The most humble among the most talented, Staroń is a man who photographs, directs and travels, and who choses to transmit reality as it is, without unnecessary bling. His Argentinian Lesson is among Poland’s most awarded documentaries in recent decades. Staroń is a poet of the image, who favours truth over cinematic aesthetics.
Wojciech Staroń (born 1973) is not someone who tries to draw attention to himself; his priority is his stories and their protagonists. His cinematography lacks easy solutions and over-the-top effects. Instead of opting for fake ornaments, he always searches further into the image.
Whether it’s Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze’s claustrophobic tale of inter-human relations, Plac Zbawiciela / Saviour Square, or Jerzy Śladkowski’s documentary Fabryka wódki / Vodka Factory, in which Staroń’s camera registers the emotions of a lonely mother who dreams of fleeing her provincial Russian life, or the tale of overcoming cultural gaps in Argentyńska Lekcja / Argentinian Lesson, each motion picture is memorable for portraying true human emotions. Staroń adapts his style to the requirements of every project. He is a creator who is loyal to the truth. He directs, films features and documentaries, and is constantly working on one or the other.
So there is something that you have?
In an interview for Culture.pl, Staroń says, "Everything began with a theatre play in primary school. That’s where my fascination with constructing stories and working with other people dates back to. In high school, I replaced theatre with photography, a passion that swallowed me whole. I knew straight away that it would be a part of my life forever".
He got into the prestigious Łódź Film School’s Faculty of Cinematography on the first try, and found himself very disenchanted soon after. "I was suffering under the workload, going to classes where I would learn techniques that didn’t develop me as a person. For an 18 to 20 year old, the most important thing is to search for the meaning of life. I was hoping that going to university would help me find answers to these most important questions, but that turned out not to be the case. What awaited me was a harsh school of life. The most important thing was to stay on top of things – making it to the next year, making a good movie, making yourself visible. This rat race horrified me a bit. I was too young".
A breakthrough came when he met with two great cinematographers, Jerzy Wójcik and Witold Sobociński. Wójcik, a master of the carefully studied frame and considered among great camermen of his day, worked on Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Matka Joanna od Aniołów / Mother Joan of the Angels (Jury Prize winner at the 1961 Cannes International Film Festival) and Andrzej Wajda’sPopiół i diament / Ashes and Diamonds. Sobociński's lively camera follows the protagonists of Wajda’s Wesele / The Wedding and Ziemia obiecana / The Promised Land, and sketches the forgotten time and place of Poland's pre-war shtetls in Wojciech Jerzy Has’s Sanatorium pod klepsydrą / The Hourglass Sanatorium.
"These encounters opened my eyes. I had found my masters", Staroń recalls. "Today I can see that my way of handling the camera is closer to Sobociński’s but my way of thinking about film was defined by Jerzy Wójcik. He created the philosophy of light [in Wójcik’s book Labirynt światła / Labyrinth of Light - editor's note], which answers questions about the point and objective of making films, he shows what is behind every decision taken on the film set".
After completing his studies, Staroń turned to Wójcik for advice when leaving to Siberia with his girlfriend to shoot his first documentary. He was afraid he would miss other career opportunities, that he would become irrelevant on the film market without ever really having being a part of it in the first place. He asked whether he wouldn't lose something by leaving, and Wójcik replied: "So there is something that you have?". Staroń went, and shot Syberyjska lekcja / Siberian Lesson, one of the most intimate Polish documentaries.
Shot on 16 mm film tape, what was meant to be the story of a young teacher turned into a love story, "a very intimate auto-portrait", as Staroń calls it. In one scene, Staroń and his girlfriend, Małgosia, the film’s protagonist, place their hands on a ice-frosted window. The camera lingers on the image and shows traces left behind by the heat of the palms. Siberian Lesson is about love. A love that creates a union, a love that leaves a trace. The couple got married in Siberia. With Małgosia looking after the sound, and Staroń as director and cameraman, they have worked together on other films, with the image of the hands serving as their trademark.
A longing to see what is happening outside
He has a passion for the documentary form, observing and describing reality in its fullness - sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying. "It was during a journey to Kazakhstan in my student years that I noticed that I was more interested in reality and contact with other people than the 'world of creations' that I was accustomed to in photography and film", Staroń explains. "A documentary is an encounter, it’s about experiencing the same things as the protagonists of the films".
His documentaries, whether Siberian Lesson or El Misionero, are like journyes into uncharted territories, a wild encounter with something strange and new. Shot in 2000, El Misionero tells the story of a missionary working at Argentina's border with Bolivia. Staroń spent months with his protagonist, travelling with him around the Andes. He tells Culture.pl about his approach to filming: "For the second time I felt that you have to experience something for yourself in order to shoot a movie about it. Only then does one have the right to talk about it. What says a lot about the creator is where he places the camera and how he constructs the story. Every frame is marked by something personal".
Argentina is where Małgosia and Staroń’s son, Janek, was born. Years later, he played in Argentinian Lesson (2011), a film that has become one of Poland’s most awarded documentaries. The film's protagonists are 7-year-old Janek and his new Argentinian friend Marcia, who is a couple of years older. Their developing friendship narrows the gap between heterogeneous cultures. Janek gets to known this new world with its strange language and customs through the eyes of Marcia.
In the process of making a moving portrait of the Argentinian provinces, and picturing the dramatic fates of its inhabitants, Staroń put the intensiveness of childhood on display. His camera sees the world through the young protagonist. Frightened at first, Janek hides from the world, then shyly takes his first steps only to immerse himself in the new reality completely. Full of colours and life, Staroń’s enthusiastic coverage on Argentina hides within it a moving story about people who live up to the challenges life places in front of them.
The director received awards for the film including the New York Spotlight Award, a prize for directing at the 52nd Festival dei Popoli Documentary Film Festival in Florence, the Silver Pigeon at the DOK in Lipsk, the Grand Prix of the International Film Festival in Canton and the Grand Prix of the International Kraków Film Festival 2011.
"I have a hard time concentrating at home in Warsaw where life can be so hectic", he says in an interview for the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. He is constantly on the move. While on travels in Russia, Kazakhstan or Latin America, he comes up with new ideas. He met the protagonists of his newest documentary, Bracia / Brothers, during a trip to Central Asia when he was a second-year student.
Brothers is the story of Mieczysław and Alfons Kułakowscy, two brothers sent to a Soviet gulag when they were children. They managed to escape and reach Alma Ata, where they stayed. One became a reputable painter in Kazakhstan, the other worked as a cartographer. Decades later, they decided to come back to the place they were taken away from by force. After 70 years of exile, they returned to Poland in 1998 and settled in the region of Warmia. The film, which shows the fascinating story of their life, is scheduled for release in 2013.
It takes a lot to be simple
With his travels and successful documentaries, Staroń earned a reputation that brought further offers. After Siberian Lesson was broadcast on the French channel Arte, the choreographer Régis Obadia invited him to direct lighting effects and video projections used in his performances. Staroń spent one and a half years in Paris. "I learned to notice the purity that comes across through dance and stage movement", he tells Culture.pl, "one that is free of psychology or literature. That's what I searched for in film - an attempt to tell a story through a clean image, not by means of dialogue".
Siberian Lesson also brought other professional opportunities. After seeing the film, Krzysztof Krauze asked the cinematographer to cooperate with him on his next films. Staroń was second cameraman on Moj Nikifor / My Nikifor in 2005, and first camerman on Saviour Square a year later. Together with Krauze and his wife, Joanna Kos-Krauze, Staroń made one of the most realistic, painful contemporary Polish films, a portrait of a thirtysomething married couple undergoing a crisis, which simultaneously was a portrait of Polish realities. For Staroń’s debut as cinematographer on a full-length feature, he received the main prize at the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography Plus Camerimage 2006, a festival entirely dedicated to cinematography and cinematographers.
Not long after, invited by Sławomir Idziak, he ended up part of the team of cinematographers working on David Yates' Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. His next project took him to Argentina to work on Argentinian Lesson. There he met Paula Markovitch and worked on her filmEl Premio / The Prize. A 2011 production, the movie is an autobiographical story of a childhood spent in Argentina in the 1970s under the dictatorial regime. Dealing with a family secret and built on memories, the images to the film are dynamic, murky and sensual.
In a Filmweb review, Jarosław Leszcz writes "The manner in which the Pole directs the camera produces the sensation that every frame gives an odour: the smell of fog, sea and humidity". Staroń received the Silver Bear at the 2012 Berlinale for Best Artistic Achievements in the cinematography category.
"I always believed in only taking on projects which I fully believed in" Staroń says. "That didn't changed after the Berlinale. It only strengthened my belief that simplicity, which is the result of hard work, has great value. Simplicity permits me to tell different stories in a style that is most appropraite to them, I can talk about what is most important instead of just illustrating images".
Krzysztof and Joanna Krauze's Papusza comes to cinemas in 2013. It is about the Polish-Romany poet and singer Bronisława Wajs-Papusza, among the most interesting, least-known figures of 20th-century Polish culture, with black and white cinematography by Krzysztof Ptak and Staroń. Marcin Koszałka's Będziesz legendą człowieku / You'll Be a Legend, Man, a behind-the-scenes look at the 2012 European football championships, for which Staroń was one of six cameramen, comes to the big screen in March 2013. The documentary Brothers, directed and shot by Staroń, is planned for release in autumn 2013.
2011 – Argentinian Lesson, documentary
2007 - W stronę świata / In the Direction of the World, documentary cycle
2005 – Na chwilę / For a Moment, documentary
2005 – Pani Nikifor / Mrs Nikofor, documentary
2004 – Babilon.pl / Babylon.pl, documentary
2000 – El Misionero, documentary
1998 – Czas trwania / Time of Duration, documentary
1998 – Siberian Lesson, documentary
2013 – Papusza, dir. Joanna Kos-Krauze, Krzysztof Krauze, in production
2012 – Będziesz legendą, człowieku / You'll Be a Legend, Man, dir. Marcin Koszałka, documentary
2012 – Uwikłani / Entangled, dir. Lidia Duda, documentary
2011 - 10 w skali Beauforta / 10 on the Beaufort Scale, dir. Helena Giersz, documentary
2011 – El Premio, dir. Paula Markovich, feautre film
2011 - Themerson and Themerson, dir. Wiktoria Szymańska, documentary
2011 – Walc z Miłoszem / Waltz with Miłosz, dir. Joanna Helander, Bo Person, documentary
2011 – Wojtek. The Bear, That Went to War, dir. Will Hood, Adam Lavis, feaature documentary
2011 – Argentinian Lesson, dir. Wojciech Staroń, documentary
2010 – Glasgow, dir. Piotr Subbotko, short feauture
2010 – Jak powstała 'Solidarność' / How 'Solidarity' Was Developed, dir. Krzysztof Materna, documentary
2010 – Vodka Factory, dir. Jerzy Śladkowski, documentary
2009 – Hel, dir. Kinga Dębska, feauture
2009 – Kobieta poszukiwana / A Woman Sought, dir. Michał Marczak, documentary
2008 – Jeszcze nie wieczór / It's Not Evening Yet, dir. Jacek Bławut, Film fabularny
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated and edited by MJ, 11.04.2013