A sister’s gift of hope

Poland Today spoke with director Anna Zamecka about her debut documentary, Communion.

In Poland, which is predominantly Catholic, the First Holy Communion ceremony is an integral part of a child’s life. Anna Zamecka’s documentary Communion (2016) tells the story of 14-year-old Ola who, with a dysfunctional father and an absent mother, takes on the responsibility of preparing her autistic brother Nikodem for the ceremony, in the hopes of bringing the family together.

The film premiered worldwide at the 69th Locarno Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix of Semaine de la Critique 2016. The movie received more than 20 awards and is on the shortlist of feature-length documentaries for the upcoming European Film Awards.

In Ola’s family, roles are turned upside down: she is the one who cares for her parents and for her disabled brother.

What inspired you to make this documentary film?

This story is related to my own experience and was inspired by my own childhood. Even though I’m from a completely different economic and educational background, Ola, the main protagonist, and I have a lot in common. She is a 14-year-old child with adult responsibilities – just as I was. In Ola’s family, roles are turned upside down: she is the one who cares for her parents and for her disabled brother. Her own needs are pushed to the background.

How did you find your protagonists?

First, I met Marek, the father. I was thinking about making a short fiction film with a character similar to Ola at its centre. It had to be fiction because I didn’t know how to begin to look for real people who had experienced this similar situation.

I met Marek at the central train station in Warsaw whilst researching a completely different project. It was about Euro 2012 and I was filming tourists attempting to communicate with a ticket cashier who only spoke Polish. She was having a lot of trouble understanding a customer. Suddenly one man from the line – Marek – approached the tourist and started asking him questions in German, then in English, then Spanish, Italian, Serbian, and other languages, wanting to know how he could help him. The tourist was French so Marek helped him buy his ticket. I was completely captivated by Marek. I shyly approached him to introduce myself and ask him how he knew so many languages. He told me that he was a self-taught linguist. In the 80s, he sold money to foreign tourists. In order to cheat them, he taught himself to communicate in as many languages as possible.

But then, he started talking to me about his kids, Ola and Nikodem. He spoke about them with such admiration, particularly about Ola and how he would never do anything without her, that she was his helper, a mother to her younger brother. And all I was hearing was a description of a child with adult responsibilities and it was very close to the topic of the short fiction film I was thinking about. A month later, I visited them in their house.

Accepting one’s limitations is a necessary prerequisite for maturity.

Ola is a young girl who took on the responsibility of caring for the household. What kind of message did you want to send to your audience?

I wanted to talk about growing up and the association of growing up with disappointments, sometimes painful ones – especially when dealing with our parents. We see Ola growing up – from a girl who believes that, despite all obstacles, her family can be united, to a teenager who accepts the fact that it will never happen. Accepting one’s limitations is a necessary prerequisite for maturity.

Ola sits with her brother Nikodem in the film Communion.

Autism is not widely talked about in Poland. Did the film open a dialogue about autism?

I wanted to show autism not as a disability or a misfortune. Kids like Nikodem often have a kind of intense intelligence. They are free in a sense – they can allow themselves to behave in a way that we can’t because of societal norms. I saw Nikodem as an artist or a ’prophet’, someone who knows a little more than the others. He hides inside a poetic world of his own – and from its depth, he makes the most acute comments. I didn’t want to evoke feelings of pity or compassion for Nikodem.

The word “autism” never appears in the film precisely because Nikodem’s condition is completely ignored by everyone around him. Really, the whole family is invisible to most of society but especially in his case because no one acknowledges his condition. That’s because then they – the church, the school – don’t have to do anything about it or deal with it in any way. It’s really the system and the people around him that are failing him in the way that they never choose to deal with anything out of the ordinary. All the potential Nikodem and other kids like him have is then wasted.

What was the filming process like?

The film was – to a significant extent – based on a script. At first, I had trouble telling the story. There was no starting point, no foothold. I didn’t know where to begin, or where to end. When I came up with Nikodem’s communion, everything seemed easier. It wasn’t even because the protagonist was about to go through a process; the communion turned out to be a good metaphor of Ola’s growing up to be an adult – it served as a pretext to show her situation. In Poland, the first communion sacrament is a very important ceremony. It is an occasion for the entire family to meet and integrate. I knew that Ola, who lived in the hope of bringing her mother back home, would use this event as an opportunity for a family reunion.

Photos courtesy of Anna Zamecka.

Anna Zamecka lives and works in Warsaw, Poland. She studies journalism, anthropology and photography in the Polish capital as well as in Copenhagen and completes the Dok Pro Documentary Programme at the Wajda School. Communion (2016) is her feature-length debut.

Awards

-Festival del Film Locarno
Critic’s Week Award
-Polish Film Academy Awards ORŁY 2017
Best documentary of The Year 2016 (plus 2 nominations for Best Editing and The Revelation of the Year for Directing for Anna Zamecka)
-Warsaw Film Festiwal
Best Documentary Film
-DOK Leipzig
Young Eyes Award
-Jihlava IDFF
Silver Eye Award
-Minsk IFF Listapad
Best Documentary Film
-Bratislava IFF
Best Documentary Film
-Trieste IFF
Best Documentary Film
-Zagreb Dox
Special Mention Award
-Man In Danger FF
Best Documentary Film
-Oslo Pix Festival
Grand Pix Documentary Award (Grand Prix)
-Lubuskie Lato Filmowe
‘Brązowe Grono’ Award
-Gdańsk DocFilm Festival
Grand Prix “The Gate of Freedom” Award
-DOK Fest Munchen
SOS-Kinderdorfer Weltweit 2017 Award
-9th International TRT Documentary Awards, Istambul 2017
Grand Prix
-International Film Festiva; It’s All True / E Tudo Verdade, Brasil 2017
Grand Prix
-Off Camera Festival, Krakow 2017,
Award for the Best Producer’s Debut (for Anna Zamecka & Zuzanna Król)
-FilmPolska Festival, Berlin 2017
Grand Prix
-Polish Section of Fipresci
Special Mention for 2016
-LET’S CEE Film Festival, Vienna 2017
Honourable Mention Award
-Polish Guild of Directors, Poland 2017
Nomination for the Krzysztof Krauze Award for the Best Director 2016 for Anna Zamecka
-Ińskie lato filmowe
Best Documentary
-Solanin Film Festival
Grand Prix

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Written by: Monica Zielinski

Monica Zielinski is Poland Today's online editor and social media manager. She is a Polish-American journalist who also works on international projects headed under Rzeczpospolita. After earning a journalism degree from Southern Connecticut State University in the US, she moved to Warsaw to reconnect with her Polish roots and work in her field.