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Wilhelm and Anka Sasnal “Aleksander”

26 June – 09 July 2016

Wilhelm and Anka Sasnal “Aleksander”

2013, Super 16mm transferred to HD video, sound, 58 minutes 49 seconds

“Thirty minutes is all it takes to get to the village from our house... At first, it was a long journey to a place where chaos reigns even though the days pass quietly; where people don’t have work even though they’re always busy with something, and nothing ever changes... we wanted to describe the life of the people we met there, arrange their reality somehow...”

Introduced by Anna Serdiukow

Anna Serdiukow: As you admitted yourself “Aleksander” is a creative documentary.

Anka Sasnal: We discovered Zielona – a village some 25 miles from Krakow, where Aleksander lives and where our movie was shoot – when we were looking for the locations for our other movie, The View Is Beautiful From the Distance (2011). At the beginning we planned it as a feature film about the folks who live there, but regular visits to Aleksander’s farm made us rather think of making a documentary. Until a certain moment we even thought we could combine the elements of a feature film with the elements of a documentary. We portrayed Aleksander’s everyday life, and he also preformed tasks that we suggested to him.

ASe: The ritual of boiling soil for instance?

ASa: Yes. Wilhelm would shot everything. We hoped that the truth of a documentary wouldn’t suffer from some elements we added, on the contrary – it might profit from them. And that’s exactly what happened – certain scenes, like the one you mentioned, were even included in the film.

Wilhelm Sasnal: However, as a result of our numerous visits to Zielona, it was the village that eventually took power over us; though at the beginning we thought we would run the show. So we had to abandon our dreams of imposing a certain scenario over the reality, but we just had to follow our hero with a camera. And that switch – I mean the change of our attitude to both the hero and the topic – was also captured and presented in the movie.

ASa: Maybe some will call it a defeat of our preliminary assumptions, but I have no sense of failure, I think we won. We presented an actual picture of the place and its host.

ASe: In the first scene of the movie your hero puts on a table everything he has in his wallet. He says to the camera, to the viewer: “Unemployment, ID, vehicle registration certificate, driving license. That’s all.”

ASa: It was a kind of audition that we invented. Aleksander did an excellent job because he was not playing or pretending. This scene portrays the way he really is. It was actually everything he had with him. And he was not ashamed of that.

WS: In that scene our hero took off everything he wore, except for his underpants. He has no problem with nudity, with a camera, with himself. Only the ones who watch this can have a problem.

ASe: Why?

ASa/WS: In a sense we cross the boundary of intimacy, but more the intimacy of the audience, not our hero. It’s the audience that may feel uneasy watching the scene.

ASe: When Wilhelm turns to the hero, he uses “Olek”, the diminutive of his name. However you decided on the title “Aleksander”, which sounds more serious and dignifying.

ASa: As I said, it was also a story about ourselves, about our way of perceiving the place at the beginning, and the gradual change of our perspective with every subsequent visit. Little by little we were forgetting about our script, and we were also forgetting our mental image of a village. Besides, we never wanted to look at Olek’s farm from a superior or privileged point of view. Of course, we live in a city, we’ve got and use modern amenities and facilities, but we did our best to make sure this wouldn’t distort the picture of the place and our hero.

ASe: In one of the analyses of your movie I read that the camera follows the hero like a faithful dog.

WS: It’s great that you can feel this hierarchy. For me, as a cinematographer, it’s very important that the audience sees it this way. I was using a 16mm camera, so you can see the film grain. All close-ups are shot with handheld camera, so the picture is often shaky. But the shots are usually long and static, because in villages like Zielona, every day looks almost the same. I made my camera responsive to every change, every new event. And I instinctively followed them. The para-documentary character of shooting was a natural choice because of the place where the move was made. Let me stress one important thing: I felt safe making the movie. I felt good in its world, because I could always hide behind the camera. And perhaps that’s the answer to the question on why the audience may feel uneasy watching the movie. It has no camera to hide behind.

ASe: But things that you show are not always beautiful full of dignity. Even against the title of your film.

ASa: That’s how it is meant to be. Polish villages – particularly Zielonka and Aleksander’s farm – don’t look like that. We did not make a movie to prove any thesis. We didn’t want to restore dignity to anybody or anything, because we didn’t think it was our role to do so. Besides we didn’t think that anybody or anything lost their dignity. We wanted to show a place that has its unusual rhythm. A place that’s a kind of enclave that resisted the passing of time and any sort of influences. In a way, we were under its spell.

WS: We were engrossed in psychedelic monotony of that farm’s everyday routine. All days merge into one. Never-ending hustle and bustle. People do something all the time, but it’s often hard to notice the aim of what they are doing. It’s a place where everything may be handy one day or another. Where a man constantly turns something into something else; that’s why welding, cutting, polishing, adjusting and so on never ends. We had an impression it was a kind of whirlpool that would suck in anyone who wasn’t far enough.

ASa: And you want to be near, because all those absurd farm works – let alone those rational, like preparing meals for instance – are similar to exotic rites. Bizarre but fascinating rites. And although you don’t understand them, you know they are part of world’s eternal order.

ASe: There are moments when it’s hard to tell the difference between Aleksander’s natural everyday activities and something that you created or suggested him to do.

ASa: Just like it is with the scene of boiling soil at the beginning of the movie. The audience often thinks it’s a villagers’ rite that’s been always present in Olek’s world. When the audience finds out it is something you suggested him to do, it’s usually disappointed and enraged.

ASe: Well, in a way you ridicule the shallow knowledge that we, who live in big cities, have about villages and countrymen.

ASa: It means we also ridicule our own knowledge about it.

WS: It was not done on purpose. We wanted to observe without interfering. After so many years I’m still under the influence of Bruno Dumont’s first movie The Life of Jesus (1997), and the conclusions I drew after watching it. The fascination of the observer comes first. I was not involved in what Aleksander was doing, I was just observing it. I’ve never tried to cross the boundary between us. On the other hand I’ve never tried to conceal my interest in that place and that man.

ASa: We found such unsophisticated or even naïve approach quite desirable. Paradoxically we managed to establish a deep, sincere and honest relationship with Aleksander, who – and I mean what I’m saying – managed to remain autonomous till the end of the shooting period.

ASe: Why did it prove so important during your making the film?

ASa: We did not present an idyllic picture of the village. We’re much closer to naturalists’ approach; we did not idealize the place. However we’ve never thought it requires any changes, any new approaching to it, or evaluating it. It is now our world, but at the same time that world accepted our invitation. Each of us – regardless the presence of a film camera – is present in the story on his own terms.


Produced by: Wilhelm and Anka Sasnal; Anton Kern Gallery, New York

Copyright: The Artists; courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London