"There is a duty to translate this history into the feature film, which is a popular art that can reach people and wake up their imagination and emotions."
Interview by Savina Petkova / @SavinaPetkova
Veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland is an anti-totalitarian freedom fighter at heart, and that's why we love her. Born in Soviet-annexed Poland to two journalist parents, both activists and resistance fighters (Holland's mother fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising), Holland moved to Prague in Czechoslovakia to study Film & TV at FAMU just before the Soviet Union decided to invade the country in 1968. Like her mother beforehand, Holland resisted the totalitarian infringement, partaking in the Prague Spring and getting arrested for her dissidence.
With the political and the personal so deeply intertwined throughout her life (her grandparent's perished in the Holocaust), it's not surprising that Holland has obsessed over the issue of totalitarianism and rebellion against it in her long and illustrious film and TV career. Early work such as Fever (1981) is set during the Revolution in the Kingdom of Poland (1905-1907), while A Lonely Woman (1981) was banned in Poland for being too critical of the state. She was soon made persona non grata and was refused entry back into the country as long as it remained Communist. Her most famous works, Europa Europa (1991) and In Darkness (2011), both examine Holocaust and, more recently, she worked on 1983 (2019) for Netflix, a series about an alternate Poland in which the Iron Curtain didn't fall. Even now, she's working on a project set amidst the "totalitarian fifties." Holland doesn't tolerate apologists, fetishists or sympathisers for authoritarian regimes and her most recent film displays the full force of her moral conviction.
Mr. Jones feels like her most accessible film yet, a gripping English-language historical drama in the vein of Steven Spielberg. It concerns the heroic true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (played by James Norton), a man who ventured into the Soviet Union to learn of and report on the Holodomor — Stalin's Famine, estimated to have killed over 10 million people. Our review calls it "clear-headed, heartfelt and resolute storytelling" and it's fair to say that it's one of the few films to effectively reckon with Soviet atrocities on screen. Holland was recently awarded the Order of Princess Olga from the Ukrainian government for “telling the truth about the tragedy of the Great Famine in Ukraine.” She was honoured with the award alongside pulitzer-prize winning journalist / historian Anne Applebaum, who has decried that: “The crimes of communism never penetrated into popular culture or the popular imagination”. Holland looks to be one of the few filmmakers out to amend that in a culture industry still sympathetic and excusing of Soviet history. But more than historical memory, Mr. Jones has deep relevance to our contemporary world of Russo-Ukrainian conflict, ideological possession and fake news. It wants to alert us to modern amnesia and complacency and make the case for the vitality of truth.
We wanted to ask Holland about how her history influenced her handling of the tale, whether film can help us come to terms with Soviet crimes, and what she wants audiences to take away from the film and her work broadly.
Electric Ghost Magazine: We saw 'Mr. Jones' in Berlin last year, a film that must have been both personal and political to you. Could you tell us more about how history on a national level and personal level influenced the production?
Agnieszka Holland: You know, there were some reasons why I think I responded to the story and to the script. One of them was that it tells the story of a very terrifying Stalinian crime, which is practically unknown to the general audience, let’s say. There is something unjust and dangerous in the fact that so many of Stalin's and Communism's crimes in general are practically forgotten and forgiven. I think it’s not only unjust to the victims who became nameless and voiceless but also because of the future — the impossibility to analyse and to deal with this past in a way which will help us not to repeat the same mistakes and same mechanisms. In general, I think there is a duty to translate this history into the feature film, which is a popular art that can reach people and wake up their imagination and emotions.
"I’m the communicator and storyteller, so I have to communicate the complexity of my stories in a way which will be accessible and somehow attractive for the audience."
James Norton as Welsh journalist Gareth Jones in 'Mr. Jones'
The second one was, you know, when I was reading the script, I found it very relevant. I mean: the questions which are there, the Gareth Jones story, and the way he tried to be true to the facts, to investigate and report them, publish them. And the way it was discredited and silenced by the very important mainstream media and someone like Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) who was one of the most powerful journalists of the time and very influential. And the production of the fake news and propaganda which was denying the facts, destroying the reality of these facts and the answers of the politicians which was a mix of conformism and co-opting of the societies, which is very similar to what we’re living in now, including the fake news, the obvious manipulation of the political propaganda, the agendas of different media, the polarisation of society and the facilitation of changing the real facts to an alternative post-truth. The third reason was to pay tribute to the courage of journalism when it’s honest and courageous.
Last year, you gave the Freedom Speech at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. What specifically struck me when I was listening to you was your argument about reality and fiction being in an inverted relationship at our present moment, and the filmmaker’s need to reclaim fiction back from the political tribune. Later, when I saw 'Mr. Jones', this made even more sense. In the way that you tell the story, as a director, how important was it for the film to remain accessible as a story?
It was, definitely. It was and it probably is my way of telling the stories which sometimes prompts some film critics to think my movies are somehow too simple and that my style is too transparent. But at the same time, I’m the communicator and storyteller, so I have to communicate the complexity of my stories in a way which will be accessible and somehow attractive for the audience. That they would be able to come with me on this rocky journey with some kind of emotional involvement.
"The people were not dying together even, they were dying without a cry, without a shout. Nothing. They are simply vanishing. There is something about the famine which is incomparable with any other kind of disaster."
James Norton as Gareth Jones in 'Mr. Jones'
I do think you take care of your spectators in that way, I don’t see this as a device that distances one from the film’s essence, it rather brings you closer to it.
Yes, thank you.
How did you approach the film’s visual side? Did you envision the cinematographic work as it was, and did you know beforehand that there was going to be a lot of emphasis on that enormously impactful sequence in the deserted villages that broke all our hearts (I’m sure we all know which one I’m referring to)?
Yes, we know. Me and Tomasz Naumiuk — my cinematographer — knew that this sequence is at the heart of the film and if we fail here, the film won’t work. So there was a lot of tension there, and we started with this scene and when we were scouting locations, there was no snow and it actually looked very interesting: yellow-brownish, dead grass with patches of snow. We thought about finding a proper aesthetic to show it and when we arrived for the actual shoot, the snow was so high and it was really cold, that suddenly everything became black and white, with the graphic situation of dark houses towering over the snow. So we had to change the visual concept. But the concept of the storytelling didn’t change because we wanted to make it static, silent, and lonely. We thought that it would express the tragedy of these nameless, lonely deaths. The people were not dying together even, they were dying without a cry, without a shout. Nothing. They are simply vanishing. There is something about the famine which is incomparable with any other kind of disaster. We wanted to express that so that’s why we decided to shoot it in this way. And in general we discussed together how to express movement. When Gareth goes to Soviet Russia, we decided to show his train journey in the way Dziga Vertov was doing his avant-gard-ish camera-eye sequences, and to show that there is motion and that Gareth wants to go on as an investigator, also being very enthusiastic about his aim to touch the reality and its truth. So we tried to show the difference between London before his trip and London after that, because he himself changed, and the way we shot the city and that English reality, and the Welsh reality, changed. Moscow was realistic too, but at the same time a bit overly realistic. It had to be bigger than life somehow.
"We neglect those steps of evil, accepting them, accepting the next ones and, before we know it, we are in Auschwitz."
Agnieszka Holland (left) & James Norton (right) on the set of 'Mr. Jones'
The film has a moral resoluteness and propulsion to it and, in a way, the film anticipates its detractors when apologists and ideologues in the film excuse the horror with 'proper context', 'the greater good', 'no omelette without eggs' and so on. Do you think 'Mr Jones', or film generally, has the power to change the mind of an apologist for Communism?
Well, I think that sometimes it does. Mostly not, even if I think that every film of this kind brings some knowledge and recreates certain questions that are still relevant and which holds some answers for today. Sometimes the one film or one TV series, or sometimes something quite kitschy and popular like the TV series Holocaust (1978), can change the global vision of the people on some important historical events, or historical truth. So it’s happened in the history of film and TV that such work has changed peoples mind. Sometimes it’s not even the best films, sometimes it’s the films that translate a complex reality and touches the wider audience.
I’m certain that’s a good way to describe your films and we’re looking forward to seeing how you do it in your newest feature, 'Charlatan', that will have its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale. Is there one thing one you want audiences to take away from Mr Jones?
Two days ago there was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. One man whom I know personally and I admire enormously — a Polish, 93 year old Holocaust survivor, who is still working as a journalist — held a speech, and a very important one, I think. He showed how fascism and how Auschwitz started with small things, and how they grow. We neglect those steps of evil, accepting them, accepting the next ones and, before we know it, we are in Auschwitz. So I think this is the 11th commandment: to not be indifferent. So that is, in a way, the message of my films: “Don’t be indifferent! Wake up!”
'Mr Jones' is screening in select cinemas and is available on video 7 February 2019
Read our review of the film here
Savina Petkova is a contributing writer at Electric Ghost Magazine. She also contributes to MUBI Notebook, Photogénie and Girls on Tops.