A conversation with Michal Marczak, director of 'constructed reality' film "All These Sleepless Nights"
Michal Marczak's All These Sleepless Nights begins with the definition of the psychological term “remembrance bump” laid out across the screen. The phrase refers to the disproportionate amount of our memory that is comprised of times from when we are young – memories of parties, of late-night conversations with friends, of times spent discovering who we are and what we want to do about it. The filtering of our memories is key to All These Sleepless Nights, a film featuring actors playing themselves in a city playing itself. The gorgeous cinematography, a result of a custom-built camera rig and a lot of time and patience, works alongside the actors to engulf the viewer in the experiences of the main characters. Are they partying and using drugs? Sure, sometimes. But categorizing All These Sleepless Nights as a film about the decadence of the Polish youth's party scene would be like categorizing Gone With the Wind as a war movie. It misses the point.
The film's protagonists, Michal and Krzysztof, were found by the director after an extensive search for the right subjects. Their very real, longtime friendship and interactions are the core subjects of the film, which takes place over the course of about a year and a half. We watch as the two navigate the existential questions that loom over many young people, but in the very specific setting of Warsaw. We sat down with director Michal Marczak to talk about the main ideas behind the film, the culture of contemporary Warsaw youth, and the fast-changing nature of Poland.
Other than the setting, what about Michal and Kryzsztof's experiences would you say are unique to Warsaw?
I think that this is the first generation that's had a chance to be really free. It's a small group in Warsaw (and Poland in general), so it's a very fragile landscape to maneuver. It's really like six or seven clubs or bars, a couple parties, a couple podcasts, and a couple art institutions. It's slowly expanding, but they're definitely part of something new. So this is the first generation that feels like they're sort of building something from scratch, not building upon something that already exists. With this generation it's like, “OK, what's our identity? What's our city's identity?” These clubs, these bars, this music – it was all built from scratch.
Given how much technology has permeated the culture of young people, can you speak to its relative absence in the film?
I think it's so uninteresting, and it's also stuff that you don't really remember. This film has that vibe of filtering everything through someone's memory; mine, the characters', or our joint collective memories of youth-hood. There is something about this crowd – they try to not have technology take over their lives. They really are trying to be conscious about it. At the end of the day, it's physical and intellectual contact that's the most important to them. It's wandering around at the end of the night and having dead-time, and the beauty that comes from dead-time is that you're not buried in your phone. You just let your mind wander, or you just kind of wander and talk bullshit – but some stuff is happening. You're not running around being on your phone constantly, Tweeting or Instagramming your experience, but actually living through it, analyzing it, and trying to take something deeper from it.
What are some of the biggest differences between your generation and Michal and Kryzsztof's?
MM: Definitely being more sure of themselves. There was a huge amount of anxiety within my generation, because it was the first that was kind of setting stuff up and getting stuff done, and also it was a tougher time economically. They're the second generation, so it's just easier and there is less of an overall anxiety. There is also more openness; way more playfulness, way more flirting, way more romanticism, way more nonchalance. With this younger generation I see the boys playing the girls and the girls playing the boys, and allowing themselves to sort of switch roles. Not just sticking to older sort of machismo attitudes, but being vulnerable. At the same time, I had a feeling that people weren't sleeping with each other as much as in my generation and the generations before. I tried to get that proportion right. For instance, we have a scene where four people are in bed cuddling, but they're just sleeping. Of course it's up to the audience to decide, but they actually didn't sleep with each other – that wasn't an orgy, though some people might read it that way. It was just after a party, falling asleep and cuddling and giving each other warmth, and sharing that moment of being together without it having it be about sex.
The film is essentially apolitical. Would it be possible to create a nonfiction film focusing on the youth in today's Poland without addressing the current political climate?
It would be impossible. At the time when we filmed the movie, it really was this sweet spot with everything. Eighteen years of economic growth, getting out beautifully from the financial crisis without a big setback, and a lot of available jobs in Warsaw. However, everybody had a feeling in the back of their minds that it probably wasn't going to last, because unfortunately in Poland we have this terrible thing of fucking stuff up.
The people you see in the film are going almost every week to a protest somewhere. They're very worried about their future, because the fallback was that if things go to shit in Poland we could always go to London and make some money there, but that's... finishing. So now there is a lot of unease. The economy hasn't changed drastically yet, but everybody feels like it might change soon because the decisions of the government are just so wrong. A lot of these people protesting are in the arts, and the arts are funded by the government, and the government is cutting all that funding, so it's going to be affecting people very soon. If you were to come and see a party today, the vibe would be completely different from the parties you see in the film. This film in today's Poland would be like 30% talking about politics and going to rallies.
A standout scene in the film is Kryzsztof wearing the bunny suit in the park, talking to all the different people from various generations. What do you think that says about the way generations interact in Warsaw?
In Poland people, especially older people, were brought up very much to mind their own business. You pretend to not overhear conversations, don't strike up random conversations with strangers, etc. I think that it's important that people break out of the bubbles that atmosphere has created around them, which of course was a result of 60 years of it being potentially dangerous to say your opinions out loud. That was what made us want to do that scene. I was very surprised by how the people walking by reacted, because it showed that there is a ray of hope. That it's just about reaching out, and if you do (even if it has to be a bunny), people do want to engage and will engage, and are smiling and genuinely happy that someone has talked them up. So we were actually blown away by that, because generally when you try to talk to someone just on the street it's very difficult to just strike up a conversation.
We're spreading apart from each other even more now, with those who are for the government and those who are against it. Of course the government wants to split us up as much as possible, because then there is no cooperation, and everyone is falling into that trap. Even we are falling into that trap bycalling anyone who supports the government idiots and looking down on them. Instead, we should be reaching out to them and talking even if it leads to nowhere. It's the only way we can actually be a society
Did you have to deal with really drunk or high people messing up your shots in the large party scenes?
Definitely, it happened a lot. A lot of talking and explaining what I'm doing. But there are moments that happen, they're rare but they happen, when you have a really good night and everything sort of falls into place. These things all have natural rhythms. If you try to fight against the rhythm, you get a lot of what you mentioned, because you're filming at a time when everyone is unfocused. But if you wait for the right time and the right track to come on – maybe the sun has just started to come up, and there's a wave of nice, fresh air and just two or three good dancers come on the dance floor who get things going, then all of a sudden 100 people get really into the flow for like, ten minutes. If you're able to do your scene during that time, people completely forget about the fact that there's a guy there with a camera. They don't look at you, because they're all in their own worlds, entrenched in what they're doing. We definitely waited a lot for those moments. That's the thing about this film – it was everybody just acting naturally, not trying to create reality with brute force – “Now everybody dance! Now everybody don't look at the camera! Now everybody have a good time!” when actually everybody is tired and wants to go home, or have just arrived and haven't gotten into the party yet.
While partying and drugs are elements of the film, I definitely wouldn't say they're at all what the film is “about.” Why do you think people tend to fixate on those aspects of the film?
There are only like three or four scenes that even deal directly with drugs, and we filmed over the course of a year and a half. I think it's people not looking for a deeper truth, saying the first thing that comes to mind, and using stereotypes. Also, not being very true to themselves. Everyone has been to a party and gotten drunk, but I think that for must of us at the end of a long party where we had a lot to drink, we would be saying stuff that is way less comprehensible than 90% of what the characters say. They're never really falling around drunk – it's actually just a couple beers, which is really the norm. This generation actually uses way less drugs and alcohol than my generation, just because there is more of that playfulness and being sure of yourself. Usually, drinking a lot of alcohol is connected to being unsure of yourself. Having to get wasted to have the courage to go and talk to someone else isn't something these people of Michal and Kryzsztof's generation are experiencing. Of course drugs and alcohol help still as social lubricants, but it's more like one or two beers just to get loose, or if it is drugs it's psychedelics, which you'd experience together with a group in nature or something. If my children were partying on the level of the people in the film I'd actually be really happy – it's really responsible if you think about it.
There isn't any mention in the film of what Michal and Krzys “do,” insofar as explaining how they're living in the apartments they are and affording to live. Why did you decide to leave that aspect of their lives out of the film?
When I wrote down my memories (which was kind of the idea behind the construction of the film, how selective memory is), that was just something that did not make the list. Of course I remembered where I was working when I really thought about it, but it wasn't on my list of thirty or forty memories that were important to me. The characters were the same in their thinking. They don't really want to think about work or talk about it, and when they go out that's the last thing they want to talk about. They want to talk about creative stuff, not bore people with their job problems. They don't want to be bored by other people's job problems either, because actually the way they think of it is that they aren't really problems. The real problems are the emotional ones – figuring all that out. That's one of the things that I think is inherent about Polish culture. What I saw in this group, and this has also happened to me many, many times in Warsaw, is you go on an adventure with somebody you just met, and you don't know what they do. That question just doesn't come up. It's sort of playing a game with seeing how well we can interact with each other just playing off of what we do and who we are in the moment. Where you work or what school you go to doesn't have to be the first question. I see that there is this vibe to consciously not ask that question, to postpone it until the very last moment to see how you interact as people first. I think it's really funny to wrap your identity around your job as a 23- or 24-year-old... like, what are you doing? You're trying to figure your shit out – your internal poetry. That comes across not by just saying, but by being. I like when people interact based on how they are reacting to the now, not based on where you're from or what your job is. When you start adding all of that in, it gives the audience a very simple mechanism to judge the characters with, which when you actually think about it makes no difference to who they are. It could have very easily become, “Oh, they're acting crazy like that because they're art students.” There are so many other mechanisms that tell you about a person(how they talk, how they dress, how they act) that are much more interesting.
The film has debuted in Poland in wide release. Has the audience reaction been what you expected, or did people take away different things from the film than you might have intended?
There was a lot of hatred – more than I thought there would be. I knew there would be a little bit. There's a big divide among people, some don't want to allow for this freedom, they want simple answers and require people to want to know what they're doing in life. They don't want people to explore new avenues, they see what happens in the film as decadence and depravity. They aren't interested in looking at it as just a natural process. Of course a lot of them probably do the same thing but are getting even more drunk, they just don't acknowledge it. Poland is unfortunately a very splintered country, especially right now. That was a bit sad. There were a lot of gay references to the main characters and stuff, instead of focusing on their beautiful friendship, a kind of friendship I would love for many other people to be able to have. I think it challenged people in Poland to think a little bit broader, so hopefully it did that. At the same time, hundreds of people wrote that they saw themselves in the film and it's totally what their life is, so it's a good sign that we were able to capture that vibe of being that age at that time.
Do you think it's possible to “find what's missing” when you're also immersed in the escapism we watch Michal and Kryz enjoy in the film?
I think it's an accumulation of the whole thing, the collective experience. There's a line in the film when Kryzsztof says, “I have all these experiences and all these beautiful moments, but I don't know what to do with them.” I think now he's moving into this period where he wants not just to experience things for the sake of experiencing them, but for the sake of doing something bigger.
I love to go on those kinds of adventures with people, I love to have the night never end and have the conversations never end, to just keep on walking and keep on exploring. After a certain time I reached a point where I wanted to do something with the moments, and I had to figure out how. If I was a writer I'd have written, but the natural thing for me was to have that style but make films, so that I could do that with characters but have the camera record those moments for others to experience. For me, that was the answer, but that took time. Later I understood that I have a thing for creating situations where people can feel comfortable in the now, and create these little enclaves of our own world, which is something you need for film making, so it was just natural that it was what I'd do. I feel very comfortable that both of these guys are getting closer to honing in on that for themselves. We end the film realizing that Kryzsztof's time of trying to figure things out is coming to an end, and something new has to happen. We're not saying whether the character will succeed or not, it's up to the audience to decide if they have faith in these characters or they don't, but I have faith and I think they're going to go on to do very interesting things. To be interesting people who do interesting things and have interesting children. I definitely don't have a bleak outlook.
Written by Michael Podell
Photography by Kiu Ka Yee