We’re proud to have funded Ania Mokrzycka’s latest film, паліць [paˈlʲit͡sʲ], a homonym meaning ‘to burn’ in Polish and ‘to water’ in Belarusian. This delicate juxtaposition permeates the film, conveying a constant balancing act between ancient and modern, the natural world and human industry, connection and disconnect and ultimately, coexistence.
Białowieża Forest is situated on the border between Belarus and Poland. The huge, sprawling forest is one of the last remaining parts of ancient woodland that once covered Europe and is home to over 12,000 of the world’s most fragile species and habitats. Over the last decade, severe threats to the forest have increased: extensive logging, climate change and now a concrete and razor-wire wall built along its border. Its primary function: to block migrants fleeing the Middle East and Asia. The wall divides the Forest, as well as blocking animal routes and displacing wildlife.
The film explores this borderland using the forest itself as the protagonist and storyteller, observing the borders as zones of constant transition. It sees every living being as both indigenous and migrant, challenging the dominant narratives surrounding the territory. As the forest is split in half, the film shares its stories in both Polish and Belarusian, reflecting the dual heritage of the land and the importance of coexistence.
We sat down with the visionary filmmaker to discuss her inspirations, previous artistic exploits and how her upbringing affected her artwork today.
Where did you grow up, and do you think this has affected your work?
I grew up across a few flats in different parts of Krakow city centre – it was the early 90s in Poland and everything was in a state of transition. This included my parents’ relationship and when they divorced, I continued moving with my mother, finally settling in an early 20th century flat facing a park and a tiny art-house cinema and VHS/DVD rental store around the corner. I became obsessed with independent Czech films (and Czech writers supplied to me by my mother). I think that was maybe the beginning of my romance with images and development of a specific aesthetic sensitivity, but also a very formative experience in thinking about themes still somehow present or influencing my work, such as memory and forgetting, identity, exile, eroticism and power.
What drew you to use the medium of film to create this work?
My background is in analogue photography and making this film was a long-awaited opportunity for me to progress into the realm of celluloid. Tactility really drives my work; when I can I always choose to work with physical material, be it film, clay or printed matter. There is also something about the 16mm format that confuses the sense of time and the origins of presented images. I was interested in how I could use it to tease out this idea of multi-temporality that runs through the project.
Can you give me a brief overview of what your film is about and what attracted you to this topic?
The film is an extension of an ongoing inquiry into landscape as a collective psyche; a site where distant and immediate pasts, shared histories and traumas manifest themselves in relation to the environment, triggering new intimacies and kinships between the human and non-human bodies. While my curiosity around BIalowieza National Forest dates way back, it was the current humanitarian and ecological border crisis that urged me to make this work at this moment in time. I was interested in the charged histories of the territory marked by a series of repressions, persecutions and ecological destruction. Through [paˈljit͡sj] I wanted to affirm the often invisible scars and legacies, shared between the forest’s human and non-human inhabitants, as well as search for new and existing kinships and ontologies informed by ideas of care and co-dependence. Alongside my own inquiry into interspecies relations, a lot of my thinking was informed by conversations with Jakub, a retired dendrologist and poet living at the edge of the forest and one of the film’s protagonists. They revolved around a need for a paradigm shift in thinking about the interrelations of ecology and politics in shaping our understanding of the land. [paˈljit͡sj] sees every living being as both indigenous and migrant and borders as zones of transition and interaction. It is aware of historical records, but turns to soil as a depository of memory and knowledge.
How did you find the process of creating this film? Did you learn anything about yourself or your creative process along the way?
I had been drawn to this land for a long time. My stepfather’s grandfather Otton Hedemann worked there extensively and wrote the first comprehensive study of the forest in 1934, which we have at home. I heard stories and visited BNP with my family, then learnt about Simona Kossak, a biologist, who spent 35 years making kin with wild animals and fighting for the protection of the forest. In 2022 I visited BNP and the Mammal Research Institute on a research trip funded by a cultural institution in Poland. I met Jakub and Anna through a family connection and became immediately drawn to the microcosm of their home and garden. Slowly, things were falling into place as I found a more personal angle beyond objective fascination – I felt connected to the work. In the process of making the film itself I learnt so much on personal, professional and existential levels that to describe it is way beyond the confines of this interview. Most importantly, it reminded me to be attentive to detail, to trust myself and to truly listen to others, both human and non-human. And strengthened my resilience against ‘failures’ and mistakes.
What do you think motivates you to create your work in general?
I find it quite difficult to put into words, and maybe that’s why, parallel to writing practice, a lot of my work seems to explore communication beyond linguistics. I think making is very intuitive for me, which does not mean it is always easy. Even though my process is research-driven, I always need an affective connection with my subject matter, a material or a particular space.
Who are your biggest influences?
I guess my influences don’t necessarily all feed directly into my work. They function more as cues mobilising different ways of seeing, conjuring specific images, sensitivities, emotions, knowledges, reactions, methodologies, desires. They also range widely. Cinema is a big one, with filmmakers such as Lucile Hadžihalilović, Céline Sciama, Claire Denis, Jacques Rivette, Andrzej Żuławski, Sally Potter, Agnes Varda, Leos Carax and many many more. Then there are other artists, many of them my friends, and musicians. This year I went to see this band from the USA I didn’t know before at Cafe Oto, called Tongue Depressor. The music was incredible, and it made me want to shoot a new film scored by them. Funnily enough I imagined it as a kind of imaginary-period work, something I have never done before.
How has your style developed over time?
With time my approach to making became much more process-driven. It evolves through writing, embodied research and sometimes collaborative experiments with other artists. I learnt to embrace the fluid nature of my work, its coherences and incoherences, shifting across mediums and leaving things open-ended.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Cinema, literature, sea and forest.
Where is your sanctuary?
My bed with my two cats. And a damp, dark, mossy forest.
Where are you currently based? Does this have any effect on your artistic practise?
I am based in London, but at the moment I am in a residency at Est-Nord-Est in Quebec, Canada. It is located where the salty and sweet waters meet in the St Lawrence river, with which I will be working while here. For me London is home, and I need stability and my studio to work, but at the same time a lot of my projects take me outside of the city. I am very excited and curious what the two months at ENE will bring.
What are your creative plans for the rest of this year, do you have anything lined up that you can share with us?
This year was very intense for me, with a lot of projects and a lot happening in my personal life. I mostly want to take time now and focus on my work with the St Lawrence river. Having said that, I do want to start thinking about showing the finished film. I am also currently in the planning stages for a 3-person exhibition in London at the beginning of next year and a duo-show outside of Europe.
What are your hopes for the future? (both artistic and otherwise)
I hope that we, as a western society, will find space to learn to pay attention and listen in ways that will help us undo a lot of ingrained patterns of behaviour and systemic violence, searching for new ways of knowing, living and relating.
Why did you reach out to The Responsa Foundation in particular? How did you find the process of working with us?
I was introduced to the Foundation by a friend of mine, its ethos aligning with my project’s aims to challenge dominant, hostile narratives surrounding the territory I wanted to explore. The support was extremely encouraging and invaluable – I would not be able to make this film without it.
Through Ania’s careful direction, the story of the forest is mindfully captured; beautifully navigating the cultural, social, ecological and political entanglements it finds itself in. Ultimately seeking to create new ways of relating and surviving within a scarred and traumatised landscape.
Director: Ania Mokrzycka
Voice and Poetry: Jakub & Anna Dolatowscy
Movement: Karolina Kraczkowska
Camera: Barbara Kajakaniewska
Sound and Mastering: Miko Szatko
Colour: Lita Bosch
Production Support: Sotiris Gonis
Research Support: Tomasz Samojlik