The winner of the coveted jury’s prize at this years Skjaldborg Film Festival was Polish director Pawel Ziemilski, for ‘In Touch’ his poignant and artistic documentary portraying the fractured community of Stare Juchy in Northern Poland. 400 inhabitants of this village—something like a quarter of the population—now live in Iceland.
The festival took place in Patreksfjörður this June for the 13th year running. The documentary festival is a place for the great and good of Icelandic filmmaking to get together, as well as a mecca for movie fans, with the films screened for free in the town’s cinema.
Sense of isolation
The documentary, ‘In Touch,’ is a unique viewing experience. The film shows individuals watching and interacting with ingeniously projected footage of their distant family members as if they were together—for example, by hugging, walking “together,” or saving shots from each other at a simulated football practice. This briefly brings the residents of this divided town back together for a heart-breakingly fleeting moment.
In the director’s own words, this rejoining created a “virtual village,” which is accompanied by recordings of the individuals speaking via Skype. As we watch these phantom interactions, we hear out of sync conversations—a stylistic choice that’s incredibly effective in evoking the sense of isolation between the individuals.
The outcome is a haunting and moving affair. In one scene, an older Polish woman in her shirtsleeves wanders around her garden at night, staring out at a snowy Reykjavík that gleams all around, enveloping her and her surroundings. In another, a young woman in Iceland steps out of her house in full weather-proof gear, animatedly showing an invisible family member around her neighbourhood. As she walks out of view the shot switches to show the person she is speaking to watching the footage projected onto a huge school gym wall, their tiny figure dwarfed by that of their beloved, who is marching away from them towards a cold sea.
The company of family
Surprisingly, this key stylistic choice—the very essence of the film—was not decided on until very late in the filmmaking process. “I made this film over almost six years and probably the first four years were just trying different stuff,” explains Pawel. “I really believe that in a documentary film you need some kind of an exchange. It’s not just that you find a good story and you tell that story. It’s more like, you find a story, you find characters—but then you have to find a way to give them something back.”
What Pawel gives them back is a chance to be once again in the company of their family. You can tell how much this means to the characters in the film by the way they interact with the projections, often physically reaching out to touch them.
In one of the most affecting scenes of the film, an old man lies on his bed, watching a projection of his very young granddaughter trying to fall asleep in hers. “You’re sleepy, aren’t you?” he says quietly, to the image of the tired child lighting up his wall. “Kinia, honey, will you sleep now?” He gently sings the girl a lullaby, as if he has completely forgotten about the trickery involved in making the scene possible. And, for just a second, we do, too.
Info: The documentary ‘In Touch’ won the Jury’s Prize at the Skjaldborg Film Festival 2019. Get more info here.
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