The filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski did not intend for his latest movie Ida to be watched anywhere apart from his native Poland.
After all, a black-and-white Polish-language film about a nun and the Holocaust — shot on six-by-four film with a non-moving camera — is not the kind many would consider viable as a commercial success.
But Ida has been doing remarkably well on the festival circuit. It won Best Film at the London Film Festival, the top prize at the Gdynia Festival and the Fipresci (International Critics) award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has garnered rave reviews everywhere else.
“I made it for Polish people,” explains Pawlikowski. “So the fact that it’s doing the rounds internationally is fantastic, because it sounded like a formula for disaster. It was very well received in Poland — people there like that I wasn’t trying to ape a western film.”
Ida follows an orphaned noviciate nun who, on the eve of taking her vows, is told she has an aunt who survived the Holocaust. The 18-year-old Ida leaves the shelter of the convent for the first time to stay with the rebellious aunt, Wanda, who tells her that she’s actually Jewish, and together they uncover the secrets of their family’s wartime past.
Pawlikowski himself left communist Poland at the age of 14, and lived in Germany and Italy before recently moving to Britain.
“My grandmother was Jewish and so was my father, but I was brought up as Catholic,” he says. “I have always been haunted by faith and identity because I lived in many different places. I have reached a moment in life where I am more interested in the past. I needed to go back to a particular time that I remember quite intensely, because of my childhood. It’s the generation of my parents — the film is set in 1962, which was a pretty historical moment in Poland — the country was moving away from a hard-core Stalinist society and new life crept in, people listened to jazz music ... It was a specific time and place. But I hope it’s themes are universal enough for it to mean something in other societies. It’s about faith, identity and love — those minor things in life!
“I had always imagined the film in black and white, when I first started writing it. It’s how I remember that period of history, from family albums. The problem with shooting in black and white is that you cannot film things that are bright white as it burns, so you have to use off-white instead. But the lack of colour allowed me to strip down and focus on what’s important — to limit the field of vision, to show less and suggest more. The film is elliptic.”
Pawlikowski made attempts at being a poet, musician and photographer before embarking on directing, and says he became a filmmaker through a process of elimination because he had failed at everything else — something that is hard to believe coming from a man who read philosophy and literature at Oxford and who speaks six different languages.
Pawlikowski’s other work includes the Bafta award-winning Last Resort (2000), and My Summer of Love (2004), starring Emily Blunt. His forthcoming projects include an original English-language feature, Epic, and a Georgian-Russian language film, titled Kamo, about the early career of Joseph Stalin.
• Ida screens at 8.45pm on Friday, November 1, Marina Mall Vox 5