“I believe that people of this kind, people who are incompatible with a given political regime, but simultaneously have the courage to sound the alarm, regardless of the pressure and dangers they might face, can change the world. Still, remain pessimistic,” says Agnieszka Holland, whose latest film, Mr. Jones, opened the 44th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia.
Mateusz Demski: The 1930s. A Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, travels to Moscow and further onto Kharkov. He sees the consequences of the Great Famine and decides to reveal the truth to the world. Meanwhile, Soviet propaganda censors all information from the affected areas, falsifies official historiography; all the while, the West turns a blind eye to avoid conflict with Moscow. Unfortunately, this sounds familiar. I would venture to say that it sounds almost contemporary.
Agnieszka Holland: Of course one cannot compare the 1930s and the contemporary moment, but more and more often we can see some analogies. The world, swept away by authoritarian populism, is turning its back on democracy. Propaganda mechanisms work in a similar way, except now we have a new element, i.e. the internet revolution, which is comparable – in my opinion – to the invention of the printing press or the great Industrial Revolution. These new ways of communication and information flows facilitate the dissemination of fake news and multiply divisions, inequalities and social dysfunction. I wanted Mr. Jones to provoke a discussion about the role media have to play today, as well as what the essence of journalism might be.
Exactly, your film is set in the past, but you get the impression that its message is close to our reality.
I did not want to limit myself to documenting tragic events from the past. The key questions that came up during production were terrifyingly current and focused on the here and now. Can journalists still actually change anything? Does their individual courage and dedication, which allows them to reveal a given regime or even democratic authorities’ inconvenient truths, have sufficient strength?
And what answers did you find?
We must understand that such stubbornness in the pursuit of truth did not die along with Gareth Jones. Each year, dozens of journalists around the world die under similar circumstances. The death of the Slovakian investigative reporter Ján Kuciak [who pursued the relationship between the Slovak prime minister and the Italian mafia – ed. note] a year ago in Slovakia led to the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism, and a change in the political condition in the country. As a result, Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned from office, and Zuzana Čaputová – a character completely incompatible with traditional Slovak politics – was elected president. I believe that people of this kind, people who are incompatible with a given political regime, but simultaneously have the courage to sound the alarm, regardless of the pressure and dangers they might face, can change the world. Still, I remain pessimistic. In many cases, their sacrifice cannot change anything. And they are soon forgotten.
In Mr. Jones – just like in your miniseries Burning Bush about Jan Palach, a Czech student of history and political economy who in 1969 set himself on fire in protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops – a gesture of disagreement and sacrifice prove to be an important reference point for future generations. This indicates that one man, an ordinary citizen, can inspire mass protests.
When it comes to Palach, it turned out possible, but only after some time. The Velvet Revolution really began with Palach Week in Prague – a series of mass peaceful demonstrations on the 20th anniversary of his death. They were organized by people who were not even born when he self-immolated at Wenceslas Square. Suddenly, it turned out that he is a national hero whose radical heroism could become the foundation for some new beginning.
I mentioned Palach for a reason – I notice some resemblance here. The memory of Jan Palach was hidden and repressed for years, and the Czechs had to wait for decades for a film about him and the Prague Spring. Likewise with Gareth Jones and the Great Famine in Ukraine. Again, you focus on telling the story of an almost forgotten tragedy.
It is an important matter. We mentioned the eponymous journalist and his great courage, which clearly relates to the present, but we must remember that the theme of Mr. Jones is also the tragedy of the Holodomor. Andrea Chalupa, the American journalist who brought this project to me, is of Ukrainian origin. The Great Famine remains an important part of her family history. Andrea’s grandfather witnessed this nightmare and was among those who testified for hours before the American Congress about what had happened in Ukraine. In her book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum quotes his testimony. Andrea talked to her grandfather many times about that time. She heard about people starving to death, the incidents of cannibalism, and what it was like to read Orwell’s Animal Farm in the DP camp. Ukrainians were convinced that this was an allegory of the world they knew so well. In the camp, they translated the book, which is why the first foreign-language edition to appear was in Ukrainian. Because of this, we included the meeting between Jones and Orwell in the script.
Even though several million people died, Stalin’s propaganda machine obscured the existence and scale of the Great Famine. One could say it remains a shameful topic that the West has not yet worked through to this day. How is this instance of genocide treated in Ukraine?
The Great Famine is one of the foundations of Ukrainian national identity. To a large extent, the Ukrainian people today are trying to construct a sense of community on the basis of this martyrdom, injury and suffering. For a long time, the Holodomor was not discussed – not only because of the censorship and the fear of repression you just mentioned, but also because it was considered an awfully humiliating experience. It is a bit like the Holocaust. Jews who survived the extermination – with few exceptions – did not share their experiences until the early 1980s. Israel considered this subject a traumatic legacy that weakened their community. Over time, both Jews and Ukrainians understood that the victims of totalitarianism couldn’t be considered in terms of symbols of dignity or heroism, because their deaths did not have any deeper meaning and were simply the result of senseless evil. But they also understood that empathy for the victims and solidarity with the victims could indeed strengthen the community. The memory of the Holocaust and the Holodomor eventually became a warning against what might happen in the future.
I get the impression that such history lessons are of little use. Our world is immersed in constant conflict and there is no indication that we could indeed learn anything from past mistakes.
When I made films about the Holocaust, I had the impression that the war never came to an end. That it merely dozed off for a moment. As a matter of fact, Janusz Korczak told children stories about how the war fell asleep for a moment, and then suddenly woke up. The 1940s experience was a vaccine for the countries of Western democracy. However, as we have seen over the past few years, its expiry date is approaching and it is losing its strength. We live in a century of great conflicts. Indiscernibly, World War I evolved into World War II, and World War II immediately turned into the Cold War. Now everything seems to indicate that we are facing a conflict of an even more complex and complicated nature. The range of challenges facing humanity has expanded dramatically. Globalization, the online revolution, the return of populism and fascism, the power of large corporations, demographic changes resulting from the emancipation of women in Western societies, and above all the climate crisis have already reached a global scale that exceeds our reason. The result of the intensifying extreme weather phenomena will most likely be unimaginable migration that will make the recent refugee crisis seem like nothing. North Africa will flee drought into Europe. All this will leave a lasting impression on our societies.
Just to go back to the start of our conversation: can we even talk about objective media messages in a world dominated by ignorance, cynicism, corruption, intimidation and the ruling party’s pervasive control over the state?
We must distinguish between two issues: truth and values. If we focus on the truth, then we should remember that the only way to measure it is empirically. For example, there are scientific facts proving that the Earth is not flat, that vaccines do not cause autism, and that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. On the other hand, values such as equality, fraternity, freedom, respect, faith or democracy are indeed just values that we must agree on. Of course, we can create conditions in which people with differing opinions in these fields would be able to coexist, but that would not be convenient for today’s populist politicians. They prefer to build their position upon deep divisions, aggression and fear, and thus on the negation of truths and values inconvenient for their political formations. And so Donald Trump lies every time he takes a breath, and our prime minister Morawiecki lies to our faces, promising to resolve all the world’s problems so that Poles will prove to be most important. No wonder people follow them. After all, they tell us that they know what to do to make life easier, to hide behind walls and avoid the threats of the contemporary world.
This is why some say we are entering the “era of post-truth”.
Post-truth has existed since long before the advent of the internet. This is primarily about the democratization of the information flow. Once this flow is no longer legally regulated, it becomes dangerous. The inability to verify the authenticity of a given message provokes a situation where everything may or may not be true. In the era of social media, each absurd thesis acquires real features through mere online multiplication. For example, the LGBT community and the first Equality March in Białystok. It all began ‘innocently’ enough, with the statement that homosexuals are a “threat” to “real Poles.” Later, a ridiculous notion about early “sexualization” of children and the need to defend “the Polish family” emerged. Finally, all this escaped the hands of politicians who wanted to use it to gain advantage in the upcoming elections, and a real tragedy almost occurred. Members of various right-wing, nationalist and Catholic environments beat up innocent people. They swore, spat and threw stones at them. All this with prayers on their lips and with rosaries in their hands. Blood was shed, but miraculously no one was fatally wounded.
And do you believe that a film about Gareth Jones – a hero from half a century ago – has a chance of getting through to the contemporary viewer and changing something? In a word: can it help us escape this trap as soon as possible?
History likes to update itself, and the present and the past are increasingly intertwined. For example, The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood wrote this book in 1985, but at that time it met with moderate interest. A few years later Volker Schlöndorff filmed it, with Natasha Richardson in the title role accompanied by Robert Duvall, and yet the film was a flop. Recently, a HBO series based on the same book was created, and it turned out that this story is so relevant and current that it can become extremely popular around the globe. People only understood this dystopian vision once Donald Trump was elected president and the great protest marches of women in the US took place. The characteristic red dresses that women now wear out to the streets are a clear symbol of solidarity and resistance – resistance against authority that wants to take away our rights, and solidarity with all women around the world. For the same reason, Mr. Jones was created. The time has come when Gareth’s story is intertwined with our fears and experiences.
Born in Warsaw in 1948, a film director and screenwriter. She is one of the leading figures in European and world cinema. At the start of her career, Holland was cited among the creators of the Polish “cinema of moral anxiety” thanks to films such as Provincial Actors (1979) and A Lonely Woman (1981). Besides films, she has also worked on television series such as House of Cards, The Wire, and Treme. The winner of, among others, a Golden Globe for the film Europa, Europa (1990), a Golden Lion at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival for In Darkness (2011), and a Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival for Spoor (2017). Since January 2014, she has been chair of the European Film Academy in Berlin.
This interview was originally conducted in Polish and translated by Joanna Figiel