INTERVIEW: ALEKSANDRA NIEMCZYK

Baba Vanga 2016 Aleksandra Niemczyk
Baba Vanga, 2016, dir. Aleksandra Niemczyk

Peter Treherne interviews Aleksandra Niemczyk, director of Baba Vanga, shown at Slow Film Festival 2019. Baba Vanga can also be viewed online.

 

PT: Why Baba Vanga? How did you find out about her and why did you think a film would be a good way of telling her story? Could you also say something about how duration can be a means of unpacking visions.

ALEKSANDRA: I was studying in Sarajevo at film.factory and researching Balkan history, local folk culture and tales for another film project, and so I came across the predictions and phenomena of Baba Vanga. I was always interested in dreams and visions. In this case, I became interested in the visionary, in the person more than in her visions. Who was she? How was she not as a famous person but as a person in her own private space, not as an old Babushka as the media portray her, but as a young woman when the visions just began to torment her.

I could, of course, paint her. But film is a medium that can transcend the physicality of a person in many more layers through movement, sound, and yes – the duration. The latter allows us to spend time with characters. Not to get to know them as such but rather to experience their presence. In this sense letting the audience quietly observe Baba Vanga’s private space for a long time and witness as her visions start to appear, builds a certain tension and a sense of calamities to come.

Baba Vanga 2016 Aleksandra Niemczyk 4
Baba Vanga, 2016, dir. Aleksandra Niemczyk

PT: The contrast of dream and reality, the hyper reality of the mundane vs. extremely rarefied visions – could you talk about that conflict and why it interests you so much?

ALEKSANDRA: In general, I don’t think it’s a conflict, but yes, rather an interesting contrast of elements that coexist in all of us in a symbiotic way. Practicalities of life go hand in hand with daydreaming, inner thoughts, hopes, dreams, phantasies. Most people keep it in balance or even repress their phantasy inventions so that practicalities of life are easier to cope with. And sometimes the mundane is just an exterior while the dreams and visions happen inside.

What interests me is when visions become reality, when seeing and understanding the world happens through senses and intuition rather than brain and calculation, when the magic happens.

Maybe I hope there is more to life than just the mundane, and I search for stories and characters that manifest that subconscious universe.

PT: The film for me seems to be comprised out of a location and a person. And both bring so much to the character of the film itself. The main actor brings such an intimate presence to the film. Where did you find her? And how did you cast her? And where did you find the house?

ALEKSANDRA: I was looking for an actress who could be my Baba Vanga, not act her. I was very lucky in the process, to the point of getting goose bumps at times. I had the idea for the film and the script lying in a drawer for some time and wouldn’t have made this film if I hadn’t met Virginia for another project. Talking over coffee I found out some personal details about her, that linked her to Baba Vanga’s real life story, and I saw how authentic she can be. Virginia lost her sight in one eye, and Baba Vanga lost her sight in both eyes. Later, I was looking for an older actress to personify Vanga in later years and when Tatjana came to see me and took her hat off, she had the same short hair as Virginia, making them look incredibly alike, hence goose bumps. In order for Virginia to be and not act in the film, I worked with her for a month before the shoot in the house on a daily basis, preparing the scenography for the shoot, making the rooms into her home, rehearsing. So when the crew came to film, she really felt they were coming in to visit her and that comfort allowed her to be authentic, calm, and intimate in her space. She really was incredible. The location, we found in Sarajevo. I don’t want to sound lazy, because I looked for a long time in many places, but this house was literally opposite to the house I was renting in Sarajevo. I looked into those haunted wallpapered living rooms through the windows of my bedroom for a year before I decided to contact the owner, luckily in time before demolition or at least major renovation, since the house was falling apart in many places. But before it happened, it starred in an art house film.

Baba Vanga 2016 Aleksandra Niemczyk 1
Baba Vanga, 2016, dir. Aleksandra Niemczyk

PT: There’s something incredibly painterly about your work, about the compositions but also about the materiality of certain parts of the film, particularly the visions. Could you talk a bit about that? About the choice of medium and about composition? About your working process – do you have a script or just experiment on the go?

ALEKSANDRA: My initial medium is painting so I say my film language comes from image, not from words. Therefore my films get this non-linear, visual narration. I had a very talented cinematographer Lucas Zamaro, who also takes amazing still photos, so we compiled the images with a scenography rich in texture and patina, daylight – often blocked by soft textiles, minimal choreography of movement, closing each shot in contemplative and slow pace compositions. Each frame could be taken as a still photo composition. I am very aware of colour and texture in my painting but film can also add the light and the grain. All of these cinematic means can be used purposely to add a meaning. And so, to make a distinction between the reality of Vanga and her dreams, I chose to use two different cameras, the digital for reality and the 16mm which added the painting-like and more abstract quality to the sequences of the vision. This and other creative choices sometimes come during the shoot as part of experimenting. So, my process is intuitive, allowing error and surprising outcomes. I always have a script, but only treat it as a map or a skeleton for production demands such as finding the right locations, actors, equipment, scenography etc., but once on the set, I often sidetrack from the script if I see something much better in the situation in front of me. In the script, the words are flat and calculated, it’s a plan. But actors, locations, light etc. bring physical dimension, vibrations, life, and I am looking for that in the process, to capture on camera.

PT: Do you have another project up your sleeve that you’re working on? Can you tell us a bit about it?

ALEKSANDRA: As I just became a mum and have a 10-month-old daughter I didn’t think I would be able to, but I actually have one project – The siren’s scream – in post, and am slowly developing my next feature film. The latter is a sort of post-apocalyptic daydream based in London, my new film playground to discover. I am still not sure if it will be more of a hybrid film with anthropologic documentary approach or strictly fiction. I am hoping to shoot Autumn-Winter 2020-2021. So crossing fingers for good luck, serendipities, and lots of rain, since the water element is one of the leading threads. For now. But it all can change of course.


Baba Vanga can be viewed online.

 

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