I need some fragment of their personality for a particular film, some traits or emotions which they have to find in themselves. I have to provide them with the most favourable conditions which will stimulate them most effectively to find these emotions. Some have to be provided with a feeling of safety while others find it more motivating when that feeling of safety is not there. Some prefer to be complemented, others told off. I know from experience that working with, say, Russian or Ukrainian actors is totally different from working with Polish actors. The Russian market is determined by a higher level and there are many more very good actors there and they have greater means because they go to theatre school when they’re 17 and not 19-20, like Polish actors. They are still very open and their minds are still being shaped. There’s a big difference between the ages of 20 and 17. When they’re 24, they already have seven years’ experience behind them, while Polish actors have only four.   

Does Roman Polański still remain your greatest inspiration?

Roman Polański has never really been my greatest inspiration. Well, in fact, he has been an inspiration for certain actions but he’s one of many. I am more inspired by my life or my experience. He might be a certain motivator. I value him highly but I’m not a fanatic. I concentrate on working on myself and my own stories. I would certainly want to, and I’m trying to, work on his set and learn from him because I think he’s a master artist as a director. I hope I’ll manage it one day.

In the film environment, do you experience envy or support?

Both these things, I think. There are many great people I cooperate with and who are helping me, and I’m helping them – we support each other. Grzegorz Łoszewski is my teacher at the film school and has also become my greatest friend from this school. He helps me very much in a completely selfless way, and I am also helping the successive years at this school. There’s also Łukasz Ostalski who reads my texts, Sławek Witek and Piotr Brożek. We are still helping one another and there’s no problem with that. There are still friends from Wajda School. I meet loads of people at film sets. There are many other nice and talented people who can be happy to help but there are also those who have complexes and are envious. I think that’s the way it is in every job, also in the academic world or in corporations. Work releases such emotions in people. We get into a certain pattern. There’s always someone who’s jealous of someone else, and someone who’s helping someone else, and the film circles are more in the spotlight so maybe that’s why it’s more visible. 

While we’re on the subject, I have to ask you – do women find it harder in the film industry?

I don’t think it’s harder for me for this reason. I haven’t experienced anything like that or maybe I don’t think about it this way. I think it’s easier for me at times. Being a woman makes it both easier and harder. For example, when I was working on “Nowy Świat” I was the only woman amongst the directors, the producer was also a man, so I was there among all those boys. I was a kind of a buffer and I know what it means that “a woman soothes a savage breast”. They acted slightly differently with me around and I counterbalanced what was happening there. There’s always competition when there are two men around. Otherwise it doesn’t work. It was the same at the school where the students were practically all men. They would say “Hello” to each other and then to me “Ela, he really gets on my nerves”. And then the other one would go “I really don’t like him”. It was so funny. Their competitiveness left its mark on me and Marta Grabicka. They raised the bar. No-one could be left behind, everyone wanted to be better and better.

You decided to settle permanently in Warsaw, the unquestionable film capital. Why?

I think Hollywood is rather the capital of film.

I’m talking about our country, of course.

I don’t think I was ready for it. I am still slowly growing into it. Everything suddenly fell on me. Back then I was still finishing the Slavonic studies and didn’t even have the time to think

whether I want it or not. What I generally want from life, where I want to be and where I want to live. Now I have resigned myself to the fact that if I want to make films and make money making films, big ones or advertising spots, then I have to move to Warsaw. And that’s how I live now, on a train, I am always travelling somewhere. I am studying at the UG and even if I am now more often in Warsaw, it doesn’t mean that I will stop coming to Gdańsk. I feel I live a life of a sailor – I am forever on the move. I cannot sit for one month in one place, it’s hard for me. I feel like going somewhere, doing something. So I am constantly on the move, Gdańsk is a better place to live but it’s better to be working in Warsaw than in Gdańsk, I mean, there’s more work available. However, all the films I am working on at the moment are set in the Tri-City, only the money is mostly in Warsaw. I don’t think one excludes the other. 

Speaking of the Doctoral Studies which you’re now pursuing, what is your dissertation about?

My dissertation is an analysis of the creative output of the fans of Lechia Gdańsk, Arka Gdynia, Partizan Belgrade and Crvena Zvezda Belgrade.

How are your philological interests affecting the work on the film? Do they have any effect?

In linguistics as well as in film I am interested in the same thing, namely the human being. Of course I could have studied anthropology and research humans in this way but I prefer doing it through film and linguistics. I really like linguistics, it is a great passion of mine. I also like football, which is also a great passion. And film is my third great passion. They are all on a par and each of them concerns the human being and emotions. Linguistics allows you to see how humans think, not what they think, but how they shape their thoughts. How they form words, utterances, scenarios, folk songs, how they use their body language and non-verbal signals for it. The vocabulary I am learning, the texts I write, as well as the seminar I attend with Prof. Rogowska and during which I answer the questions from the language advice centre all develop my knowledge of the Polish language, which makes it easier for me to communicate with actors. I have an awareness of this language and I know how to manipulate it. Directing is manipulating. Now it’s also easier for me to write scripts. I can see that by working on my own language and style, I am improving the level of my scripts, but also of the papers I write.

You’ve said a little about your plans but what is your most immediate plan and when will we be able to see your solo debut?

My closest plan is to have my doctoral dissertation accepted. This is now my priority. I am writing scripts but they are really at the treatment stage so only at the very early stage.  When will you be able to see my solo debut? Perhaps in 2017 or 2018 at the earliest, if I try. I’d like to have the shooting done next year.

And finally, what would your advice be to filmmakers making their first steps in the industry?

I would tell them not to be afraid, to fight for themselves and that if someone says “No”, it does not mean they’re right. Even if they are a great authority figure. I have also been told by a few people that I shouldn’t be doing something and I didn’t listen to them. They told me that something wasn’t good enough, that it was hopeless and it turned out that they were wrong. You have to remember that I tried six times to get to a film school and made it at the sixth attempt. I tried three times in Łódź, and twice in Katowice, and didn’t get in. During all those exams I met loads of super-talented people who somehow weren’t lucky enough. Their names would be top of the list of those who’d failed but they wouldn’t try again later. I’m terribly sorry for them. Not all of those who have been at the school with me are now making films either, because films are made not by the most skilled and talented but by the most consistent and toughest individuals, those who care the most. By those who are constantly pushing ahead like a tank or a battering ram in order to tell a story. If you don’t have this motivation, you’re not going to survive. 

Gdańsk, 19 April 2016

Interview: Monika Rogo
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski 


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