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Q & A: Pawel Pawlikowski

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The Scene talks to Polish film director Pawel Pawlikowski about growing up in communist Warsaw and returning to the city for inspiration.

The Scene: How did you end up making films?

Pawel Pawlikowski: Film was my escape from everything. In Warsaw I used to go to the cinema all the time. It was very cheap and I'd go and see everything that was on. My mother was lecturing in English literature at the British Council and she would drag me to see English films, so I had a privileged education in British cinema without ever speaking a world of English. So film always meant something to me, but I couldn't imagine myself directing because I didn't know what it involved.

And then, when I became a pretentious teenager, literature was my main interest. I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to write serious, timeless poetry. Then I realized I had no talent, no language, nothing to talk about so I gave up. When I was at university, I started making films in a workshop and I suddenly felt like that was it. I'm a guy who likes to walk around and observe. I like feeding off reality and transforming it. There's always a kind of literary theme to what I do. Even my documentaries were not really an empirical record -- they were more about what was going on in my head. Film became the medium.

TS: So literature was a big influence on your work?

PP: The literary scene in Poland was actually much stronger and more dynamic -- and people were much keener to hear about it -- when it was a problem, when you couldn't talk freely. It became the one authentic way of communicating. Everyday language was bizarre, contaminated by this communist phraseology, so any kind of authentic speech was cherished. And people knew the works of great poets like Mickiewicz really well. Even if you couldn't buy them in a shop you could hear them somehow and it meant a lot.

TS: What was it like growing up in Warsaw?

PP: Strangely, as a kid -- because it was this pretty tough police state -- you had a lot of freedom because no one paid any attention to you. They were busy keeping control of the society, so you could do anything. You had the freedom of the town. I used to go all over Warsaw with my gang, skiving off school, riding around on bicycles. It was quite an interesting street life. Nowadays you go into these courtyards and places and they've been turned into car parks. There are not enough street kids roaming around. They're too busy studying and learning English, preparing for nothing in particular. There is no sense of future, no sense of career.

The world of teenagerdom was largely left to its own devices. There were a lot of rock bands. Funnily enough, it was the freest of the eastern European countries. Polish rock music was big all over the Eastern Bloc and there were bigger leaks from the west here than elsewhere. I can remember buying "Lazy Sunday Afternoon" by the Small Faces -- it was one of my first records. Poland was leaking all the time. It was a kind of cargo cult. We were absorbing anything that came from the west. It was the start of globalization, which is a nefarious process, but at the time it seemed innocent and sweet so I was all for it.

TS: Warsaw seems to be changing fast these days.

PP: Warsaw is a city that has always had a very strong identity -- before the war it had folklore and street life, and of course there was an aristocratic life and a middle class life and a Jewish life. After the war there was zero population here, but when they decided to make it the capital again people started swarming in. And, above all, people on the make came to Warsaw. If you wanted to make it you came here because as it was starting from scratch you really could really make it. There were no rules -- apart from the communist Party rules! Warsaw is a city of contrast, of over-lapping layers. The city is always looking for its face because it keeps getting destroyed and built up again. But all these different layers co-exit and there is so much vitality. It's a lively community and it's always changing. You can't call Warsaw beautiful, but it's definitely textured.

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