Agnieszka Holland with James Norton, the interpreter of Gareth Jones.
June 15, 2020
Updated on June 19, 2020 at 4h22
Agnieszka Holland : unveiling the horrors of Stalinism
Agnieszka Holland has often mentioned the Holocaust in his films — including his most well-known Europa Europa (1990), nominated for an academy award. At a certain point, the filmmaker born in Poland, had the taste to get out of this “ocean of misery”. That is, until we offered him the scenario of Mr Jones, which tells the story of how a young journalist manages to reveal the famine that caused millions of deaths in Ukraine in 1932-1933, while the soviet Union found itself under the yoke of Stalin.
The feature film inspired by the fluttering of Gareth Jones lifts the veil on a crime against humanity — the Holdomor, which remains largely unknown. The soviet government diverted the production of grain while Ukrainians were starving to death. The Sun joined by teleconference the filmmaker of 71 years at his home in Britain for an interview, which was conducted in French.
Q Is it that you can explain to us the genesis of this film?
R Andrea Chaloupa has sent me his scenario, very personal. It is an american journalist with origins of ukraine, whose grand-father was a survivor of the Holdomar. He has also testified before the u.s. Congress when he declared that it was a crime against humanity. I get a lot of scenarios about genocide. I read always with great reluctance and without enthusiasm. Because if you agree, it means that you will spend a few years of your life in this reality.
But I found the scenario Andrea is very strong. Not so much because of the topic, even if I find that the crimes of the stalinists are virtually forgotten and that they are not entered in the global consciousness such as those of Hitler. But as I have lived a good part of my life under the communist regime, knowing quite well the history of the friends of criminals such plans, for me, it is a great injustice, and I regret not being able to draw from lessons of the consequences of such an ideology. But what appeared to me to be very current, what are the questions on the role and duties of journalists, at the hour of fake news and their amplification through social media, particularly in places where governments are attempting to manipulate opinion.
Q One can also draw parallels between what happened at the time and the armed conflict which has been simmering since 2013 in the east of Ukraine (the war in the Donbass).
R Ukraine is still on the field of battle nationalist and ideological, it is true. But this past is a subject that is extremely emotional for people. They could not talk about it, and the survivors felt a sort of shame. It is a trauma that plagues their life. The war in the Donbass and the success of a certain way of [Vladimir] Putin in the latter and its extension comes from the fact that the majority of the Ukrainian population of this area has been wiped out by the famine. The western part, at the time, belonged to Poland. The majority of the population [of Donbass] now is Russian.
Q watching the film, one can of course wonder to what extent your writer and you have to respect the reality of the life of Gareth Jones, or if you are freely inspired?
R It is exact enough. We don’t know much about the life of this young man who died before 30 years of age, probably murdered by the agents of the KGB [the soviet NKVD at the time]. His interview with Hitler [in 1993] and the article in which he foresaw what was going to happen, including several political leaders mocked, it’s true. His journey to the soviet Union and in Ukraine is quite true. The character of Ada Brooks is a construct of several people. The way in which he came out of the Ukraine is a little different, but all of his actions and their meaning, it is true. The rest are small changes playwriting.
Q And the fact that his journey to the Ukraine and his article on the famine would have inspired George Orwell to write animal farm?
R It is not known if they met, but, at the same time, it is very likely. They were the same age, they were interested in the same subjects, had the same literary agent, friends in common, but there is no trace, apart from a few letters and his travel journal. As he had no children, they are her great nephews who have perpetuated his memory. But little is known of him.
Q – You’ve toured in Ukraine, in the middle of winter. Is it was difficult?
R Yes, and we started with that and in more. I knew that if the Ukrainian side was not strong, the film didn’t work. But we had the impression of being in Siberia or northern Canada. With climate change, it is usually quite mild. There was snow up there [up the neck, shows it with a gesture of the hand]. It was -15oC, -20oC. James [Norton, who plays Gareth Jones] came from London. As he was catapulted into this reality, disoriented and isolated, I think it has helped a lot.
Q The world premiere of Mr. Jones took place in Berlin in 2019, you have even presented Charlatan to that of last February. Some filmmakers have their entries at Cannes, but it looks like you have a privileged relationship with the Berlinale?
R (laughs) Berlin has always been accommodating with me. And my films are ready in time, this was the case for my last four films in any case. Cannes, you know, is not very welcoming for the kind of cinema that I do. And it is always a boy’s club. Even when they try to change, it doesn’t work very well. But it’s weird to have lived through the month of may without the new vintage of Cannes.I hope that the COVID will not kill independent cinema. It is also very difficult for cinemas.
Q Yes, your film is not released in theatres in North America, but in video-on-demand…
R I think that the video-on-demand will become the main venue of distribution. There are advantages and disadvantages. Me, the last time I saw my film, it was the avant-première in Paris. The closure of the meeting came three days before its release… It’s going to take the poster at the end of the month, but we don’t know how it will happen. This before-first time was in a large room and it’s a different film when you see it on a big screen. But, hey, more and more people watch the film at home. And more and more series than movies…
Q are you Working on a new feature film?
R Not at this time. I’m trying to find a topic that is going to be at the height of my ambitions to reflect the current reality. But it will not be this year or next year. Normally, I’m doing a new series for the Apple, tour to Paris, if it is possible with the pandemic. If it’s true, it’s going to take me until next spring. Otherwise, I have before me a moment of freedom for me to concentrate on my next feature film.