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“Thoughts on culture and Europe” series: Exclusive interview with Pawel Pawlikowski

Pawel Pawlikowski


What is the role of politics in your work? Is art an efficient, or even subversive, form for addressing political questions?

Films that deal with politics head on, in terms of issues, never work. Politics can only be incisive in a film if it’s filtered through some dramatically interesting character, an ambiguous situation, an oblique optic. What interested me in Last Resort were the heroine, who was rather unusual, and her relationship with her son, which was also rather unusual. Politics, the refugee situation and so on, have obviously filtered into the story, but that was by the way. The most political thing about that film, I suppose, was the fact that I managed to make something English, in which foreigners were human and interesting.


Last resort challenges the predominant representation of the migrant. One might say that you treat migration as a general condition of life, irrespective of ethnicity or race. Does this situation have liberating prospects?

In most British or American movies migrants or foreigners are shown as exotic, strange, scary or - if the film is political - as generic victims to be pitied. May be because I myself have been a foreigner for most of my life, I find the condition of an outsider more interesting than that of a local who is more sociologically defined and who knows the rules. Even when I did make a film where the hero was British  -  it was called “Twockers” (1998) -  I made sure he was sufficiently “foreign” and outside the flow of life for me to get my teeth into.

Migration is increasingly treated as a problem in contemporary Western societies. At the same time, the migrant-artist is often idealized and some form of multiculturalism ( at least in terms of food, clothing, etc.) endorsed. Is there a tension between these two trends?

It would be disingenuous to pretend that migration is not a problem. Britain can’t keep taking in more than 100,000 refugees every year - from Iraq, Afghanistan and Albania - without massive tectonic shifts and dramatic changes to domestic society. The problem of course goes much deeper than migration. It has to do with the world market and the growing imbalance between rich and poor nations.

Migrant artists are a different story. They are a small and untypical minority.  In the past, artists fled their countries in quest of freedom of expression and there was something glamorous about Picasso, Tarkovsky or Bunuel in exile. These times seem to be over. Anyway, as far as filmmaking is concerned, the enemy of art is no longer censorship, but the global market, the economics of cinema and the increasing dominance of the American culture with its uncomplicated view of the world.  Nowadays if film directors migrate, it is usually in one direction – to Hollywood. And if they want to have a career, they are best advised to forget their roots or terms of reference and think American.

I don’t think that migrant artists can have quite the same status they had in the times where many cultures existed side by side.

Europe apart from a political project reflects a cultural dimension as well. This, in terms of setting the boundaries of European culture and trying to pin down a European identity. Do you think this is feasible or even desirable? If you do, even if you don’t, where do you think this process might lead?

If there is one tradition in Europe that is alive and worth preserving, one thing that still separates it from the American civilization, it is our sense of history and its complexities and our craving for authenticity.

Debates on globalization usually suppose a tension between the global and the local or national. Is your work inspired by this tension or do you think that the global and the local/national might be thought as supplementary?

Inspired is probably the wrong word. I am a Polish émigré living in the UK, so inevitably my films about England - or any other country - are not made from a local perspective. Nor do they reflect a global perspective. They probably have something to do with my personal baggage. But I must admit that I find inventing films in a foreign culture a very difficult balancing act. I’ve always envied artists such as Kusturica, Fellini or early Milos Forman, who focused on their own backyard and still managed to express something universal. This type of cinema still shows signs of life here and there, especially in places like Iran, Latin America or Asia and sometimes even in US and Europe. But as we slide deeper and deeper into a historical and spiritual vacuum, the “local/national” seems to yield less and less drama and meaning, and cinema moves ever closer to virtual reality and theme parks.

How would you picture/write/direct something that you would call ‘European’?

I don’t know. But I suspect that’s what I’ve been doing all along.

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