Agnieszka Holland
        Photo by Jacek Poremba

In advance of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony on February 24, 2019, PEN America’s Eurasia Project Director Polina Kovaleva speaks to Academy Award-nominated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland on artistic freedom, the international film community, and her advice for young filmmakers. Kovaleva and Holland also discuss the importance of advocating for censored or imprisoned artists, including Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, and Turkish film directors Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu.

POLINA KOVALEVA: Your movies tend to contain political statements, exploring themes ranging from feminism to ecology to religion, etc. Do you believe politics are intrinsic to artistic expression, and what role do you feel political repression plays in that relationship between art and politics?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: I don’t think that filmmakers or artists in general have to be political, that it is a duty—it depends on the situation, on the temperament, on the way they see the world. I think that you have to be free in your artistic expression, and being free also means that you may avoid political issues. But I also think that the time comes when it is difficult to be only an artist, or only a filmmaker, and also be a citizen and to have to see what’s going on in the world and react to that. Of course, it’s my personal opinion. I will be certain to not dictate to other people what they have to do. I think this dangerously flies towards propaganda, even very noble propaganda, but still propaganda. I personally am interested in political issues. They are important to me; I see how much they influence human life, and for me it’s totally natural to make political subjects the subjects of my movies.

KOVALEVA: I’m also interested in the American film and literary community, which is very influential, it’s not a secret. What responsibility do they have in speaking out against issues of censorship in foreign countries? How would you suggest that filmmakers, screenwriters, and others can be involved in advocating for freedom of speech even if they themselves might not have experienced censorship directly in their own country?

HOLLAND: Filmmakers and artists and writers altogether have a bigger duty toward society than just ordinary people, because they have to feel and see more than somebody who is doing another job, whatever it is. And when you see something you have to react. So, in times like now, when the wave of populism is growing and different kinds of totalitarian regimes strengthen, the filmmakers or writers have to react. This is a moment when we cannot just lock ourselves in our comfort zone, in our bubble, and believe that we have to speak only on what concerns us. I think that in times like now, we have to be very vigilant and very careful, and try to point out any case of human and artistic rights violated. Because we have the voice, and we have the audience. And this voice and this audience put us in a responsible position. We cannot neglect this responsibility.

“This is a moment when we cannot just lock ourselves in our comfort zone, in our bubble, and believe that we have to speak only on what concerns us.”

Take, for example, those filmmakers who are imprisoned, like Oleg Sentsov in Russia, or if they are on trial, like two documentary filmmakers in Turkey right now. They are on trial and they are at risk to go to prison because they did the film! The point of the accusations for the Turkish regime is the film. It’s not only censorship. It’s more than that. They not only banned the film but they want to imprison the filmmakers. I cannot imagine that European and American filmmakers, living in more or less free countries, and not experiencing this kind of treatment, they will not react. We have to support those who are persecuted—for me, that is absolutely clear. If we are not doing it, we are just, I don’t know how to tell it, we are just terribly selfish. We are not exercising our responsibility.

KOVALEVA: Thank you for mentioning Oleg Sentsov. I would also name Kirill Serebrennikov who is under house arrest in Moscow under ridiculous embezzlement charges. Do you think that the American and European film communities can effectively collaborate on advocacy actions to make a difference in these cases, even when confronted with a regime as intransigent and resistant to international pressure as Putin’s?

HOLLAND: European filmmakers have been doing it from the very beginning. We are frustrated that with our voices we are unable to change Oleg’s situation or Kirill’s situation, but we feel that at least what we can do is to not forget them and to express our opinion and our support every time we have any kind of occasion, at all festivals, galas, or awards. It is in giving media interviews, in reminding about them on social media, and of course in supporting them financially. So this is the minimum duty we have, and it is our duty to be the voice of the voiceless.

But when I tried to get this kind of support in the American Academy, it didn’t pique their interest. It would be good to remind them that their voices can be heard, and that if they have this problem, then we, the filmmakers of the world, would do everything possible to give them our support. It’s something in this vocation, something in cinema, which is very international. We are all connected somehow. American cinema is very connected with European cinema and with cinema from other places. Alfonso Cuarón is Mexican, as are Guillermo del Toro and Iñárritu, Pawlikowski is Polish, Lanthimos is Greek. We are working in all countries, we are exchanging ideas, and we have to also be aware that we are some kind of family and we have to support each other. However, I don’t think that we have to express our opinion only if it concerns a filmmaker. I think that we have to defend freedom of speech or fight against censorship and fight against the violation of human rights as soon as we are aware of it, as filmmakers, as artists, as citizens—as human beings.

Oleg Sentsov

   Oleg Sentsov

KOVALEVA: Thank you, Agnieszka, for these beautiful words. My last question is about the contemporary response to some of your films in Poland. For example, your branding as a “targowiczanin,” or traitor, and the response to Spoor (Pokot), which was received by many journalists as anti-Poland, anti-Christian, and anti-ecology. Has it affected the way you produce art, the way you view other artists, or how you view your country?

HOLLAND: I am criticizing the current government and the current regime in Poland openly. It means there’s a lot of things that I don’t approve of, and that’s in the first place the destruction of the judiciary system in the country. They destroyed the checks and balances—it’s in a state practically of not existing or not functioning. The fact that they took over public media and turned it into some propaganda tool, that they tried to intervene in the cultural institutions, like museums or theaters, and they tried to change not only the heads of those institutions, but the content of those institutions according with their ideological purposes. It means they are changing history. They try to dictate what you have to write for the stage, and what you don’t. What concerns the cinema is money, and as a result politicians and national governments are using the tool of economic censorship. It means those who they like receive grants, and those who they don’t do not receive them. I cannot personally complain though: I received a grant for my last film, which was screened in Berlin recently. But I have been criticized by officials, by the minister of culture, for example, he several times has said pretty harsh words about me. But, you know, I don’t care so much. And yes, they try to discourage people, and many people who don’t have my freedom and my position internationally. They are afraid to say openly what they think. It’s important to note though that we are not in the situation of Russia, we are not in the situation of Turkey. This kind of unpleasant relationship between the power and the filmmaker or artist is unfortunate and it can complicate our lives, but it is not the same thing as being put on trial.

KOVALEVA: In this sense, what would your advice be for these young filmmakers who don’t have the same international acclaim as you?

HOLLAND: My advice will be—always be yourself. I don’t think that fear is good inspiration for a filmmaker. I don’t think you can be a good artist if you are not free at least with yourself. I am not giving the advice that you have to be courageous, or you have to sign this letter, or you have to express openly this opinion. I don’t think I have the right to do so. But I can show the example, I can act in some way and the people see it, and if they find it right and if they find it courageous, they can follow. I would like to be more the inspiration than somebody who is casting the rules.

KOVALEVA: Thank you.