FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Michal Bielawski, Director of THE WIND. A DOCUMENTARY THRILLER
March 11, 2020
In THE WIND. A DOCUMENTARY THRILLER, director Michal Bielawski captures the Halny wind cycles, which surge through the mountains of Polandevery spring and autumn—one never knows if or when the Halny will turn into a destructive gale. When the wind arrives, people become more anxious and aggressive, drink significantly more alcohol, suffer adverse health conditions, and suicide rates reach their highest level. In the small community of Zakopane, residents are terrorized by the windstorm as it transforms picturesque mountain trails into a stage for a performance of human struggle against the destructive forces of nature.
SFF Blog contributor Connor Ryan spoke with Bielawski ahead of the festival – THE WIND A DOCUMENTARY THRILLER screens during Week 2 of our virtual Salem Film Fest and tickets can be purchased here.
Note: This interview contains mentions of suicide and domestic violence.
Connor Ryan: This is your fifth film. How does The Wind compare to your previous work? In what ways does it differ?
Michal Bielawski: Before this project, my focus was mostly on historical topics. My first film was a result of very long preparation, historical research, many interviews, unique archives and shaped storyline. That first film was a success – my colleagues from television were astonished that I did much more than someone who works with television is supposed to. That was a start of a new profession for me. In all other projects I was looking how to expand my skills as a documentarist. Initially, I thought I would just play it safe and conduct interviews with selected protagonists. I am very happy I didn’t do that. THE WIND was totally a different experience. I had to learn a lot, understand how accessing characters for observatory documentary differs from an interview based story. I had to really know my characters to be able to project their possible steps in the story. Build a lot of alternatives for scenes, try to stimulate characters but not manipulate them in order to get some important behavior from them, see how that appears in front of camera. I would say that this work was a true film school for me.
CR: How did you come by this project? Had you heard of the halny wind before?
I was approached by producer Maciej Kubicki some time ago. He signaled that he has “something that would interest me”. He was building that tension and mystery around project that he keeps for me, for a while and when we’ve finally met he told me that there is still not a real film about Halny wind, and maybe I would like to try to do it… it sounded great and that’s what I told him. I thought that it is worth a lot of risk. I also thought that I knew something about Halny wind—like most of the people in Poland, because that’s very famous wind here, almost a legend. From that moment I started to collect stories about it. I was told by a judge that the number of crimes committed grows because of Halny. But what is interesting here, is the fact that violence occurs right before it starts to blow, not during. But there are many elements connected to Halny closing: not only domestic violence but also heavy drinking and suicidal incidents.
CR: How did you prepare to tackle so large a subject? How did you plan/organize around a meteorological phenomenon? How long did it take to make this film? What were some of the challenges?
MB: It took us 5 years from the beginning to end. I started with concept of another movie and I felt that it might go easy if the film will be treated like my other work—through good archives that would picture famous historical winds. So, at the beginning I believed that it would make sense to spend enough time in libraries, reading all that was printed about that wind. I focused on that, but after some time I realized that it wasn’t the right way. A very crucial decision was the search for a cinematographer. We felt that it had to be someone from Zakopane city which is the biggest town in Tatra mountains and usually the first and the most troubled place by Halny wind. Fortunately I found someone. Bartek Solik, very talented photographer from Zakopane, who in that time, collaborated with Tatra National Park making short films for them. With his skills and knowledge about mountains, Bartek became the most important crew member. Another element of preparation was settling good relations with national meteorological institution, so they kept us informed about all weather changes in the Zakopane area. During these several years of work I’ve witnessed and filmed 5-6 Halny winds. The most important issue was communication with characters before and during the wind, so we knew with whom it seemed to be the most interesting and the other important issue was our safety, because these conditions were quite heavy.
CR: How did you meet the four characters you follow?
MB: First we started with Teresa, the poet—
thanks to our cinematographer, Bartek Solik. He knew her already, because once, he photographed her for a newspaper. When I said that it would be great to have someone who is living between rational and metaphysical he immediately pointed to her. And Teresa loved while idea. Staszek, the “windmill guy” inherited metal frame of his future windmill from his neighbor also photographed by Bartek. We worked with both of them almost the whole filming. Ewa, the paramedic was the third paramedic in my film, she seemed to be totally different from the others, very modern, focused and motivated. I must confess that when I asked her if she could compare her life to the Halny wind she answered in very convincing way: sure, you should come and see us when I go to work… So, we did and filmed it. The meteorologist was chosen because he stays in remote and alienated place, in very old wooden hut, and I also found him very photogenic, with a look of mountain hippie. It created very interesting cocktail of personalities and places.
CR: Some of the scenes have a real sense of danger. How did you prepare for them? Did you have any rules about when you’d stop filming and seek shelter?
MB: In general we were trying to keep away from danger but finally, when the wind came someone had to film all that material. Before that, we were talking and talking with my producer about security, thinking about special metal cages for cameras, special gear for cinematographer, how to react, what will be the limit… and that was for hours. But then, when the first Halny came we were taken almost by surprise, with our costly insurance in our hands and a lot of tension that we have to work a lot right now. It ended up quite badly for me, because after few hours I started to suffer from severe migraine. First night went well, we were following fireman squad by car into the forest where trees were literally breaking into our heads. Cinematographer, Bartek had some concerns, but we decided that we have to film but the next day we will organize at least special helmets from fireman to protect ourselves. And it ended up in an unexpected way—for whole second night, our helmets were traveling in the trunk of another car and something else happened: when I watched the material I heard my voice saying: “guys, I suppose we leave now…” All these experiences helped us a lot while we were filming the last Halny—we entered the forest following our character and we filmed her in extreme weather without hesitation.
CR: None of your characters address the experience of living through the Halny directly. Was this a conscious choice on your part? How do you think it shapes the film’s message?
MB: The uniqueness of Halny wind is connected to the very wide and various experience people have with it. Some feel edgy and go for a drink and after few more glasses they get into a fight—there are so many calls to the police when Halny is coming. Some others become violent, hurt close ones or animals—you can hear about it from their neighbors. Almost everyone who calls emergency number 112 is already in specific state of mind, because of their circumstances might have very dark thoughts and become suicidal.
CR: There are a few moments that have almost a playful feel to them, (e.g. a boy on crutches jumps on a trampoline; Teresa and her husband argue about the car seat). Were these moments serendipitous, or did you look for them specifically? How necessary do you think moments of comedy are in relation to such a large, daunting subject?
MB: Generally, I believe that comic elements make the story more credible. These particular scenes were caught accidentally while we were filming other things. The dispute between Teresa and her husband happened because something was in the air already—Teresa was going to present herself on public and that wasn’t easy for her husband, who believes and cultivates traditional, patriarchal model in which the man is in the spotlight. The scene with a boy jumping on trampoline is a long story. When I was trying to work with doctor from hospital in Zakopane I suggested that she might visit Staszek—that’s part of her routine, so it might have happened anyway. The scene with Staszek and doctor didn’t work great, but she discovered that Staszek’s grandson has one leg that shorter than the other and she send him to hospital for examination. The orthopedist discovered that boy has some problems with growth of his acetabular cup (in his hip) and he was told to walk on crutches for almost a year. The moment when he started to jump on trampoline was funny and bitter in the same time, because he really wanted to be like other kids. The cinematographer took notice of this moment while we were preparing to shoot a scene with a rooster. Later, my editor Hubert Pusek felt in love with that scene and we felt that sort of scene works very well before something dramatic approaching.
CR: While some characters suffer from the effects of Halny, others seem almost to thrive in its environment. How does this contribute to the message of the film?
MB: There aren’t many who thrive in it, but you can find people whom wind gives a kick. Some of them look for inspiration like Teresa or like Staszek, who wishes to transform that immense energy into something else—maybe useful electricity. I heard from a man who works as a mountain rescuer that for him working during Halny was uplifting. I think that experience of Halny is very complex and I wanted to show many different facets of it. When I worked on the film, I focused a lot on translating the experience of the wind onto the screen and the message was always connected with it, but became clear during editing process. I guess my film is about the way nature is shaping people lives and that life itself has repetitive circles. It is tragic and very human that people leaving in severe conditions fall and get up to prepare for another hit. Somehow all characters and the way their stories turn out in the film are proof of it.
THE WIND. A DOCUMENTARY THRILLER screens in Week 2 of our virtual Salem Film Fest and tickets may be purchased here.