Agnieszka Holland’s provocative film, Spoor, challenges preconceived notions of animal dominion, gender equality, and the excessive use of power by the ruling class. A recipient of multiple awards, including three Academy Awards nominations, Holland is a masterful director who excels at weaving powerful and conflicting themes into stories. Inspired by Olga Tokarczuk’s book, Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, the title of the film refers to the tracks and traces left by animals, while its original title, Pokot, is a hunting expression referring to the count of animals killed after the hunt.
Janina Duszejko (a brilliant Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) is a retired engineer who lives with her two dogs in a remote village of Poland. She is an admirer of the writings of William Blake and a fervent believer in justice and the protection of nature and animals. The lush countryside abounds with wildlife (stunningly captured by cinematographers Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski) and becomes the stage for an insidious battle between good and evil when members of the local hunting club, who revel in poaching domesticated or wild animals, are murdered one by one. While the police are left dumbfounded, Duszejko offers a simple explanation: perhaps animals are slaughtering the locals. Their mission: vengeance.
Duszejko eventually unearths a series of revelations in this seemingly normal community where cruelty and perversion run hand in hand. She is joined along the way by a cast of wonderful characters, including an entomologist (Miroslav Krobot) who becomes her lover and one of her allies; a shy young woman who endures being belittled by men; and a debilitated but nevertheless brilliant young man who is also a computer genius. By allowing us to look beneath the surface of what is otherwise deemed to be socially or ethically acceptable, this audacious story challenges us to rethink our blind acceptance of “reality,” with its abundance of traps, figuratively and literally, for humans and animals alike.
The film won a Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale, and was Poland’s official submission for the 2018 Oscars.
CYNTHIA BIRET: What was the motivating factor for choosing to bring Tokarczuk’s book to the screen?
ANGIESZKA HOLLAND: Tokarczuk’s book is provocative and at the same time very different from anything I have done, because the story and its genre are not so defined, which is a big challenge especially today when the public is so used to categorizing everything. You cannot really tell if it is a thriller, a dark comedy, some kind of ecological manifesto, an artistic drama, or perhaps a fairytale. It is a mix of reality and fantasy, and the main character is some kind of a witch from my generation who just cannot accept the cruelty and the injustice of this male-driven hunting chorus. And of course hunters are not only the people who actually kill animals, but they are also the metaphor for the brutal power that doesn’t have any kind of empathy or interest in the lives and feelings of the weakest.
BIRET: Duszejko is a wonderful character. She is a former engineer who is sensitive to injustice and has compassion for animals.
HOLLAND: She is defending those who are weak, who are voiceless. And she is voiceless because they don’t listen to her, although she is an educated woman with an extensive experience building bridges and also speaks several languages. But this doesn’t mean anything for these guys, and they just won’t listen to her. This is the story of the anger growing in those who are voiceless and powerless, which is quite a universal story today actually.
BIRET: Was it challenging to translate the book into script form?
HOLLAND: Olga wrote the first draft of the script, and it was challenging at first to work on the content, but we succeeded after much work. She is an amazing writer. She is famous not only in Poland but also in parts of Europe, especially Scandinavia. They are actually considering her for a potential Nobel Prize.
BIRET: Your daughter, Kasia Adamik, worked as your collaborative director.
HOLLAND: She is also a director and we collaborate quite often. We discussed the style and the ideas, and then shared directing.
BIRET: The film has elements of a detective crime story with a mystical feel.
HOLLAND: Yes, it’s exactly what I tried to mix, these different mythological dimensions: the existential dimension and the entertaining dimension. It is like a detective crime mystery with many layers. For example, the flashbacks about the character, what she imagines and what she feels about those people, all these elements are there to expose her “witchy quality” which allows her to see into people’s lives.
BIRET: This is a very risky film because it tackles the sacrosanct doctrines of hunting and religion.
HOLLAND: Yes, hunting is a very big thing in some countries. In Poland the law supports hunting, especially now that the government is very right wing. The guy who is the minister of the environment is a devoted hunter, a very cruel hunter, and because of this, they are passing laws to give hunters every legislative right possible. They can even hunt on your property if they are in pursuit of game; and if you end up shot by them, then it’s your responsibility and not theirs, because they have a powerful lobby. And I’m not even speaking about all the other animals that they can kill at any moment.
BIRET: You are unveiling a religious dogma that very few people dare to question.
HOLLAND: Religion was corrupted, as you know, by people of power. This village is representative of the Catholic Church in Poland, and this priest uses biblical sentences and quotes stating that the earth is our property. It is not our property. They are using quotations in the bible to justify the destruction of the planet, and it does not only concern the people in Poland, because you can also be the president of the US and have this type of attitude. It is an arrogant attitude of male power. It’s interesting because I was wondering why there is an attack on ecology from different authoritarian governments or leaders. Ecology is something that is global. If you spoil the air, the air in your country spoils the air in the next country; ecology doesn’t have borders. These types of people hate situations that they cannot control.
BIRET: This attitude also caters to exploitative industries that destroy the environment.
HOLLAND: Of course, it’s because of money, but I think that it’s even bigger than that; it is a question of power. Right now I feel that we are in some type of revolution about struggle and power, and it’s going to determine who will be leading the world. At the same time, we have some type of a counter-revolution, which is done by right wing white males. They think that this is the very last opportunity to preserve their “power.” And this is why they are acting in such a hysterical way.
BIRET: Your film forces us to re-evaluate our perception of reality by raising questions about the cruelty used to treat not only animals but also other human beings. Case in point, the devoted poacher reeks of misogyny and also runs a bordello. One of his employees is a man who exploits a fur farm and is also a thief. Was the scene with the young kids singing in the church choir in front of dead animals based in reality?
HOLLAND: I am a realist, inspired very much by the reality of what I see outside in the world instead of my own imagination. All these elements I have seen somewhere: I have seen young children dragged into the hunt, I have seen a priest, a very established priest actually, the primate of Poland, giving mass with dead animals in front of the altar. His name is Bishop Kovalchick, and he was offering his blessings during a hunting mass with dead bodies of boars lying in front of the altar. It’s totally pagan, because he is using and showing sacrifice. The song that the children are singing is a very popular type of folk song celebrating the joy of hunting and killing animals. And the children are singing this song without thinking too much about the meaning of these words.
BIRET: This type of indoctrination starts at a very young age.
HOLLAND: Exactly. This culture of cruelty is so deeply encrusted into people’s minds and habits that they don’t even realize what it means.
BIRET: At the same time, it also targets women. It diminishes the value of women while objectifying them.
HOLLAND: Especially older woman. I really wanted to steer away from showing a younger or middle-aged woman, and instead chose an older woman as the main character. The older woman functions less and less as a desirable object of sexual interest until eventually she disappears. She becomes totally transparent. They even don’t see her. They probably can bump into her and not take notice. They cannot even remember her name.
BIRET: By “they,” do you mean men?
HOLLAND: They, meaning the men of power. It’s about some concept of masculinity that is very prominent in Catholic countries, and elsewhere as well, and these men are now fighting to keep their power. The person who is the most irritated by this movie is the older man, usually over 30, who somehow feels uncomfortable with this kind of point of view in this type of situation. But women are starting to strike back.
BIRET: Is the political insecurity a breeding ground for this way of thinking?
HOLLAND: Yes. We have now three major reasons for a revolution as a result to the current crisis in democracy: the first one is globalization and immigration, because it deprives the local government of local power due to the takeover by global corporations; the second is the Internet revolution, which I think is the deepest one because it changes everything, not only information, but also human communication on a local and global level. This is creating some kind of platform, an Agora (Greek name for a public open space as a forum for democracy), but now people are practically losing their power to the Internet, because it can be totally manipulated. Of course it has its advantages, but it has also great dangers and encloses people in kinds of “bubbles” where it becomes impossible to know the truth, and anyone can post anything and it spreads like wildfire. And, finally, the third reason for revolution is the gender revolution, especially in the democratic world where women can choose their lifestyle. This in turn has an impact on demography because they don’t want to procreate as much as they did before. Therefore, suddenly the white societies are shrinking. For white men, the danger is very visceral. They feel that somehow their species are shrinking, and they can lose their power. Men who belong to the middle and lower class had already lost their power with the development of capitalism and globalization. Their jobs are now insecure, their pay is smaller, and now they don’t feel respected in their homes, because women want to live their lives and choose what they want to do. When you watch what Trump does or what the conservative government in Poland does or what happens in Hungary, or with Putin, you realize that they push women back into the kitchen and into the children’s bedroom.
BIRET: What is the current political situation in Poland?
HOLLAND: In Poland we have now some kind of little Trump, with polish specificities, with a mix of nationalism and right wing Catholicism. And the guy who is the leader there has very authoritarian power and ambitions. They are destroying liberal democracy right now, by changing the laws and breaking the constitution, and they are doing this gradually. At first people took to the streets but now it’s already been two years and they are starting to lose hope. Supporters of this government are growing in number; they love efficient brutal power and the feeling that one person can fix everything, while being free to do whatever he likes. This is the opposite of democracy where you have to negotiate everything. They are an authoritarian regime telling people they know what they need, and to keep their mouths shut. A lot of people accept it, but it always fails.
BIRET: What type of challenges did you experience during the making of this film?
HOLLAND: We had a major challenge with filming this story because it takes place over four seasons, and it took a long time to finish filming. It was also challenging at first to raise funds, but we ended up receiving additional help from the Polish Film Institute.
BIRET: The calendar depicting the beginning of each season is at the same time quaint and disheartening, because there is always a season or a reason to kill animals. Add to this the prevalence of illegal poaching, and it becomes very clear that Duszejko is standing up against a very pervasive society. It is interesting that William Blake’s philosophy inspires her entire lifestyle.
HOLLAND: Every chapter of the calendar starts with one of his poems. Olga’s house is located in this particular place of Poland that was Germany before the war and is located in between Czech and German borders. It is a very beautiful but also very tragic area. And in this place lived practically all of Blake’s German translators. He was this very independent crazy visionary spirit, and we found it kind of magical that his spirit is still present in those mountains.
BIRET: It is beautiful to watch her laugh around a bonfire with both her friend and her lover. Her wits and wisdom help her with attracting compatible companions. There is also another character, a young woman struggling to make a living and who will eventually choose a better life along with a more truthful partner. Was she originally in the book?
HOLLAND: Duszejko calls her “good news,” because she gave special names to people. She was portrayed differently in the book. We added the part where she fell in love.
BIRET: She is confronted with the evil spirit of her original love interest, the man of dubious morality who works for Wnetrzak. At the end of the day, we see her at one of his parties wearing a “sexy bunny” outfit. There is a parallel between an innocent woman and a deer stepping in dangerous territories. While she overcomes her self-doubt and finds balance again in her choice of men, there is lightheadedness to her character, and at the same time, notes of humor are omnipresent throughout the film.
HOLLAND: You know, humor is a very important aspect of the film. It is peppered through the dialog and the situations of the story. This element of black comedy is important.
BIRET: It is possible that people might misinterpret the film, especially with the scene with the explosion. Do you feel that you are promoting violence with that scene?
HOLLAND: One could make references to eco-terrorism, but I am not telling people to go out there and kill all these people. Django was my inspiration for this film, and this is akin to asking Tarantino if he was promoting violence with Django Unchained, when black slaves were killing all the white plantation owners. It is a revenge story, and Duszejko is an avenger. I wanted to play with some level of realism and some level of fantasy. I am showing some degree of despair, powerlessness and anger that can become really dangerous and violent, even if it touches the best possible people.
BIRET: The last scene is especially beautiful, with the dogs running towards Duszejko who appears to be living a happy life in balance with nature, while the voice over hints to a new cycle of life, with the emergence to a new reality.
HOLLAND: You are seeing the dogs running next to the deer, as if nothing happened. Are they the same dogs who were killed at the beginning? They are lying in the grass as if nothing happened, and you don’t know if it’s a fantasy, some kind of paradise, or if it’s reality. In this last scene where she is sharing dinner with her friends, it shows happiness, but at the same time it is very ordinary. I wanted to give this type of natural feeling and show. You see, it could be like that. Why not?
BIRET: Let’s talk about animal issues. When did you first become sensitive to the plight of animals?
HOLLAND: I was sensitive since childhood, but I used to push it away from me. At the same time, if you really open your mind and think about the situation, you realize what is going on and gather knowledge about butchering factories, you know…
BIRET: Are you referring to factory farms?
HOLLAND: No, I mean the way animals are killed, or how they are raised. Take chicken farms as an example. When you open your eyes and see these images, it’s very difficult to forget them. But at the same time, if you see them, that means you have to totally change your lifestyle.
BIRET: Are you a vegetarian?
HOLLAND: I’m not vegetarian, but I am trying to eliminate meat and these kinds of proteins gradually. Five years ago when I was eating meat, I was not thinking about it at the time because I did not make the connection. But now I am making the connection. This type of change can happen progressively for many people.
BIRET: Would you like to speak about the presence of women as directors?
HOLLAND: We have now in Poland a real big group of talented women filmmakers. When I started, I went to film school in Prague when I was 17, and when I came back to Poland, I did not have problems due to my gender, but because I was politically in opposition of the communist regime. This made is quite difficult to start, but I was helped by my colleagues and by my famous friend Polish director Andrzej Wajda. He was my mentor and really fought for me; he was also the producer of my first movie.
BIRET: Please talk to us about your upcoming projects.
HOLLAND: There are two TV series. I just finished the first in the US for Hulu. It’s created by Beau Willimon, who also created House of Cards, and it is a slightly futuristic but very realistic drama about a group of astronauts going to Mars. The second TV series is for the Polish Netflix, and we started shooting it in January in Poland. It’s kind of an alternative history of Poland, where communism did not fall apart, but changed to some kind of modernization and a sort of Orwellian organization of the society, some kind of dystopia. I also have a feature film coming up, but I just lost the main actor, so I am trying to quickly recast it to keep it on schedule. It’s called Gareth Jones. It’s about a British journalist who went to study in Russia and discovered the Ukranian famine. As a very young guy, he escaped Russia and wrote about it, but no one wanted to listen to him and at he ended up killed by the KGB.
BIRET: What type of feedback has Spoor already received?
HOLLAND: During the first screening, it was a great relief when the audience got it, and started to laugh at the right moments.
BIRET: What is the most important message of your film?
BIRET: Courage! Fantastic. Thank you.