February 10, 2015

'Joanna' and How Simplicity Can Lead to Beauty

In 40 short minutes, Aneta Kopacz's Oscar®-nominated short documentary Joanna invites us in, embraces us unconditionally, and reveals a brief portrait of a woman facing the realities of a terminal illness. The titular Joanna, a woman slight of stature but substantial in wisdom, copes with the reality of her condition by sharing as much as she can with her brilliant son Janek, a boy of roughly 8 years of age who asks questions as deep and important as any learned philosopher. She publishes her thoughts and succinct life lessons on her blog, where thousands of readers join her in the legacy of her final days. The times spent with her son are interspersed with tender moments between Joanna and her adoring husband, whose patience and calming presence adds to the film’s deep warmth.

Shot in a vérité style over the course of just a few months, Joanna remains primarily inside the rooms of the family’s home and in the surrounding woods, where Joanna seems to be insuring that many a sun-kissed memory is literally planted for her son and his future self. Neither Joanna nor her family ever directly addresses the camera, and we never linger on a sit-down interview between filmmaker and subject. Instead life plays out in its small yet important moments, with stunning cinematography reminding us of the beauty found in life's everyday simplicity.

We reached out to director Aneta Kopacz via email to ask her how she came to the film's visual style, about crowdfunding in Poland, and how she will spend her time after the Oscars® are over.

'Joanna' director Aneta Kopacz

How did you approach Joanna about participating in a film?

I was recently a new mom, so I was staying at home taking care of my little daughter. One day I came across an article about Joanna on the Internet, from which I learned she was leading a blog. It was the only blog on the Internet I ever read. It completely consumed me. I was absolutely delighted with the way she described her daily life. She reached the point, in one remarkable, slightly ironic sentence, where she could capture everything. I was fascinated. I decided to make a movie about Joanna because she was unusual, beautiful, intelligent and wise, with an interesting point of view. Because she loved life and she could touch it, derive from the ordinary everyday life and relationships with other people. For me there is nothing more precious. I am very much interested in such people and such films.

I went to the Bookseller Club, where a radio reportage about Joanna was going to be presented. I knew she would be a special guest there. During the reportage emission, when her son's voice appeared, Joanna couldn't control her emotions and left. After a while, I went for her. Barely visible, she was standing with her back to me in a dark, empty room. A thought came to my mind that she is very petite. I walked over to her and introduced myself. For a moment we just looked at each other in silence and tears came to our eyes. I felt the incredible mutual intimacy then, like we knew each other forever. I told her that I wanted to make a film about her. She looked at me and said, "No, that would interfere with my privacy." 

Then I learned that she had film proposals from well-known film directors and she refused to all of them. I asked her for just a minute to express how I would like to keep her story in the image. I said that if after this one minute she would say "no", I will never bother her any more. She actually never said "Yes", but after this one minute, she didn't say "no". So two days later, we had the first shooting day.

 

The story unfolds in a very tender and metered way, with information slowly revealed about each of your characters. How much time did you spend with Joanna and her family? Knowing how ill Joanna was, did you feel a sense of urgency when filming her story?

We had to start immediately, before we got to know each other. In this case, time was uncompromising and running so fast. It was an unusual method of creating a documentary, but I had to face it. I had no choice. The most important thing in any relationship with another human being, regardless of the circumstances, is trust. However, it takes time, time that I didn't have before the shooting. I tried hard to gain the trust of Joanna. I spent time with her privately outside the film, telling her about myself. We [shared] our views [and] observations, discussing for hours. We were able to spend time together for only 5 months. These were her last months.

We were kind of similar to each other: [of] the same age, with a similar sense of humor, similar way of perceiving the world, loving life in the simplest things of its manifestations, tasting life with great sensibility. It certainly helped to get closer to each other and gain confidence, which then translated into a movie.

Joanna told me that since she learned that she was [terminally ill], all seemed to simplify. That means she needed less time to accept or reject what life gives to her. She did not need to wonder long; decisions were made faster. She felt harder, and experienced more intensely. I am the same. It also probably helped us to establish a close relationship more quickly.

Still from Aneta Kopacz's Oscar®-nominated short 'Joanna'

Your film is very lyrical, shot in a true vérité style. I appreciate that you get such intimacy without ever interviewing your subjects, but just by allowing them to live their lives. Do you always work this way?

I try to work in this way. I prefer to find out about people from their behavior and relationships and build the story on that. There is nothing more interesting than to be able to get into somebody's life, stay there for a while and have a chance to watch their daily life. I need to have the honest picture that later on the audience could believe; would really feel and would be emotionally connected. I am really fascinated in that kind of movie. I am fascinated by the human being. Their emotions, relationships, weaknesses, strengths, temptations they cannot resist, masks they put on, hidden and revealed aspects of their conscious and subconscious. I love to absorb, to watch and to see, to listen and to hear.

 

How was it working with Joanna’s son Janek? Neither he nor the rest of the family ever seemed to notice the camera in the room. Was it just you and cinematographer Łucasz Żal with the family at all times?

There were three of us: the cinematographer, the sound man and me. When the scenes were very intimate, only Łucasz was with the family.

The crew had to be invisible as much as possible. Therefore we were often shooting while hiding behind the trees, behind the house. We shot through a window, a mirror, a reflection. We used long lenses to reduce the distance and achieve the feeling of closeness and intimacy. We did not want to destroy the intimacy and privacy of the family in the time spent together. We had to behave with extraordinary sensitivity and discretion.

Day after day we all became more and more friends, and my protagonists familiarized themselves with the crew and the camera so that they behaved normally. But of course, at the beginning of shooting Janek was constantly looking in to the camera. Every time I asked - "Janek, please take care of what you do and do not look in to the camera" - he looked even more. So one day I ran into a simple but such a brilliant idea! I asked him to keep looking directly into the camera. So he stopped.

Still from Aneta Kopacz's Oscar®-nominated short 'Joanna'

The look of Joanna is very impressionistic, which somewhat belies her straightforward writing style on her blog and the way she raises her child. What helped you decide on the final visual aesthetic for this project?

I knew it from the very beginning. I just felt it like that. While reading a blog I imagined the movie to be exactly impressionistic. The only difficulty was to find the right cinematographer and explain my vision to him. It wasn't easy to find the one who really felt what I was talking about. Fortunately Łucasz Żal understood what the movie is about and how I [wanted] it to look. We were talking for hours about the visual aesthetic. And finally I had no doubt, and during the the whole process of shooting I was comforted in the belief that Łucasz was the perfect choice. I was so lucky.

 

What was it like raising funds to make this project? What is the fundraising environment like in Poland for documentary?

Mostly you need to apply to Polish Film Institute for money for your project. If you are accepted, then you start; if not, you need to find another way, which is not easy. Polish Public TV produces documentaries as well, so this is also an option. I didn't have time to apply my project and wait for the decision. I had to start immediately. So I went to Wajda Studio, that I had known before as I graduated from Wajda School. They gave me a small amount of money for the start. During the whole time of making Joanna I was constantly looking for more funding. I found the co-producer, [then a] sponsor, and at the end I used crowdfunding. Joanna was pretty popular among Internet users, due to her blog. People wanted a movie about her very much. So as soon as they found out about the initiative of collecting money, we didn't have to persuade them to help. The needed amount of money we collected in just three weeks, even though the expected time was two months.

 

What has the road to the Oscars been like for you? What will you work on next?

It was a long and hardworking road. For nearly the past two years I traveled the world at festivals and have promoted Joanna. I was constantly on my way. My life partner, Tomasz Sredniawa, who is cowriter for the movie often travels with me, sometimes we take our little daughter. Now she is also with us in Los Angeles. So the film is present in our life all the time. Being honest, our whole life revolves around the film; there is nothing else. I am really tired and I am missing such a relaxing and carefree time with my daughter. I am really looking forward to it after Oscars. Can't wait!

Our next project will be the feature-length documentary, also very intimate and emotional. We are also in the process of writing a feature fiction screenplay based on a true story.

 

You can catch Joanna at DocuDay LA, the IDA's annual celebration of the feature and short documentary films nominated for Oscar®. The film will screen at 3:35pm on Saturday, Febrary 21 at the Writer's Guild of America Theater as part of Shorts Program II with fellow nominee La Parka (The Reaper).

For those not in the Los Angeles area, you can also find Joanna internationally on iTunes and on Vimeo.

Katharine Relth is the Digital Communications Manager for the IDA. She has interviewed dozens of documentary filmmakers and written extensively about contemporary documentary and independent filmmaking for documentary.org, Documentary magazine, Indiewire and TribecaFilm.com

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