Check the Gate is a new column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that shot? Why that cast? Why that location? Answers are found within.
With each passing day, I feel myself becoming more and more comfortable with anger. There is a lot to be mad about, but stewing in this hot emotion only breeds ulcers and sleepless nights. Rest only comes through action, and watching others channel their rage into art ignites a glorious sense of calm in my person. Others are mad, too, and they’re not content to wallow in exasperation or disgust.
Agnieszka Holland made her career by filtering the world around her into various projects. Working within the confines of harsh governmental censorship, Holland crafted masked-yet-toothy social commentary in movies like Fever and A Lonely Woman before escaping Poland for France in 1981. Since then, her films have only become more hot-blooded and vicious in their attack against injustice.
Mr. Jones is no different. In 1933, after the ambitious young journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) gains a little attention for his interview with Adolf Hitler, he sets out to repeat his success with Joseph Stalin. While he manages to wrangle passage to the Soviet Union, Jones quickly discovers that once in Moscow, the world he is presented by the Communists does not reflect reality. Sneaking his way into Ukraine, Jones not only discovers evidence of Stalin’s Holodomor (the man-made famine), he lives it.
Holland does not see her films as weaponized thought. She is telling stories from her point of view. You either align yourself with her narratives or you do not. You’ve already purchased a ticket, and her mission is to keep you behind the eyes of her characters. What you extract from their story is on you.
“I’m not like the propaganda makers,” says Holland. “I don’t believe that I have the political duty, or the moral duty or existential duty to speak about the issues from the past or from the present, which are important to me and which I believe would be important for the wider scope of people.”
For the director, it’s not a matter of changing minds or screaming a rallying cry for others to gather. The filmmaker merely constructs stories that speak to her nature. Her movies are less concerned with beating you over the head, but connecting you to a time, a place, and a person.
“In order for [audiences] to understand,” she explains, “they need some kind of emotional journey, some kind of experience of reality that I’m presenting and expressing. For me, these films are not the statement only; they are the experiences somehow.”
Mr. Jones‘ message is pretty clear, and the truth of the title character’s journey travels in black and white morality. You should not oppress others for the sake of your power. Few could argue with such an idea, and yet, these diabolical situations appear throughout human history.
“There are some individuals,” continues Holland, “who for some impossible to explain reason have this gene of justice or are sensitive to the suffering of others, and they go against it for all. Several characters in my movies are like that, and they represent some form of my own personal quest. Going through them, I’m asking myself what would I do? What am I capable of?”
Holland uses her films to assess herself and to assess the rest of us as well. Where are we in the 21st century? How are we of today different than the we of yesterday? She speaks from the now, using her age, experience, and wisdom to comprehend the ever-changing world.
“Identity is something quite mysterious,” she says. “It has many layers, right? I am a woman. I am a mother and a filmmaker. I am Polish — I am half Jewish, half Polish. It means I have this double identity to start with, which is very complicated in Poland. I am also a European. I studied in Czechoslovakia and married a Slovak man. There I experienced the Prague Spring and the invasion of Soviet tanks. I’ve been in prison there, and so this country is also part of my territory somehow.”
Holland lived in France for ten years after Poland, and from there, she lived in the United States. Even more importantly, Holland’s films took her to even more regions of the globe. She does not think of herself as a citizen of one place. She is from all of these countries, but she also belongs to nowhere.
“Most of my friends don’t know where I am,” she says. “Thank God for Facebook and social media. It is some kind of solid ground. At least they know where they can meet me online.”
This state of limbo challenges Holland. Her adventures fill her with pride and provided countless tales for her to capture in film, but the alienation could be overwhelming if left unchecked. Pulling stories from experience is the only way in which she knows how to deal.
“It is quite difficult on a personal level,” says Holland. “At the same time, I’m grateful for that because it gives me an overview. I can see the similarities and the differences. The similarities people share are everything in the emotional terms: their joys, their needs. The differences are something that makes us strangers. How we can use these differences for constructive aims is the most difficult question.”
Holland dissects humanity’s differences through their narratives, and in doing so, grounds herself as a global citizen. The saga and tragedy of Mr. Jones struck passion, and she did not want to tarnish his history or the history of Stalin’s victims by misrepresenting the horror of the Soviet famine.
“That is always the biggest challenge,” she says. “To show the horror in a way which is not graphic, or self-indulgent, in a way that is somehow immoral. And, of course, I can accept terrible cruelty in films. I remember [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s Salò, which was brutally disgusting, and I sometimes enjoy the violence in Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but if you are speaking about a tragedy like the Holocaust or Holodomor, where millions of innocent people died in the cruelest and inhumane ways, I feel that I have to be very discreet. It means not to describe, but to express.”
The sequence in which Gareth Jones comes face-to-face with the Holodomor does not preoccupy much of the film’s runtime, but Holland knew that it was the very heart of the story. If she miscalculated its representation, the film would fall apart. Portraying its reality without falling into exploitation concerned her deeply.
“If we failed in the emotional impact of the sequence, the film would not work,” she says. “I asked myself, because I did several movies about the Holocaust, ‘what was the difference between the famine and the Holocaust?’ The difference is emptiness, loneliness, and silence. Those people were dying out of the eyes of others. They died, disappeared, and vanished.”
We do not know how many perished during the Holodomor. Historians argue on the numbers with estimates ranging from four to nine million. The numbers are catastrophic, and the calculation of what such a loss of life means for the rest of the world is immeasurable. Holland had to solidify this senseless waste in her audience.
“It means a gap of millions of people,” she says. “They are nameless, voiceless, and they don’t have graves. They don’t have data. We don’t know what happened to them exactly. I wanted a tribute to their sufferance. I felt that they were calling for it somehow.”
Mr. Jones is Holland’s attempt to give names to the nameless. She feels their absence, and she wants us to as well. The film is rooted in her anger and pain, but the storytelling is a pure celebration of those with the justice gene. Does it reside within you?
Mr. Jones is now available on Digital and will be On Demand on July 3rd.
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