Paul Handley Interview

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

POLE TO POLE

An interview with the director of award-winning documentary On The Volcano (Na Wulkanie)

Paul Handley is a British-born film-maker currently completing his studies at the Polish Film School in Lodz. His half-hour documentary On The Volcano (Na Wulkanie) has been shown at festivals all over Europe, and won two prestigious awards at the Sleepwalkers Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, in December 2001. Jigsaw Lounge caught up with him there.

NY : What’s your background?

PH : I’m 27, I was born in Macclesfield, and left when I was 12. I went to school in Bedford first, then High Wycombe when my family moved. Most of my family are from Bramhall, Reddish, Stockport, that kind of area, Eccles. I went to Leeds University, where I studied History of Art and Fine Art.

NY : How did that lead to film?

PH : In a fairly organic way – I went as a painter to Leeds, which is now a kind of a think-tank among British institutions, in terms of art history and thinking about culture, there’s an enormous Cultural Studies centre there. I was a painter and drifted away from that, because I was doing studio practice at the same time, and I started taking photographs, and I did these enormous hikes across Leeds, taking hundreds of photographs, documenting. This grew into a kind of a map-making exercise, I got very interested in the city, and I made a 17-minute documentary called To the City of Leeds, which I showed as my degree show in the Hyde Park Cinema. Then I started in Lodz in ’97.

NY : Why did you apply to a Polish film school?

PH : It’s got the reputation as an elite institution. It was where a lot of my favourite directors went – Polanski, Kieszlowski, Wajda, Skolimowski. Affiliated names like Agnieska Holland, Zanussi. I’m a big fan of Wajda’s ‘trilogy’: Kanal, A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds, that was a major European cinema event after the second world war. A lot of them still visit the school, they have a fairly love-hate relationship, these ex-students.

NY : Volcano has something of the claustrophobia of The Tenant.

PH : There is something in that – I deliberately kept it fairly tight, with only a couple of large shots. Polanski does this thing of holding the camera on someone – he does it on a fictional basis, obviously, but there’s something about that way of working. Even in Kieslowski, if you watch the Dekalog, or his documentaries: people often don’t realise that he was a fantastic documentary film-maker, probably one of the best.

NY : And are you the first English student?

PH : I’m the third – there was a girl about five years ago, and a girl who’s just finished.

NY : Did you know Polish when you applied?

PH : I had to learn the language. And I had to take the exam – you would never get an exam like that in a British institution.

NY : And did you know much about the city?

PH : Lodz means ‘boat’ in Polish – it was always known as ‘Red Lodz’ because it was a real Communist workers’ town, it’s dirty and it’s slow picking itself up.

NY : So it’s a little like an equivalent of Manchester, or Liverpool?

PH : Yeah, but when – sometime between the wars, or maybe just after the second world war? It’s a big town, sprawling, and it’s based on a grid system, it’s been let go. But fair play, they’re bringing it back together slowly. I’m interested in Eastern European culture and history, I tried to read up about it, and just let the experience happen as I got there, because I knew I’d be spending a lot of time there.

NY : How would you summarise your film?

PH : On the Volcano is a half-hour docu film which was shot on digital video over a period of eight months. In a nutshell, it’s about one family living in one house – upstairs is a man and wife with their seven children and grandma. Downstairs lives grand-dad who’s divorced from grandma, living with his second wife and her son. The two sides don’t have any contact with one another, and yet they live ups-downstairs in one house.

NY : How big is the house?

PH : It’s two storeys. In terms of Polish reality, it’s a three-generation house at the moment, and three generations have already lived in the house, so in Polish terms it’s quite impressive holding, quite an impressive piece of land – within Polish society there are substrata of class, so they’re not too badly off.

NY : It’s not a matter of deprivation.

PH : Definitely not. I wanted to explore an angle of exploring this very Polish situation of a large family – how is it that they function, how do they carry on, given everything that’s going on around them? And the answer is that they must, they have to carry on, life goes on even in those circumstances, even in the worst possible familial situation.

NY : Do they share any facilities?

PH : Not at all. The two are entirely self-contained, that’s what it’s become, I don’t know if they’ve somehow built around the problem and structured the building according to their need.

NY : Why did you choose this subject matter?

PH : I made the film because the subject matter is immediately attractive, in terms of making a documentary which has interesting characters, and people who were prepared to tell their story over a period of time. As a docu film-maker I don’t think I could take on a subject that I didn’t have at least a slight understanding of, and that’s quite straightforward because I also grew up in a family and there are certain things which all families have in common. Who talks to who, who doesn’t talk to who, why, who relates to who better, who trusts who, who doesn’t.

NY : Does your family have any connection in terms of strange inter-generational aspects?

PH : Not in any direct way, no, I don’t identify in a literal sense, I just think that this family is a particularly extreme, radical example of how some families get themselves into these situations, but do also somehow manage to carry on. There is that ambiguity in the family, in that there’s an enormous amount of love in the family, but that deeper story keeps coming up – it’s always there, inevitably, and I wanted to show that layered experience within any given family, but in particular with this family.

NY : How did you find them?

PH : As a good docu film-maker you should keep your ear to the ground, and you’re always looking for interesting characters, interesting stories. I found them through a friend of mine who’s a teacher, he teaches English out in Poland and the husband in the house had had pretensions to learning English but has no particular skill with the language. He had this nickname among his friends, ‘Mad Jan’, a bit of an abstract character, a bit of a drifter and a floater, but he also has this enormous family. I wanted to make an short impressionistic four-minute reportage piece about a large Polish family. The phenomenon of large Polish families – huge, Catholic families – is pretty common, but the problem was how to show it in its positive sense as well, not just make it some enormous, horrible family with screaming kids – that wasn’t my point at all.

NY : And the grand-parents are Catholic, and they divorced?

PH : Yeah. It happens, sometimes.

NY : Are they very religious people – do they have pictures of the Virgin around the house?

PH: They do, that’s a standard feature of most Polish homes – pictures of the Pope, various religious icons around the walls. As I was making the film I sensed a return, perhaps, to some sort of more traditional Polish values, such as going to the church on Sundays, and those kinds of things. Though actually young people aren’t going to church so much – official statistics say something like 95% of Poland is Catholic, that’s simply not true. In the film the main argument blows up on a Sunday about whether or not one of the boys is going to go church – “Where do we normally go on a Sunday at four o’clock?” The conflicts revolve around whether the older boy is going to church or do what he wants to do, which is hang out with his mates, or go to the cinema, and whether he’s done his homework or not, because he’s falling behind at school. These are pretty typical thing that cause ruction within a family.

NY : You initially planned a four-minute piece?

PH : I did make that, I did an interview and I cut it with observational material. I asked the guy questions about himself and his family, he was very open. And I cut back and forth between footage of the mother and the children, and what they were doing, and tried to form some kind of contrast between what he was saying – this very harmonious, beautiful view of his family – and showing observational material that contradicted his viewpoint. That was an easy piece, it wasn’t hard to observe that situation as it grows before your eyes – the mother is so busy with the children.

Then I stayed in contact with them – if someone’s allowed you to shoot a film of them, you work in terms of peeling back the layers as your friendship grows. They get used to the camera, which is one thing, but the camera’s always just an instrument for recording what situations are beginning to happen. Over a cup of tea a couple of weeks later, having shot this news-reportage item, the guy just said ‘You do realise that my father’s living downstairs?’ I knew that in most cases someone will only ever show you certain degrees of intimacy or personal life, and certainly on a ‘Hello, how are you’ basis, you’ll never find out anything. You’ve got to decide whether to just leave it, and decide that there’s nothing there, or else to try to get to know these people and for them to tell you the deeper thought on what’s happening with their lives. Because there always is one.

And depending on your way of working, whether you wish to make docu-soaps or reportage or a much more long-term observational documentary, then I think you will inevitably make your choice based on those sorts of decisions. I wanted to spend time in a group of people, so it’s not a portrait documentary that concentrates on one person and their experiences, I’m dealing with a whole lot of people. So if you add them up, there’s three downstairs, then all the children upstairs, that makes 13 in the house, I was dealing with 13 people in a fairly hellish situation sometimes when this volcano did go off.

NY : You lived with the family for the full 8 months in the house?

PH : More or less, I wasn’t sleeping there, it wasn’t that extreme, but I was there.

NY : From what hours in the morning till what at night?

PH : It just depended, they would call me simply, because they don’t have a telephone, so it was tricky, but sometimes I would just turn up. But I was never made to feel unwelcome, only when we had our crises, and inevitably making a documentary you come to these points with the people who you’re working with when you’ve just filmed an all-out blazing argument between man and wife in their kitchen, and it’s gone so far that they’ve allowed you to do that, then you have to take a step back and think about what you’ve just done. They’re also aware of that, obviously.

NY : It was just you with a single camera?

PH : That’s right. It’s a Canon, with interchangeable lenses, though I was working essentially with long lenses, so I could stay apart from the situations as they unfolded. I can talk about how I got physically close to them with the camera, but that says nothing about the psychology or the human relationships that were formed.

NY : Is that aspect perhaps more important than the film, to you?

PH : I think it is, in the end, because I still bump into them on the street, and I can still talk to them and get on with them – I feel comfortable with that, and so do they.

NY : Did you mainly stand at the edge of the room?

PH : Yes, I tried to avoid getting between people during their argument. The argument will either stop, or the situation won’t develop naturally.

NY : Did you ever feel they were ever playing to the camera?

PH : Not in the way that you’re asking, they didn’t ‘put it on’ – I think for the mother it was very important that the film was made. I was dropping hints, saying I knew the story, and I needed it to come out. The story has to be told by them.

NY : Did you interview everybody in the family over the course of the project?

PH : Yes, though it took time. I was upstairs most of the time, and then I slowly, by degrees, went downstairs. It’s probably one of the best kept secrets of any family – just ‘what’s happened’ and who has what view on what. But I wasn’t necessarily interested in recording the various opinions, because everybody’s “right” of course, always. That’s what’s happened – everybody’s become right and entrenched in their own view of what’s happened and then it’s impossible to dig much out of it. Hence the zero communication, and absolute stop.

NY : And no-one refused to contribute?

PH : Well, no-one said ‘no’, but I was feeling my way, very very gently, and certainly working out where the boundaries lie, what you can and can’t do, what the person is going to allow you to shoot and to see. Seeing is one thing, filming is another. Your best friend and his girlfriend may have a blazing row in front of you and not think about it twice the next day, but filming it would be another matter entirely.

NY : How much footage did you shoot altogether?

PH : Amazingly enough, I only shot 13 hours of material. This is another thing that I was quite careful about while I was shooting, I tried to apply the discipline of shooting on 35mm to the medium of digital video. Not in any fanatical way, as if that mattered, but simply because it forces you to see harder, to look closer. If you regiment yourself and say ‘I won’t turn this camera on until I know that something’s going to happen,’ for me, anyway – and I knew I was in for a long haul – it was a very good way of working because it’s consistent, at least, over a long period of time.

NY : When did you realise you had enough footage?

PH : What happened was that during the fourth or fifth month I started editing, I started cutting blocks of material together, and when you do that normally it turns out that you can see what you need to get, you know which shots you need to pick up, and that dictates the rest.

NY : How long did the whole project take?

PH : Eight months of shooting and four months of editing, though there was a lot of overlap – the best part of a year altogether. I made the transfer from DV to 35mm with a Polish operator who’s quite well known named Krzystof Ptak, a top Polish cinematographer, he’s worked with a lot of the top Polish directors.

NY : Is he credited as cinematographer?

PH : No, I’m the cinematographer, he’s credited for the video transfer.

NY : Will you use the remaining footage?

PH : Quite an amazing thing has happened now – I’m still in touch with them, I’m a family friend, and they tell me that things have settled down a lot in the house since I’ve been there. There is more interesting material – you have ‘pet shots’ but you can’t put them in, because you have to make the film, at the expensive of your favourite shots.

NY : Why 32 minutes?

PH : 32 minutes is a good, standard time – I could cut it down to 27, European TV standard is often 27 or 28 minutes?

NY : Will it be shown on Polish TV?

PH : I think it will be, I know that Kanal+, the Polish version of the French channel, were interested. I haven’t spoken to British TV yet, I was happy to just show it around various festivals first.

NY : How many festivals have you been to now?

PH : Eight. I’ve had special mentions from festivals including Cracow. Polish journalists are interested in the idea of a British student film-maker being in Poland, and wanting to make documentaries in Poland – one particular journalist, Wojciech Kuczok said something like ‘Paul Handley is well aware of his forebears like Loach and Leigh’ – that was his take, I might not put it like that. But I do like Loach’s documentaries, I think he’s really achieved things with them, though again he’s not best known as a documentary film-maker. I think he’s made, like, 27 documentaries or something. Then there’s people like Broomfield, Wiseman.

NY : Broomfield’s technique couldn’t be much more different from yours.

PH : Sometimes he goes a bit over the top.

NY : What’s the perception of documentary film in Poland, are they viewed as somehow inferior to a fictional film from somebody like Wajda?

PH : If it’s good, there’s no reason why it can’t carry the same weight.

NY : What could be done to raise the profile of documentaries in the west?

PH : I don’t know – it’s just the cinema system, in a way. In Poland, up until the 80s, if you went to see a feature film you would see two or three ten or fifteen minute documentaries before the main feature came up, and that’s a great thing. Instead of showing all these trailers. If there could be some way of harnessing production and allowing short film to be shown before features in the cinema, that would be a very good thing. And there’s nothing old-fashioned about that, that would be a good way of doing it. In Britain or the west in general, the smaller cinemas are falling fast, they’re few and far between.

NY : Even the independent cinemas don’t show that many documentaries.

PH : Exactly.

NY : In terms of current documentaries, are there any which stand out for you?

PH : There was a Russian film called Day of Bread, which was actually shown on British TV. That’s so far removed, on one level, from any way of life that we know – it’s about the bread delivery to this little village in the middle of nowhere. I have a lot of friends who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in documentary, but they raved about having seen this on TV. If someone from an entirely different culture is able to find something in such a documentary just by watching something on TV, that means something, doesn’t it.

NY : What comes next for you?

PH : I’m now pitching a six-part documentary series which is supposed to be a co-production among various European countries. That’s going through at the moment. There’s currently a surfeit of Polish children available for adoption, and a lot of European couples are coming to Poland to adopt, so the film would follow these couples who come from a variety of different backgrounds and cultures.

NY : You’ll stay in Lodz?

PH : For the time being. I’m also writing a script for a half-hour fiction film which will be my diploma film at the film-school, which I hope to shoot back in England, also as a co-production. It’s about a group of young people who allow a situation to get beyond their control, it’s about an accident, but it’s born out of this kind of energy when young people are in that transitional phase when things can easily get out of hand, given the right circumstances, or the right mistake.

NY : Do you plan to alternate between fiction and documentary – or don’t you make a distinction?

PH : I do make a distinction, but not exclusively. I do think they’re closer than you think – I’ve realised that while making Volcano. People always say that if you want to make a good fictional film you’ve got to have something that comes from the heart, so the script should deal with something that you know, or that you’ve been close to, something you’ve lived through. The same thing is true for documentaries – you don’t recognise the mechanisms, the features of certain relationships unless you’ve experienced them hands on, you have to know what you’re looking at, at least.

NY : You don’t see yourself as some kind of standard-bearer for the documentary tradition?

PH : Absolutely not, no, I would like to do both kinds of films. I’m not a flagship for ‘dissent’ within wider circles. The origins of cinema exist in documentary cinema, the idea of document, if you go back to those shots of trains, and boats sailing out to sea, and knocking a wall down. That’s right there from the very beginning, and I think that, since cinema is so young, it would be a bit foolhardy to abandon those traditions. You’ve got this inter-highway, this motorway of fiction films, and then this bicycle path of documentary film-makers at the side.

NY : But there are more cycle-paths around than there were before – do you see documentaries as something that will always be encouraged by funding bodies.

PH : I think it will. The most positive thing I take from this experience is that actually this film is about very simple truths, human truths and values – that’s what I realised as I was editing it, I was dealing with nothing less than just those things that we know. When we see them, they seem so new, but there’s nothing new in them at all.

It just goes to show – it’s not like this Big Brother way, that kind of ‘forced observation’, that way of looking at people, this display, a play between characters in a given situation when everybody knows that’s what it’s about. I have no illusions that cinema is based on an illusion, that’s what you’re watching, and it’s structured and edited, and a matter of the film-maker’s choice – but film-makers have never had any other option than to choose.

NY : Is there a Polish Big Brother on TV?
PH : It’s called Wielki Brat.

NY : Is there any similarity between what you were doing and that programme, in terms of having a camera in a house for a period of time, observing the goings-on, the fights, etc?

PH : There’s certainly a lot of differences. I think the difference is that I engage with these people on an emotional level, and that show’s so flimsy it’s almost beyond belief. And of course there was no cash prize for my family. And none of them were eliminated from the house if they didn’t do what I wanted.

NY : When it’s shown, they’ll become celebrities in Poland.

PH : They might become slightly well-known. If that was happening while I was shooting, people can become transfixed by their own idea of what they’re doing and saying. I was careful to avoid showing them any of the footage while I was shooting, and I was only consulting with a couple of other people outside.

NY : They trusted you, really.

PH : They did, and let’s be clear – I was telling them what I was doing and negotiating the situation, and was there often simply without the camera.

NY : Were you aware of the BBC and Australian programmes which followed a certain family – both of them caused major problems. These were long-running series, on prime time, but were there any parallels?

PH : I entered a situation which was already hyper-tense, which was all the time developing. There’s always that worry that you’ll damage someone, or hurt someone, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about those programmes. They’ve actually said it’s helped a lot, they’ve said have calmed down in the house.

2002, Windy Echo Inc.

by Neil Young
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