Black Humour's Tender Touch: An Interview with 'Mug' Director Małgorzata Szumowska

Małgorzata Szumowska reflects on writing and directing Mug, "a grotesque satire on the fairy tale", and how the filmmaking process evokes opposing emotions that shape her personality.

Mug (Twarz)
Małgorzata Szumowska

Bulldog Films

7 Dec 2018 (UK)

Małgorzata Szumowska's Mug (Twarz, 2018) tells the story of construction worker Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz), whose three loves are heavy metal, his girlfriend and his dog. Following a disfiguring accident on a construction project to build what will be the tallest statue of Jesus anywhere in the world, he undergoes the first facial transplant in Poland.

Mug was the recipient of the Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, shadowing the success of Szumowska's 2015 film Body (Ciało), about a daughters grief and a psychiatrist troubled with her own angst. (See also Alex Ramon's interview with Szumowska re: Body.) Indeed, anxiety runs through the filmmaker's narrative fiction work, from her sophomore feature Stranger (Ono) (2004), about one woman learning to accept her life for the sake of her unborn child, 33 Scenes From Life (33 sceny z zycia) (2008) that revolves around an artist in the midst of a series of crises, to the priest In The Name of (W imie...) (2013) hiding a secret.

In conversation with PopMatters, Szumowska reflects on film as a means of communicating her thoughts and feelings, the necessity for an original work of film, and her manipulation of black humour within the fairy tale form.

How did directing and producing merge together for you?

You know, it was very easy. I used to travel a lot around festivals, and I met so many people that then it was somehow at the point of my second feature film, when I was twenty seven or twenty eight. I started very young and at that time in Poland we didn't have anything yet, no co-productions, and The Polish Film Institute had just been established. Somehow I didn't have a choice, and it was a natural one to produce because I was one of the few people in Poland who understood what it meant to make a co-production, and for an international audience.

Do you find motivation in the deeper emotional impulses, such as the uncertainty of the filmmaking process and the risk of failing?

In the beginning it's of course always an idea, sometimes even it's like a frame or a picture, something you've seen on the street, or a piece of dialogue you have heard. For me it was also a very small beginning, which became a huge inspiration.

I always had a very strong desire to share my feelings about the world around me, the people, and even those very strong things such as the nature of dying and the mystery of life. I had this desire to share what I felt because I was emotional, and it is still the same after all these years.

But on the other hand you are becoming more and more practical because the making of films is pragmatic. It is not like writing a poem or being a painter, you have to be very pragmatic to get all the people together, and they have to trust and to follow you, so you have to be a natural leader. You have to convince people to give you money because if you are making films, then you are making films with money, and it's a very difficult and complex process. One of the most difficult things is to have faith, and to keep it in your soul throughout sometimes what is a terrible process, a cynical one from this first idea that drives you to film, which is the bigger difficulty.

Małgorzata Szumowska on set (Photo ©Bartosz Mrozowski courtesy of Team PR / Bulldog Films)

You have spoken about critics and audiences understanding the message, and I recall that for art to endure, it must be discussed. While a film exists in the moment it is seen by an audience, their discussion in which ideas and impressions are exchanged is also a moment in which a film exists. Could we say a film is alive in one moment more than the other, or are both equal points in which the film lives and breathes?

It's hard to say, but to me the film is probably more alive when it is discussed by the audience because in the moment the audience are watching the film, the reaction is very spontaneous. It's a moment, and then if the film still exists and people are discussing it afterwards, then in my opinion that's when it's more alive.

Do you perceive there to be a transformative act to the filmmaking process, where it changes you as a person?

Yes, definitely. In my case for example, I'm changing from one film to another, and I'm also changing with the forces of the whole film. It's always like this, but it's very hard to explain. Sometimes it makes me much more cynical, and other times the process makes me the opposite, more soft and over sensitive. It depends on the film, but that's the kind of dynamic, and as you said it really exists and sometimes it makes me very tired. You are unstable somehow because of that fact, and somehow you can never know what to expect, and it's also very unpredictable.

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