Taking a sight familiar to most during the pandemic––the view outside your window––and making it even more narrow, The Balcony Movie explores a universe of thoughts and emotions from passersby below. With this strict formal conceit, Pawel Lozinski’s documentary proves both delightful and existential as we hear from his Warsaw neighbors about work, love, loss, the meaning of life, and everything in-between. Its simplicity is a virtue, demonstrating all we need for a little more human connection is the willingness to listen.
Ahead of the Museum of the Moving Image‘s retrospective “In the Neighborhood: The Films of Paweł Łoziński” taking place this weekend, December 2-4, as well as MUBI’s release of The Balcony Movie, I was delighted to talk to the director about changing the rule so the “documentary game” with his latest work, searching for human connection, his extensive editing process, and more.
The Film Stage: This film struck me with the idea that all we need is a little more human connection in the world and willingness to open the window and listen. Is that something you hope people will take away from the film and what does this idea mean to you?
Paweł Łoziński: In my view, it’s also a film about having the need to connect. At the beginning I was not convinced about my protagonist’s readiness for such film encounters. Coming back to the origins of the idea of the project, I made it because I did not have a new idea for my next film. It came to me completely by chance. I was looking for a good situation and great protagonists everywhere, but with no results. All I knew is that I would like my next project to be something new in terms of the film form.
So one day I was sitting on my balcony—a bit depressed, having coffee, and trying to come up with something. I was observing people from the 2nd floor and I realized that I’m eavesdropping on their conversations. It was extremely interesting and raised my curiosity. Who are they? Why is someone arguing over the phone? Why is this lady sad? Who is this man bringing flowers to and why? Suddenly I had this idea that this is the perfect perspective (viewpoint) for the filmmaker. I can place my camera here and try to get to know those passers-by better. I can do it here from my balcony without leaving home. This way I am able to find new protagonists for my film.
So I set up my camera on the balcony and started to observe reality from this viewpoint.
I quickly understood that the movie won’t make itself. This experiment needed to have a director who could accost people with questions. So I’ve started to loudly ask, “Stop! I’m making a film, could you please tell me who you are?” I decided to ask people the most simple and at the same time complicated questions, like who they are? The camera was an excuse for me to do it. So it’s true what I’m saying to the people in my movie––“I’m looking for an interesting story, a good protagonist.” It was a kind of casting for a new character, but at the same time an excuse to speak with many protagonists. I was interested in what they have in their minds and hearts. What life stories do they have? It was a film experiment.
Normally the director is searching for their heroes chasing them with his/her camera through different continents and sometimes even to the end of the world, to register their diversity. My balcony plan was to change the rules of the game. The question was: is it possible to meet an entire cross-section of people by putting a camera in a fixed place? I was trying to change the rules of the normal documentary game––this time it’s not me following people with my camera around the world, but me waiting for them till they enter my frame. I like simple settings in my films. All it takes is patience, time, and the ability to talk to people.
I personally think that it’s also a film about creating a documentary, but rather shown from backstage with all the seams of the creation process that are normally carefully hidden from the audience. The director’s questions and doubts are added to the film. The director himself hides behind the camera and only the scenes with his wife Agnieszka, daughter Ida, and the dog Lolita tell about him.
The film’s perspective will feel familiar to many who lived through the pandemic—often their only view of the world was from the window or balcony for a long period of time. How did you form this conceptual idea? Did you know that the film would have this form from the start?
I started to shoot in 2018, so we laugh that this is a pre-Covid movie made with a safe social distance that we had to get used to only 2 years after. It was an experiment. I was not sure if it would be possible to have intimate conversations with people in the middle of the street within a 5-meter distance. Besides, I wasn’t sure if the viewer would stay with me in this rigid position for 100 minutes of the film. At the very beginning I wanted the camera to be completely still and used only two lenses: 28mm and 35mm. That is two still film frames. It was a beautiful, rigorous rule exactly like in the Lumière Brothers movies where the hero walks up to a completely still camera. After a while I realized that I was losing too many interesting protagonists who stood a few meters away from my frame or on the other side of the street. Then I decided that I had to choose between the rigid rule and the quality of the film. I attached the head to my tripod and started taking panoramas. Thanks to this, the viewer gets new elements in the film that show the world around the camera.
What did you achieve thanks to the distance between the balcony and the ground? What could change if you filmed this documentary from the street level?
It raised additional curiosity. People were interested in this strange guy, a neighbor with a camera standing on the balcony. At the same time I was interested in the people randomly appearing in my frame. Technically, I had to stand there all the time behind my camera to spot them. They were coming from around the corner of the street while I had to concentrate all the time in order to get the picture and sound right.
At the beginning of shooting I had some doubts concerning the 5-meter distance between us. I was afraid that this would make it harder for us to be emotional with each other. Would it be possible to have a deep psychological conversation just like that, in the middle of the street? Especially, considering that this time in my new project I decided not to use close-ups. Very quickly, it turned out that this distance created freedom for them. They could enter my frame and feel free to stop and talk whenever they wanted without feeling that they are rude to me. Standing there for 165 shooting days I created a kind of theater scene between two trees where they could talk, dance, sing, or perform anything they wanted to. That was a part of this social experiment. Having the camera on the ground level would mean the same problems as always––the characters would feel forced by the camera to speak.
Thanks to installing the camera on the 2nd floor they had complete freedom of speech and behavior. Sometimes when I would meet my heroes on the street we felt confused. We felt that we were too close and something was not right. But when I went back to the balcony and we met again, the conversation flowed as usual. I managed to connect with them, and sometimes even to create real bonds between me and my protagonists. Especially, with those who decided to come back under my camera and bring new stories from their lives. Now that the movie is over, we still meet and talk, but this time on the sidewalk. The film is quite popular in Poland, it was in the cinemas and on HBO Max and it often happens that people find my balcony and come to take a selfie under it. Sometimes they call me––“Pawel, come out and we’ll talk.” [Smiles]
What surprised you the most out of all the different reactions you got from your passersby?
My number-one rule was that I didn’t ask anyone to come to my camera; it had to be a pure coincidence. Thanks to this, I was excited and curious about the next characters every day. This curiosity kept me on the balcony for a very long time. I was surprised that most people didn’t refuse to talk. We had a sequence on the timeline where there were only refusals––it was only two hours long. [Laughs] The real surprise was that people were able to tell the most intimate stories about themselves after just two minutes of knowing each other.
A great example is this lady who dared to say that she is happy after her husband passed away, or the man who lived with his partner in hiding for 40 years, and for the first time in his life he came out just under my camera. It turns out that we are often very lonely in our families—we have no one to talk to—so when a stranger, a nice man with a camera appears, we are ready to trust him enough to reveal our very personal stories.
Is there anything about Polish culture that may have played a role in those conversations? I can’t imagine you’d get the same reactions shooting from an NYC balcony…
I was very surprised how Poles turned out to be open to honest conversations. Polish mothers tell their children, “Don’t talk to strangers on the street!” We are sometimes perceived as very grumpy. But when I approached my characters with sympathy and openness, they reciprocated with the same. I have learned from my heroes that we are all very equal. We are all broken, we are all suffering, needy, lonely, happy, aging, regretful, shy, insecure, loving, healing, human, and fragile. I myself am curious what my interviews in New York would look like? I suspect that with your American openness to spontaneous conversations it could be very interesting.
How therapeutic do you think it was for some people to speak to you?
I do believe that those encounters with people could be therapeutic. Standing on my balcony with a camera for 2.5 years I received many valuable gifts from my movie heroes. They told me about their lives honestly and courageously. Some of them came back to the camera, and we became friends. People need to be noticed, to be heard, they want to stop being invisible for a while and tell their story to someone. While waiting patiently for 165 shooting days on the balcony, I became a kind of secular confessional to them. They could always find me there and tell other people about themselves through the lens of my camera. After some time we stopped being strangers to each other and a bond was formed. As Hannah Arendt put it, “The world is not human because it’s inhabited by people, but because they talk about it together. Openness to others is a prerequisite of humanity.”
This film seems like the ideal DIY example for emerging filmmakers on how to follow a strict but simple formal idea. What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists interested in a similar approach to documentary movie-making?
I would say: less is more. Use a simple setting and try to describe the reality from your one and only, unique point of view. Make honest films about what you really care, about things that you love, or about those who annoy and disturb you. If you don’t have the answers to your deep inner questions you can always ask other people and make a film about it.
Can you discuss the editing process? How much footage did you capture and what was the process to form the structure of the film?
During the shooting I had about 2,000 chats with different people. Out of all of them we chose about 800 in the editing room. About 80 protagonists entered the film. The most difficult editing task was to arrange the conversations with my characters so that the film would grow emotionally, but not to lose the impression of randomness in these meetings. An additional challenge was that during the editing we had to consider the time passage and changes of the seasons. Emotional memory helped me a lot when choosing materials.
If, during filming, I had chills down my back or something made me laugh a lot, then this material had a chance to be in the film. I could make very different films from the very rich material I had. For example, one about homeless people, or about young mothers with small children, or only about the caretaker Mrs. Zosia. In the editing room, I was supported by a team of 2 young talented editors Piasek and Wójcik. My wife Agnieszka helped me a lot with watching more than 55 rough-cut versions of the film! It took us a year to finish the movie.
With a forthcoming retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, what is your relationship with your past work? Do you go back to it? What do you hope people will take away after seeing your work?
I have always tried to make films about people and for people. If I couldn’t answer a difficult question myself, I took the camera in my hand and looked for answers in the stories of my characters. It seems to me that my films form a coherent whole. In my debut, Birthplace, I tried to talk about my Jewish heritage. I touched on the painful Jewish-Polish history during the Holocaust, which was not told before in a documentary film. The film Chemo is about a difficult conversation between cancer patients and their families, a conversation I couldn’t have with my mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. Father and Son is a story about the difficult relationship between the main characters––me and my father, and about our attempt to talk about family issues. You Have No Idea How Much I Love You is a film about how daring it is to enter a psychotherapist’s room and see how psychotherapy works. My last film from the balcony is an experiment I’ve always dreamed of––to record a sociological cross-section of people with psychological depth.
When I take a look at my films, which I have been making for 30 years, I see that they are all about close, intimate conversations that sometimes allow us to break through our everyday loneliness in an increasingly complicated world. I always try to make universal films that will stand the test of time. I hope the viewers of my retrospective at MoMI will come check it out. I cordially invite you to the screenings of my films.