Q1: Your speech dealt with the film Katyn by Wajda, and how it crosses generational borders. The film has been received with much controversy, with many accusing it of promoting a particular political agenda. Do you think that media bias, political or otherwise, assists or hinders the role of the arts as an effective instrument of cultural diplomacy?
I think this is a very difficult question. The film certainly has a particular viewpoint. It’s not a particularly open film, but on the other hand, because of its fairly simple construction, millions of people watch it. If it were more complex in its ethics or morals, it probably wouldn’t have had the attention that it had gotten. There is always a balance to be made between how complex a film can be in terms of its political engagement and how many people are actually going to see it.
Q2: You focus primarily on the role of cinematography on conveying certain messages. How significant and widespread is this effect of cinematography, and how receptive are audiences who perhaps are not as specialized in film to this effect? What role do you think cinematography plays in the news, and how information is documented in the press?
I think cinematography is key to films like this, especially because it encourages emotional engagement, and that can be quite insidious in the sense that viewers are not aware of how they’re being directed emotionally. Through themes and identification with characters, we are more aware of this, but cinematography can be subtle and yet very powerful when evoking particular emotions. I don’t think it’s a question that has really been taken up much in the press actually, especially with a film like Wajda’s, which is so monumental that people haven’t really stopped to pick apart the aesthetic side of it. The focus is, in fact, mostly on its role in cultural diplomacy, yet cinematography plays such a big part in that role.
Q3: To what extent do you think the film industry in Eastern European countries, such as Poland, have managed to act as resistance against the communist regimes? Do you think there has been a concerted effort towards this?
Absolutely. In Poland, cinema really put forward the culture of resistance, and it could do that because it tended to evade censorship in various ways. There was a system of censorship, and it was fairly complex, so very often, films came out which spectators would interpret in various ways that were against the regime. Cinema became very key in this resistance culture in Poland under communism. Now, cinema is still taking up questions of politics, such as the politics of memory. With capitalism, there is no more political censorship, so filmmakers can make films on most subjects that they want. But on the other hand, there is a kind of economic censorship in the sense that, in order for filmmakers to get funding, they need to make films that appeal to a wide range of people, unless they have the means to independently finance them themselves. When you consider films that have won Oscars in the last few years, such as The Pianist, there’s definitely a growing tendency to explore themes such as national history and events that haven’t really been dealt with before, particularly to do with the Holocaust. So you’re definitely right in that it’s a good means of political expression, particularly when used as a metaphor during times of political oppression – everyone can see what’s being implied. In Poland, because the film industry was funded by the state, they could cut certain parts of the film if they found it offensive, but often they would have to release it, even if it did not necessarily conform to the party line.
Q4: Finally, how does a film like Katyn serve as a uniting force beyond international borders, instead of simply polarizing audiences?
I’m not entirely sure it has polarized everybody – that’s the important part of our discussion in terms of cultural diplomacy. It may have polarized some audiences. Some very important politicians and intellectuals in Russia praised the film, in fact, for not being anti-Russian, as Wajda could have made it. So I think it has the potential to polarize, but also not to. I think the latter is where the opportunities to raise awareness come in…Wajda could have constructed the film in many ways, but he chose to include a positive Russian character to help the Poles in the film, and he didn’t have to do that. So I think that, on the whole, he was hoping to make a film that wouldn’t antagonize the Russians. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible, with such a subject, to make a film that won’t polarize some audiences.
Q5: Finally, given the potential of film and the arts as instruments of soft power, do you believe that they will eventually replace hard power as instruments of international relations?
It would be very nice, but I think it could become more powerful. I’m not sure – I think violence is not something that’s easily suppressed in people. Inter-ethnic conflict is something we have been seeing for a long time. But on the other hand, society is changing, and it is becoming more media-focused. Perhaps that will become more powerful as time goes on. It’s difficult to say.
Interview conducted by Emma Lough & Moushumi Bhadra, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy