Sunday, April 30, 2006

Polish extreme sports comes of age

It's Sunday morning deep in the English countryside and I'm sitting out on the veranda surrounded by all number of chattering avian buddies. The air is cool, the trees are blossoming and the sound of traffic wonderfully faint. The daily brutality of Warsaw life feels like a hangover that has slipped gracefully away...
But not for long.

I sit back with the newspaper - today its The Sunday Times. I fish it open - the usual predigested salivations: another sex scandal in the government... yada yada... a prison management scandal in the government... la la la... some great cartoons - Labour ministers all with their trousers down. Ahh bless this land. I turn the page:


This clear-cut reportage by fellow Varsovian Bob Graham describes the plans of Polish hooligan groups to organize "pre-arranged fights" with English (because they "are the best of the worst") fans travelling to Germany for the World Cup and with the native Germans themselves.

Detailing the motivation for organising these international World Cup 'battles' - a former trainee priest and a father of a one year-old are quoted by Mr Graham as saying: "We will come together for our national cause... We think only of beating the 'hools' from Germany first - because we hate them".

As bold EU citizens their plan is apparently to slip across border into Germany to "organise fights away from stadiums where they will not be monitored by CCTV" (unlike here). Inspector Matwiej of Warsaw police comments that the ringleaders "are clever" and points to a so-very-surprising lack of political will in dealing with the problem: "At the moment there is nothing we can do. [?] This is not for the police, it is a matter for the government and a matter for justice".

I don't fancy his hopes much, do you? Poland's governing 'Law and Justice' party is currently continuing to try to form a coalition with the very right-wing parties and politicians that Mr Graham singles out as the chief cause for the sharp increase in Polish football hooliganism:

"The rise in football violence follows a wave of extreme right-wing and vehemently anti-Semitic political discourse in the former communist country [Poland]" where politicians "openly praise fascist Italy and Nazi Germany".

Hmm... the all-too familiar calling card and headline-grabber for Poland these days. (Prospective tourists reading this - have no fear unless you're black, brown or gay (or German it seems...)

News to me was that: "Hard-core fascist and anti-semitic publications are sold on newsstands". If this is the case can anyone recommend me one? I love a good blood-boiler. Tony Blair and John Prescott just don't seem to do it for me anymore.

Personally I say construct purpose-built 'hunting grounds' for all the hools. Let them kill and maim each other. And turn it into a televised reality show! Refuse them state medical care unless they pay for it. Everyone's happy and more relaxed. It could become a kind of therapy for for all the inter-country tension we have at the moment. Warsaw Legia vs. Tehran Malavan anyone?
Even Osama himself would tune in for that...

[UPDATE: The entire Sunday Times Polski hools article is now available here]

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

My kingdom for a sauce

By this time tomorrow I should hopefully have flown safely over to the hardly greenish but still very pleasant land of England - where I will be nesting for a whole 4 weeks before returning to Warsaw. For the first 48 hours I will blow my mind consuming information from the vast range of newspaper and magazine articles available for me to read and understand. I shall feel warm at the sight of good typography (sorry Poland) while delighting in the flavour of a ‘Yorkshire Tea’ (“The way tea used to be” - isn't it just the essence of England?) and relish my holiest of holies - a BOVRIL SANDWICH (Did you know Bovril was originally developed to serve soldiers? It has also unofficially sponsored all of my film projects). I shall wallow in Cheddar cheese and delight in the sweetness of lemon curd and marvel at the mystic wonder of British condiments - refined through the Victorian era right up until today - “Please could you pass: the mint sauce, the cranberry sauce, the horseradish sauce and Hellmann’s mayonnaise”. Yes, yes we’ve got Hellmann’s and all the rest in Eastern Europe but it just isn’t the same! (its cream when it should be mousse and the lemon content and quality of the ingredients are sorely lacking)...

Better than all this - my beloved ‘whisper quiet’ (it really is) Mac mini will be replaced by a wallpaper-stripping Powermac G5 dual. My borrowed-from-a-friend 15“ CRT monitor will expand into a vast glowing 23” Cinema landscape and my 250GB Lacie hard disk will mate sweetly with its heaving 1 Terabyte big brother.

But even with such a vast free-flowing Final Cut Pro editing canvas before me, you can rest assured that I shall still be spending all my waking hours in a state of brain-cell-burning creative agony - as I work to piece together some kind of a working preview of my film.

Well, tally ho then...

Monday, April 24, 2006

Warsaw Racketeers Wipe Up

There's a new scam in town. Wipers. No, not quite those deadly slavic snakes but the rather commonplace windscreen wipers found on vehicles everywhere. Got wipers? Sure you have! But here in Warsaw we've got better ones see. And we've got 'em for all vehicles - ever. These precision rain removal instruments are available at a knock-down rate and come with free fitting by highly trained fag-chewing (sorry those in North America!) rainwater management specialist. Don't delay my friend - those April showers are (still) on their way!

For over a week a squad of guys have been staking out posh vehicles amongst Warsaw's upscale neighbourhoods. They operate in pairs with one guy dragging a specially made 'wiper buggy' onto which is mounted a classy cardboard box that contains wipers for every vehicle bar the space shuttle. They look for the shiniest Landcruisers and the biggest American imports. They leave the BMW X5s - those trifles belong to the wives. They look for men who can be convinced that their 3-tonne pride and joy suffers from fluid distribution issues. The very instant a target shows a moment's doubt he is stripped of his existing wipers. Lips are bitten and faults are pointed out - always with the metal part that locks the wiper to its mount. The duo then lick their thumbs and rub down the mountings before fitting their own superior wipers. Now test that with a blast of window washer! Woah! Did you see the absence of splashback? Wait until you see what they can do with snow! You surely don't want to go back to your old ones do you...Pan (sir)? What about a spare set - just in case!? But this marvellous public service doesn't come for free you know...

The whole operation is overseen by the 'swipe controller' who positions himself at the nearest bar and proceeds to literally wipe out yesterday's profits one beer at a time until he can barely stand to break the team off for lunch.

I really wonder how long before this dream dries up...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Warsaw bread in uprising (video exclusive)

[Looking for the real Uprising? - see end of post]
A public holiday threatens! The food supply will be interrupted by a gut-wrenching 24 hours! Citizens of Poland leap into line to queue for bread! But today the line is different!

Before the end of Communism the sight of Polish citizens queuing for food would have carried no certain amount of political dough. Filming queues or ration cards (especially for presentation abroad) would usually incur the sweaty scissors of the censors.

Today I can film (before the security guards reach me) and you can watch and appreciate (it should about 50 seconds to load) the nostalgic sight of Polish citizens queuing for food.

But all is not as it seems. Remember Antonioni's masterpiece 'Blow Up'? Watch the video carefully. Notice there are 2 women trying to persuade the people queuing of something. I've marked them on the soundtrack to help you.

They're telling the others that they don't have to queue. There are other bakeries open only metres away. They don't have to stand there for 20 minutes to get their bread rolls.

So what's going on? Is it because its Easter? No, sorry its not. The queue is there every Saturday. Does that bakery offer superior products? In my opinion - No - they don't give you what you point at but reach for the old ones. What about a wider range? It does do a few hot snacks but they don't seem popular. Does it offer cheaper prices? Certainly not! What about superior service? (Don't laugh!) Last time I tried to purchase something there I got roasted by the supervisor for trying to buy rolls, cakes and a pizza slice using a whole 100 zloty [£17/€25] bank-note. (As though they are short of cash with queues like that...) Other customers have also commented that the ladies in there possess a higher than average standard of client contempt. Let's scratch off the service...

So just what is it that provokes such diehard brand loyalty? After all they aren't selling iPods or class A drugs are they? The only unique selling point I can see is that the bag that your bread comes in has a nicer look and feel (its paper rather than plastic) than all the other small bakeries in Warsaw. It's almost...dare I say it - Parisian...

But it can't really be that. Can it? The mystery continues.

UPDATE: Looking for info or video on the real Warsaw Uprising? Read about its recent reenactment in Warsaw here and view my video of it here.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter in Poland

It's that time of year again. The festival of Easter in Poland is easily as important, if not more important than that of Christmas. This is probably because of the resurrection aspect of Jesus' death. With a 98% Catholic population Poland's GDP of sins is one of the highest in the world. As such Jesus' salvation offers vast promise to the almost all the nation.

And thus Easter in Poland (note the symmetry of the words 'Easter' and 'Poland') is A Big Deal. And for outsiders the spiritual frenzy can prove to be a tiny bit overwhelming.

We don't do chocolate eggs you see...

Rather people send each other smses with messages like "Jesus is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!". Or cry as TVP1 broadcasts the recent 'The Passion of the Christ' under some kind of special license similar to the global broadcast of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' in the days prior to the last US presidential election. (Can anyone explain to me how exactly these 'event' deals work?) Sadly I missed seeing 'Pasja' safely for free on TV...

Polish churches become ants nests of activity with Sunday being taken up with a day-long ceremony that seems closely reminiscent of the reproductive ritual of the humble fish. Females (for Polish males can't handle baskets unless they're dads) carry baskets of eggs into a church. The eggs are deposited on a table in front of a male priest (no female priests, this is Poland remember). One by one the females withdraw and wait. The priest waits for the right volume of eggs to be laid on the table. He must choose this moment wisely for he will have to repeat this ritual for most of the day. Suddenly, he ventures forward and sprays the eggs with as much of his Holy water as he judges he can spare. Afterwards the females quickly return to pick up their respective eggs - which are now ready be taken home and ingested. Alleluia!

I had a half. As a bird I've got to be careful with other people's eggs these days...

All of this is followed by 'Wet Monday' when males accost females and spray them with scent (perfume) or water sometimes by the bucketful. This is act is said to do with sin removal though I'm rather not convinced.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Opening lines II

As the first shots of the film are seemingly unconnected memories I could basically choose any shots I liked from ones not already included in the film. However I knew there was a certain atmosphere and sensation that I wanted the audience to feel at the start of the film so as usual I went on instinct and assembled the shots in a way that felt right. This only took a few days.

Then it was time to slap on the narration - someone is remembering these images... But what should be said? How does one approach writing the first few lines of a film? Again I went on instinct and pent up ideas. The result? It sort of worked - but it was confusing and lacked the 'attack' that I wanted. I showed it to a friend (a rare occurance) and got the response: "It feels passive". Heartbreaking proof there was a problem with it.

The film relies on an extreme synergy between the narration and the image. This means you have to really look at the images and find ways of interpreting them before you can find a interpretation that works as piece of narration. This is the hardest part of the editing - You've got 10,000 (I'm not joking) shots to choose from and you've got to find the right one and the right interpretation in order to keep the story moving shot to shot, memory by memory.

I thought of all the classic opening lines of films "I dreamt I went to Manderley" (Rebecca), "I believe in America" (The Godfather), "It's Monday morning and I'm in pain" (Cries and Whispers). They were encouraging but didn't really help. After 10 days of attempts (mornings with pen and paper, afternoons with Skype headset talking to myself like a nut aka recording the new ideas) I got seriously peeved. There just seemed to be limitless options and none of them really worked!

And then I gripped the sides of my chair, looked down at my notes and in a flash of rage the words just came out. Not quite the perfect words but the approach:

"Did you think it was chance, that lead you to this place?"

Yesterday I refined it into a more suitable but equally conspiratorial:

"Did you think you were alone, when you first came upon this place?"

Well, I'm not sure its up there with "I believe in America" but seems to match the image and the film rather well. I hope it will stick.

So one down but there's still another 10 or more lines to cover before the beginning of the film is complete...and then its back to the ending. why didn't I just write a script to begin with???

Opening lines I

Last month marked 2 years (sob) since I first had the idea for my film and began working on it. And yet its only in the last 2 weeks that I have started work on writing the very first lines of the film. Allow me to confess:

You see I never wrote a detailed script for the film before I started making it. I only wrote the story. This recipe for disaster happened because I wasn't even sure the narrative idea of the film could be made to work. Later when it seemed it could work I never took time out to write a more detailed script. Now I pay the price of these decisions as I try to edit - film - write - edit - film - write my way to the end or in this case the beginning.

The advantage of this approach though has been that the intuitive recording of real life (the film is 95% documentary footage) and the films slow development have generated more imaginative ideas that I ever could have thought up myself sitting with a pen and paper writing a script.

The other reason for the delay in writing the opening lines of the film is a more conventional one. Like many films the ending plugs into the beginning. Quite simply - I got halfway through editing the ending when I realised I couldn't go any further without first fixing the beginning.

And so off I went to tackle the beginning. See the post above.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Lem meet Beksinski

A dream will always triumph over reality, once it is given the chance.
Stanislaw Lem

The popular Polish writer Stanislaw Lem was buried today in a Krakow cemetery. Having only read his novel Solaris, I can't say I'm at all familiar with his work. But from that one book it was clear just what an exceptionally imaginative chap he was.

Solaris concerns a distant planet covered by a mysterious and intelligent 'Ocean' that absorbs the dreams and thoughts of any human that comes anywhere near it. Amongst its waves it recreates scenes from their dreams and memories. Most fantastically - it plays with them and tests them like a vast child's mind. Perhaps to clarify something it sends near-perfect copies of dead or imagined loved ones to the humans that have been sent to investigate it thus provoking further inquiries into the human psyche, the nature of God, intelligence, the unknown and a whole load of other stuff.

As I imagine is the case with most Polish artists whose Catholic faith is questionable or in Lem's case most likely non-existent, he wasn't permitted to go to grave without a small chiding. The presiding priest at the funeral is quoted as saying something like:

"We also came here to talk to God on his behalf because Lord maybe he didn't recognise you in all the people he served with his talent and his passion for truth..." (approximate)

Well, wherever Mr. Lem is now I personally hope he's having a good chin-wag with Beksinski and all those other great Polish artists that leave us with each year.

For those not familiar with Zdzislaw Beksinski he was painter of highly imaginative but also highly disturbing landscapes and figures and was often dubbed Poland's equivalent of H.R. Giger (except with nicer colours) the Swiss painter and who famously created 20th Century Fox's 'Alien' character (based on a really tiny fish that lives at great depths...).

Unlike Lem who died of natural causes, Beksinski (whose life was already tragic enough - wife dead, son committed suicide a year later) was murdered last year in one of those senseless brutal killings that seem to take away many talented people in the blink of an eye. In Beksinski's case it was the son of a friend, to whom he had been lending some money. There was an argument and the teenager stabbed him to death and later confessed to the murder.

And when Poland has lost the remainder of its unique but aging voices - like Kapuscinski, Wajda, Zanussi, Gorecki, Penderecki and all its other 'golden oldies' - what a echoing desert this place will feel.

PLEASE NOTE: Lem and Beksinski are not connected in any way other that being Polish and being recently deceased. The picture is by the painter Beksinski and has no relevance to Lem the writer. Having said that if they were able to collaborate on a book together - well what a book it would be!