Ksawery Szczepanik, an emerging Polish documentary filmmaker, sat down for a brief discussion at the 36th edition of Warsaw Film Festival. Going for Gold chronicles the rise and fall of pole vaulting athlete Władysław Kozakiewicz, who became famous in the 1980s for both world records and a bras d'honneur gesture – that quickly became a symbol of resistance against the Communist regime. The film merges archive footage with interviews to paint a compelling portrait of Kozakiewicz – an attempt to broaden the knowledge about his career in those tumultuous years in Poland.

Going for Gold is probably the first film about Władysław Kozakiewicz. How did you find an interest in his persona and his story for your documentary?

I tried to pick protagonists who resemble the fate of the Greek Icarus, who wanted to fly. He flew too close to the Sun and this made his wings fall apart, so he landed in the sea and died. This is something that I look for amongst people that I can potentially make a film about. In the fate or in the life of Kozakiewicz, this is what I noticed. That was the beginning.

How was the relationship between you and Kozakiewicz? How did you manage to make him open up so much in front of the camera?

I’m not sure I managed to do that, but he surprised me with his tears. Kozakiewicz, in this film, when he’s talking about his career, he says, “All the doors were open to me, at some point, after winning in Moscow”. In a way, doors presently open in front of filmmakers as well. With documentary films, either the doors are locked and they‘ll never open or they open really quickly - this was the case with Kozakiewicz. I don’t quite remember how I managed to get to him, but it wasn’t too difficult to find his telephone number. He said, “Yes, let’s meet, let’s talk about it”. He was definitely comfortable speaking about his rise, but I did push him a little bit to be able to talk about this period of his career when he wasn’t the best pole vault jumper any more. 

Has your drive to make the film anything to do with your interest in sports?

I think my past and my childhood helped me. My father used to take me to the stadium and make me run circuits. I knew the taste of sweat and I could, somehow, feel the same emotion as probably Kozakiewicz did. He was feeling that at a larger scale, although. As an example, if I have to make a film about a musician, as I have no musical education, it would be more difficult to feel the same as he or she does.

Kozakiewicz’s success as a pole vaulter marks a critical time in Poland’s history, which your film analyses through both official and personal archive footage. How did you have access to this footage? 

My inspiration was Asif Kapadia’s film about Senna - a documentary that was made only with archives. I found it great and we thought we should do it in Poland as well. We do have Polish Television and another production house that used to make documentary films back under Communism, but it turned out there wasn’t much 35mm film in Poland at that time. We had to contact German, Russian and French television to look through their archives on Kozakiewicz. The rest of the videos belong to Władysław and to another photographer who appears in the film.

How do you think Kozakiewicz’s infamous gesture against the Soviet Union is perceived today?

We have this saying in Polish, “Kozakiewicz’s gesture”, but who’s Kozakiewicz is still a question for younger generations. I wanted to answer this and show how this spontaneous gesture became a political one. That sign took him all the way up to the sun, with all the consequences that came along.

The latest film by Latvian director Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen, My Favorite War / Moja ulubiona wojna (2020), summons the communist past of Latvia, recollected through the director’s memories of childhood and adolescence. Merging animation, archive footage and live action, the documentary reenacts history on its own ethical terms – Jacobsen is not interested in alluding to facts and events which she or her family hasn’t previously experienced. On the contrary, she’s invested in a personal reinterpretation of domestic and social hardships in the emerging political background.

The bidimensional animation is driven by Ilze’s sense of belonging in both her family and her country. Thread by thread, the film showcases how Ilze was tricked to serve the socialist values in order to pursue a career in journalism, as a way of honoring her late father – a reliable man of the party. While the voice-over belongs to the adult Ilze, the animated representation is her miniature, a not-so-naïve little red pioneer. Focusing on micro-histories is a fine instrument of storytelling in this case: Jacobsen finds inventive ways to draw out the larger realities through the tiny discoveries of this girl, such as finding human bones while playing in a sandpit as a child.

Whereas the animation has its own internal consistency and reliable characters, the use of different visual formats feels crammed, and ends up disrupting the film’s rhythm. My Favorite War’s greatest achievement is crafting a deeply personal take on the history of a country. Yet the attempt could have been more easily successful by preserving the continuity of the animation itself, which we grew to trust in the process.