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Polish Filmmaker speaks about trip to Afghanistan. Life behind the curtain as we know it.

By Suzanne DeNacu

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During his trip to Afghanistan Jan Pawel Trzaska filmed a documentary about Polish soldiers' lives in deployment, where he had the chance to observe the life and culture of Afghan people. Jan participated in several projects and has directed various documentaries and feature films such as “Dream of San Juan”, “Survive Afghanistan” and “Gabriel” 

Soldiers at Risk

How did you decide to go to Afghanistan?

After graduating with a masters degree in cinematography from the Polish National Film School in Lodz, I got an offer from an Oscar nominated (“89mm od Europy” dir. M.Lozinski) polish producer Wojciech Szczudlo, Kalejdoskop film company to travel to Afghanistan along with a film crew and shoot a movie about the life and danger of polish soldiers fighting among American troops. This movie is a polish documentary about the war in the Middle East describing the influence of war on people.


Did you go through any special preparation where you would be shown what to expect from this new experience in a war zone as an artist?

Yes, we went through a very frightening experience before boarding on that plane along with the military. For three days we went through special training getting to know what to expect and how to react in case of a kidnapping event for example.

We were kidnapped and our faces were covered. We were put in a cold basement and could not talk to each other for seven hours. We were made to listen to loud Arabic music and every now and then, harassed with questions about religion. Also we were given papers to sign that we would change our religion into Islam in order to keep our lives, etc. That was a very crazy experience. We did not know for how long we were going to be there for. Again this was a training exercise but it frightened all of us because for the first time we realized that this could actually happen. We were very happy after the three days of training that it was all over.


Did you consider the danger of it further on the trip?

When I was inside a military vehicle during patrol with two sappers one of them said: “only foolish has no fear”. From that moment I started to consider the meaning of being “brave” and unafraid. Another thing I remember was a big title on the board on the way to the dining facility with the words: “total security is an illusion”. Imagine seeing this three to four times a day on your way to the dining facility.


How long did the filming take?

We were shooting for more than fifty days over a one-year period. We tried to be extremely efficient because any moment could have been our last.


What was the movie about more specifically?

We have seen so much in this little trip. Most of it was about the soldiers living in the base, another part was about traveling from city to city by foot in a convoy of American and Polish soldiers. We walked more than ten miles at a time, wearing 44-pound gear such as bulletproof vests, camera equipment and protection. The only dramatic part of the documentary happened to be a love story between two soldiers. A polish girl and a guy decided to take this mission together but broke up soon after landing in Afghanistan. When we asked them why they broke apart, they both responded: “This place is no place for love.” I am sure both of us could understand that.


When you got there was it similar to your expectations?

I was following all the news before going there in person. The real experience had quite a different taste. People were real.  The culture was rich and beautiful but it also had a very incomprehensible way of living to us Europeans or Americans. We didn’t dislike it. It was different. 



How would you describe the local people?

I would separate them in a few categories. I will start with children. They are curious; they come close and ask for candy, water or shoes. I can’t say they trust us or we even trusted them, but we knew that if children were around that was a good sign. If they were gone, then something was going on in the village.

The next types of people you meet are their parents. These people are such victims of the society they live in. They are completely helpless and frightened. Some of them even worked in the base as janitors or dishwashers. We didn’t interact with them much and neither would they have liked to. It was a feeling of an exchange. We were looked at as intruders but we could afford paying for a wage so they would take the risk of working for us.


When you say risk what do you mean?

I have heard stories of cut up bodies and decapitated locals brought close to the base as a sign of threat. I am sure that working in the base was not a safe job for them.


Was there another type of people you’d want to mention?

Yes - the ones and only ones that seem to create all this conflict. I am talking about the Taliban organization. They represent a small percentage of the population, but this small percentage is very much felt in Afghanistan and abroad. They are the terrorists. Everyone sighs at any sign of them.  


Does your movie reflect that fear and anger inflicted upon the soldiers?

Of course. Many of them go back home and cannot have the same lives they lived before. These soldiers go into therapy and are very affected by the conditions created by this war.


What was the most shocking story you heard while you were there?

I remember this one soldier telling me the most horrifying story of a war scene. He was in a tank followed by a convoy. Suddenly a child appeared in the street making signs for them to stop. He was ordered not to due to the danger of stopping in that location. He ended up running the child over. There was a very sad look on his face when he was telling the story. There were many more hard stories like that almost every day but the media doesn’t know about those things…


Your photography shows a lot of character. What did you intent to highlight?

I was very touched by the scenes of war. I was impressed by watching this kid play on top of a Russian rusty tank. I was impressed by the happiness I saw in their eyes when receiving a piece of candy and I was also moved by the look in people’s eyes, their expressions, their lack of confidence, the message of guilt, of sorrow, the juxtaposition of joy and sadness.



Where will you take your exhibition next?

In January I have another gallery exhibition in New York at the Kosciuszko Foundation. We have planned to show the exibition in Washington DC and in the American Military Schools with the help of National Ministry of International Affairs and Ministry of National Defence of the Republic of Poland. Ultimately, we will hold a public exhibition in Warsaw, sometime next year.


Are there any similar projects for future you would like to take?

I work as well on my own projects with my friends and partners from AmondoFilms Foundation that we developed almost a year ago. We just finished a documentary movie entitled “Dream of San Juan” with Joaquin del Paso in Oaxaca, Mexico about the landslides situation and the life and influence on the indigenous people living in that area. As well I have just finished shooting as a director of photography, my first full-length fiction movie entitled “Gabriel”, released next year. This is a family movie and in the long run I’d like to follow that rather than risking my life for the sake of human nature.


Published on Oct 20, 2012

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