At the Visions du Réel Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, Tara Karajica talked to Sławomir Batyra about his first documentary short film, “The Great Theatre”, that premiered in the International Competition – Shorts section.
Can you talk about your background?
Sławomir Batyra: Yes. Theatre directing is my first and foremost profession. I graduated from the Warsaw Academy of Theatre and then worked as a theatre director in Polish theatres. During my studies, we had a class called « Technology of Theatre » run by the very old professor Bojar who has been at the Polish National Theatre from the first day since it was rebuilt after the war. He spent there about fifty, or maybe more, years. Once a week we would walk through the corridors and the spaces of this building and this, of course, impressed me. But, I was trying to find my place in the Polish theatre because this is my first profession. I decided to make this movie a few years after this class.
What made you want to switch from theatre to film?
S. B.: Because I never studied filmmaking, I used my experience from the theatre. Whenever I talk to theatre and film directors, I get the impression that theatre directors, maybe because of the topic of the theatre, dig deeper. When you are preparing a play, its context is very wide. You use literature, fine arts… and you look for connections between different texts. And, this is the most beautiful thing about theatre because you are not only working on the text but also on the cultural context, symbols and other things.
I tried to do the same thing in my film. The first time I decided the most interesting thing at the Grand Theatre was its space, I also found captivating the staff – the peope working backstage, those invisible people that nobody can see what they do. So, I looked for metaphors and cultural context and decided to use the theatrum mundi topos, the motif that you can find in literature. I decided that this theatre is a great place to try and visualize this metaphor.
Of course, there were many outcomes of this type of thinking because, you know, if the theatre is the world, then we are the actors and everything that happens on stage every evening can be treated as (a) reality. Cio-cio-san who is the main character in the opera “Madama Butterfly”, fights for her love every evening and she fights with the same power every evening. But, the backstage people are the ones keeping the fate that is written in the script. So, she has her fate and her end has to be the same always and it works. This metaphor works in two ways. And then, we have another consequence; then we can think of this place as a portal to another reality, a portal that people are servicing all the time, cleaning, preparing and always at the same time – at 7pm – the other reality starts to take shape. And, if we think about it like this, we shot the footage as a strange portal or a spaceship…
So, that is what explains your aesthetic and approach as well as the reason why you chose to do this film like this and not in a conventional way, with dialogues, people talking about the theatre, with background and explanations, but more as sort of a very, let’s say, creepy place. I was wondering, because the premise of the story is people working behind-the-scenes in a big theatre, it must be very picturesque, lively and colorful but in your film it is not – it is very grey, very serious, austere…
S. B.: Yes…
Why did you choose to concentrate your film on this opera, not any other production ?
S. B.: There are only a few classical operas playing at the Grand Theatre and this is the one I like most. There are a lot of modern operas and they have very hard music. I like modern music very much but I was afraid that in the movie it would be too hard.
Would you consider directing an opera yourself one day ?
S. B.: No.
Why not ?
S. B.: Because I was working at some theatres in Poland, they had their permanent cast, director and audience and I was a little bored by it. It’s very hard to make something very interesting to me in theatre because even if the actors love your subject and your idea and the director says: “Yes, it’s great!”, the audience in some small city in Poland will not be interested in this because they want to watch something colorful and very attractive and my plays are not always like this.
And, at the Grand Theatre of Warsaw?
S. B.: Right now, no. I am into social theatre made by the people who are involved in some case – for example, some workers who have unions and problems at their plants. I really believe that one of the ways to protest is through staging a play about that because theatre can also be a medium. It was working in the 1930s as a medium for people who didn’t have their own mass media and they could not just explain to the people what their business and problems were so they fought thanks to theatre. So, it’s very interesting for me when theatre is used in this situation – theatre as a way to fight for your rights.
How long did it take to make your film?
S. B.: Very long. It took about five years, maybe six.
Would you consider making a documentary about another theatre house?
S. B.: No. It was just about the one in Warsaw and that’s it.
Can you explain Calderón de la Barca’s quote used in the opening cedits in the context of this particular film? How does it fit here?
S. B.: The first thing is that it is taken from Calderón’s play called “The Great Theatre of the World”. And, it’s about this topos that we talked about earlier. I wanted, in the beginning, to put the audience – the people who will watch this movie – on another level of the film because I didn’t want to make only a film about the invisible people, the invisible workers, but also about these layers. So, I thought that maybe if I used it from the first scenes, the audience would know that there is something more that I want to show.
Can you comment on the irreplaceable nature of the people who are working at this theatre, backstage ? Because, if they don’t show up, everything collapses… So, they are very valuable and irreplaceable even though they are invisible…
S. B.: Yes… During the performance, there are a few hundred people working invisibly and everyone is responsible for some small part of what has to happen. You know, for the part of the fate, if someone loses the knife, Cio-cio-san will not commit her suicide… So, on the first level, of course, they are responsible for the performance and on the second, they are responsible for her fate…
She has to kill herself every night, right?
S. B.: Yes… And, the other characters have their own end too. Ms. Krastodemska, the stage manager, has worked there for many years – forty or something… Everyone has been working there for many years. She uses a script with notes. She manages all the staff that currently works there thanks to these notes.
What are your next projects?
S. B.: I am making a documentary about the Polish polar station in Spitsbergen. It’s about 1000 km from the North Pole. The station works all year long. Twelve people go there for a year with an expedition. This is a very abandoned place on the Arctic Circle. There are about 200 km to the closest village in Longyearben on the Svalbard archipelago. They stay there for the Polar Nights, which is very hard because they have a few months of darkness, wind and snow. And, this film will be similar to the first one; similar in the sense that there will be no interviews, offvoices or such things. We will just watch them at their respective responsabilities and researches. It’s very interesting. I love the subjects related to the Arctic.
Note: This interview was originally published on Yellow Bread’s sister publication, The Film Prospector, in April 2016.