Interview with Joanna Grudzinska
Your first feature film, Révolution École 1918-1939, retraces the history of alternative teaching methods between the wars. What inspired you to make Tout de moi ne disparaîtra pas which evokes the life and work of the Polish poetess Zuzanna Ginczanka ?
Zuzanna Ginczanka had been forgotten for a long time, then resurfaced at the end of the 1990s, and with her came other forgotten fates of the “disappeared” Polish Jews. As a poet, she documented her disappearance for anyone who took an interest, and her world as a young girl in Poland in the 1920’s and 30’s is brought back to life in her writing. So, it represents a very rare testimony of a young woman in a country, which combines different influences, the product of a culture which led to her disappearance and murder. These processes of appearing and disappearing, even for me, as I had also forgotten about her, fascinated me. Like a “dybbuk” (demon in a body), she seemed to haunt the world, and to be a paradigm in Polish history, as a woman, a Jew and a poetess.
How did you develop the script with Maya Haffar, which begins with the story of the end of her life, linked to historical research alongside documents, drawings, photos, readings and actresses?
The more we read the poems and pieced together the fragments of her life they recounted, the more we felt it was impossible to reduce her to a victim of the Shoah by telling her story chronologically. On the other hand, if we started from the end, from her death, and retraced the course of her life, like the course of a river, we would come across mysteries unexplored in terms of the narrative. By proceeding anti-chronologically, we unravelled the logic of history, and therefore of history’s memory, which had excluded her. Her transgressive identity found pertinence in this non-historical form. In the editing process, with Rodolphe Molla, everything took on a whole new meaning, because we kept to the script (to its structure): if everything is told “backwards”, then everything “happens” – document and fiction move forward together. Since the war began, the whole of Ukraine has taken on a different magnitude, the time frames are different once again, the Second World War, which was over before February 24th, is undergoing a kind of update, a historical shift.
How did you approach the sequences with the historians and the literary researcher?
The historian of the Chominowa trial archives, the whistle-blower, belongs to a historical trend: the “new school of the Shoah”, which examines the destinies of Polish Jews in the light of their micro-histories, their accounts, which have long been ignored, and which are very explicit about the reality of the treatment they received from the Poles. Today, it is a trend that is under attack from the far-right government that has been in power for the past seven years, and refuses to be “ashamed”, – they are backtracking on major historiographical findings. Her poem Non Omnis Moriar, Zuzanna describes how she was denounced, and recounts the heartbreak of the general betrayal she experienced. That this poem ended up as an exhibit in a trial and at the centre of this story for a long time is the historical significance of her work.
Was it also a challenge to make her poems come alive and resonate in the cinema?
Zuzanna Ginczanka’s poetry has great performative power. The poet addresses her readers directly and wholeheartedly. Zuzanna herself was a performer, often arriving at parties in disguise and was a prominent figure in Warsaw nightlife. I rediscovered my native language through her, its irony, its beauty, and above all its rhythm. Her poems give rhythm to the film, her rhythm. I bet that she lives on in many Polish women today, I also bet I’d find her nestled inside teenage girls who live where she grew up, in Rivne, Ukraine, and I believed these bets. I was curious about their voices, about what they would say about Zuzanna like ventriloquists.
How did you choose the staging and the texts?
We started with the Ukrainian translation of Zuzanna Ginczanka’s poems, written when she was a young woman in Polish in these places. They retrace her journey in a literal way, which took me to the village where she grew up and wrote poems, like Virginity and Woman, at the tender age of 15. There I met teenagers in a drama class and brought her to their attention. That’s when I first heard Russian and Ukrainian in her poems and the lilting melody of these languages.
What were your guidelines for the scenes played by Agnieszka Przepiórska? Were the rehearsals in the theatre with other actresses improvised?
The Polish theatre scene is very rich, there is a very strong and established tradition of excellence and freedom. Agnieszka Przepiórska was putting on a play about Zuzanna Ginczanka, she was already performing it. I wanted to work with her as a cinematic counterfoil to her theatrical work, to work on the fragments, the moments of intimacy. On the other hand, in terms of the theatre scenes, I wanted to get the actresses to perform the poetess in an abstract place, without any references. We locked ourselves up for a while with Zuzanna’s texts, her poems but also chronicles, aphorisms, little dialogues that she published in magazines, and we ‘circulated’ these writings, tried things out, and filmed it.
The various different towns and places have an important role in the unfolding narrative. To what extent did they allow you to get closer to the life of the young poetess?
The country Zuzanna travelled through no longer exists. It is Poland between the wars, the only sovereign period for the country between the empires and the Eastern bloc. It is a country between present-day Poland and present-day Ukraine. To meet Zuzanna, it was necessary to revive a vanished country with a shifting, wavering identity.
Could you tell us about your musical choices, in particular the work with the writer and composer Julien Ribot, and using the Mansfield.TYA song ?
I worked with Julien Ribot as I was starting to write the film. We were looking for a musical backdrop, an additional language that would take the era into account and speak of the emotional force of the poetess and her love. As for the Mansfield.TYA track Ni morte ni connue (Neither Dead nor Well-Known), it was during the editing process that we discovered it. We had this dance scene with the actresses, electrified by this shoot in the middle of a pandemic! The song expresses the hardness and energy of these months that Zuzanna went through, months of creativity, meetings, solitude… Even the title is ideal: “Neither dead nor well known”.
In the final sequence, during a demonstration in Warsaw in 2020 for abortion rights, demonstrators are brandishing a portrait of Zuzanna Ginczanka and one of her poems is read out. Her work seems to resonate in Poland right now and its poetic and political force remains intact.
There are demonstrations every day and I was the one who invoked the portrait and the poem The Revolt of the 15-year-old Girls, where she calls for ‘biological rights’ and an end to hypocrisy. For the demonstrators, it was a no-brainer. Women’s rights are still not respected in Poland today and are being rolled back as we know, to match those on the other side of the Atlantic. Her anger and dismay are shared by us.
Interviewed by Olivier Pierre