Life sometimes comes too early. And death always comes too soon.
In her third decade on our planet, Aneta Kopacz somehow finds herself a specialist in life and death, a seasoned jouster with the ultimate questions. Her short documentary film, Joanna, about a young mother dying of cancer, was nominated for an Oscar (2013) and tapped to win by the Hollywood Reporter. Though it failed to win, the story of a thirty-something cancer patient coming to terms with death on camera was terrifyingly riveting. In this arresting film, which is more about life than death in its being aware of one’s demise, there were echoes of renowned author Christopher Hitchens, who also died of cancer of the esophagus, the ultimate irony since he was perhaps the ablest debater or our time. Hitchens, too, died publically and courageously. So it can be done, dying with dignity, in this often graceless age.
Ms. Kopacz graduated in psychology, an appropriate grounding for her recent livelihood, from the University of Warsaw, then took a postgraduate course in reporting before attending studying filmmaking at the Andrzej Wajda School in Krakow.
Her latest project is an ambitious TV serial for Polish TVP, My 600 Grams, an intense study of how premature birth affects families. It’s filmed on location in a hospital in Krakow where Miss Kopacz struggles to master her task along with the emotions of the mothers and fathers whose children arrive too soon for their own good.
Today is a warm sunny day and we are sitting outside of the main studio of Polish Television. A band is warming up too, for a show to introduce new programs for the 2015-16 season. The prevalent song is All You Need Is Love. . . and a good doctor, the thought occurs.
WRR: Why this subject and why now?
AK: I was chosen to do this by the producer (from Polish TVP). One day he just called me because of (her film) Joanna. People connect me to tough stuff and that I’m willing to do these subjects that are about illness.
WRR: They think. What do you think? Why do you do it?
AK: I don’t know. I’m tired of it.
She will soon wrap up shooting.
WRR: But really?
AK: Somehow I like to take on things that are impossible to do. Because this project now is impossible to do really. Because you cannot just enter the hospital and go to the intensive care unit. Where some of the babies are dying. Where there is huge stress for doctors and for parents. Emotions are very, very high most of the time. So imagine the cameras there shooting people crying and in distress. During the first two weeks it was not apparent we would be able to do this. We were seen as enemies by the hospital. So they tried to get rid of us. We are saving lives. You are not welcome. We were in the way. So it was really hard work to convince them that we were not interested in filming the procedures. With checking them, looking over their shoulder. Seeing if they are okay with every step.
WRR: They were worried about you documenting their mistakes rather than...
AK: Yes yes. Or parents crying and we would shoot them very closely when a kid is dying. They didn’t trust us.
WRR: Is that in the show.
AK: Yes, but we are not close to this. We are outside shooting discreetly. We need to show that kids are dying because if not, then people will not believe us. We have to show that sometimes they don’t make it and all aspects. So also kids dying.
WRR: What did you learn in your previous film that is helping you in doing this one?
AK: I’m not sure if I learned anything that helped me now, but the most important thing in every documentary is to have a strong relationship to the subject. You have to give and take. You have to share your life share your opinion and then you can get into a relationship and exchange information. In this case we are doing everything online. We are shooting and trying to create a relationship with people. Imagine. Normally when everything is ok, then the mother is the first person holding the child. In this case the situation is totally different. Most of the time, the mother is in very bad shape after giving birth. In this case she can only see the child for a moment and then the doctors take the child and put it in the incubator to save its life.
When they come out, I don’t know how to say it...
AK: When they are born, the mother has only a moment, and then a lot of people are saving the kid’s life. They take the kid away for this intensive care and it’s often twenty-four hours before the mother can see her kid for the real first time. Just after the birth, I can meet a man standing by intensive care, and I’m sure this is the father. So then I try to convince him: Listen we were shooting when your wife was giving birth. So we were there, and now for the first time in a few minutes you are going to see your kid for the first time. Can we be with you? The answer is of course no. But it’s our moment, our intimacy. So our task is to convince him that this will be a great moment to have documented.
WRR: Does almost everyone say, no?
AK: Nobody says, yes, right away.
WRR: How does this intrusion affect you?
AK: I feel really bad. I shouldn’t be talking to this guy. Just leave him alone. But I try to persuade him nonetheless.
WRR: Why is it important to do this story in such an intensive way? There is an undeniable voyeuristic aspect. You are filming around a life and death situation. Not a combat situation where the parties are complicit but an accidental situation involving the most innocent of participants. How do you get yourself fin the right mind to do this?
AK: I’m really very interested in people and really like to talk to them, and perhaps I have some ability to get to know people quickly. I’m also a psychologist. So I try to help them. The parents have no idea what to do in this situation. But I have experience from being there before them. So I explain to them they have to disinfect their hands and how they have to wear their protective clothes. You have to wear the hat like this. I will help you.
WRR: You are becoming involved.
AK: Yes, and I help them a lot. I’m the one who is next to them very intensively at the moment they are completely alone. . . So it’s: Give me a chance. Let’s try. Slowly step by step they agree to do it. Another difficult step is when they bring their wives and they are very weak, and they don’t want to be filmed. Please don’t shoot me because I look awful. But this is the exact shot I need. Tomorrow will be too late. This is the first time you see your child. Sometimes they agree and sometimes they say, no.
WRR: It occurs to me that this is rather like a reality hospital show. Some people might criticize this as exploitation, but on the other hand this is a very serious problem with one in ten children being born prematurely. So there is this balance between invading privacy and illuminating the problem. Was it like this with the cancer movie?
AK: After Joanna people told me that I changed their life with that movie. Joanna is not about cancer, it’s about life. One girl told me, you know what, I was wondering if I should have a child, but now I want to have one more than anything because it is a purpose in itself. Or for example some guy says, I was quarreling with my wife, and this was so stupid. Life is so short. It is banal, but suddenly I realize that people need reminding about this constantly. You can see them change their priorities. People see that they need to change their way of thinking. It seems so obvious.
WRR: How old was Joanna
WRR: So in that movie you were showing the end and here you are showing the beginning. It’s a tough journey with rocky starts and endings.
AK: That’s right. That’s why mostly I want to say to people start to appreciate what you have. It is so simple.
WRR: It can all go away very easily.
AK: And you know what? I think that for me the most important things in life are the banal, the ordinary.
WRR: You have yr own children?
AK: Yes a daughter, four.
WRR: Did you always know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
AK: I had some idea. But you know what? People kept talking to me and saying: I know what I want to do in my life but I’m still waiting for a better time.
How can you be sure there will be a time in the future? Start now I say. But people wait. They think: Now I can’t be brave enough to do what I really think. They settle for less. You really need to be brave to realize your dreams. Because they think the world will end if they fail. So it’s better not to try. It’s banal but I love that. It’s so simple. Start appreciating what you have now and start realizing your dreams. Do it now. Don’t wait. I think this project is somehow about that.