Interview. ‘I believe that art, and especially animation that has means of being more symbolic, can make a great change in people’s thinking.’

An animated resistance: How Polish filmmakers are using arts in defense of women’s rights

In Poland there is a massive movement against the government in defence of the right to abortion. One of its peculiar tactics was originated by a group of young animators who have produced shorts about the issue, reaching a wide audience and media coverage.

Powerful flashes in red and black of women’s alternate emotional states, in the crucial moment when they have to decide about their own body, are expressed with extreme yet effective synthesis (You can find them on Youtube by searching #polish_women_resistance).

We talked about it with two creators from the Film School of Lodz, Weronika Szyma and Karina Paciorkowska.

What exactly did you produce?

Karina: The film we made consisted of about 50 short scenes, each one done by a different animator, but treated as a whole. A shortened version for the media followed. After that came versions of the animated protest made by filmmakers connected to the University of the Arts of Poznan, and one made by Hungarian animators, in solidarity with Polish women.

Weronika: We decided that we wanted to make short animations and combine them using the symbol of a lightning bolt and slogans, words that would express exactly what we feel. We wanted it to be very personal and honest. Not like an advertisement but like a real voice of real young people. We knew we had to act quite fast so we agreed on making the whole thing in 48 hours — animating, editing and finding music.

What urged you to do it?

W: When we heard about the decision of the “Constitutional Court” we knew we wanted to act, but we didn’t know how to express our anger.

K: Many people including me came to the streets the same night, and continued to do so for the next weeks [now months, though not every day now]. But that was just simply not enough, and, as we are animators, the form of our protest was pretty self-explanatory. Also, in the context of the pandemic, it was the safest way to protest as we didn’t even need to get out of our homes!

How did you start it? And how many people were involved in the project?

W: I decided with my friend that the best way is to use what we know and what we can do and to make an animation involving other animators. I published a post on our animators’ group on facebook and in a few hours around 50 people wanted to be a part of the project. Everyone was sending their piece to our editor Natalia and she was putting all of it together. It was a very vivid and a bit chaotic process, but it ended up as an eight-minute animation made in two days.

K: It was started by Weronika and the response was immediate. I thought the idea was brilliant. I was planning to do something by myself, but one common project of furious students seemed like a much more appropriate way to protest. The same evening there was a zoom call between all the people that expressed their interest, and we brainstormed. The “rules” we came up with were simple: a personal sentence (grammatically in the first person) on the topic of women’s rights and/or the situation in Poland, plus a few seconds of animation. It was supposed to start and end with a red lightning bolt, the symbol of the protest, for some sort of esthetic coherency. There were about 20 people on the zoom call, and I’m actually very amazed that we were able to work something out so quickly, despite the fact that we are a group of very different individuals, with very different opinions and approaches to art. People kept joining after that and we finished with 50 scenes, each by a different person.

Did your school and teachers take any active role in it?

K: Two of our teachers did a piece of animation, but not officially as teachers. One was also very helpful with communicating with the school officials and with legal stuff, especially after the film got interest from festivals etc, and we had to figure out how we could officially distribute it. Thanks Asia!

W: It was a project of students of the animation department. We are a part of the school environment of course, but it was an expression of our own feelings and thoughts. This is not a statement of the school but of a group of people who are lucky enough to be able to create together.

How was the work organized and eventually disseminated?

W: Me and Natalia, the editor, took care of organizing, editing and bringing the whole film together, but I have to say there was a huge support from all the animators. All of a sudden we all wanted to act and work together in one cause which was stronger than any obstacles. The idea of making a movie arose on Friday. On Sunday the movie was ready and on Monday it premiered on the G’rls ROOM account on Facebook. It was also a great pleasure that we could publish it there because it’s a Polish alternative feminist magazine that spreads the knowledge and educates about sex, which is still not so common in Poland.

K: Natalia Spychała edited it after everyone was done animating and Pim Lekler composed very suitable music. As for the dissemination, I did some social campaigns in the past, including a collaboration with Warsaw Uprising survivors that spoke against discrimination and hate towards the LGBT+ people in Poland. I also did one encouraging young people to vote. And I did it all for free, so I had some friends and connections with Polish feminist, citizen-oriented anti-current-government organizations and “the liberal media”. So I reached out to them, and after a few days of complete chaos caused by the strikes, it went sort of viral. We didn’t have to push the film or anything. People liked it and shared it on their own, but we did have to gain the attention of the people responsible for social-media content on popular sites and newspapers. I’m especially proud of the fact that it was published by the official Women’s Strike Warsaw page. The comments from fellow protesters saying they felt represented by our animation, or that they really needed to see that today, were priceless. The film was also screened on the walls of city buildings during protests, which actually made me cry— I was so proud to be a part of something that maybe made the difficult situation of the strike a bit more tolerable to the protesters in the streets. It also appeared on tv, which is amazing, because it reaches a different audience than the internet.

The result has been successful and has reached many people. Do you think animation can play an important role in facing social issues?

W: Definitely yes. We didn’t know how people were going to react to our movie but in the end there was a huge interest in it. I believe that art, and especially animation that has means of being more symbolic, can make a great change in people’s thinking. What touched me most was when people who disagreed with my opinion about the abortion law told me that they watched our movie and they were very impressed and it was a strong picture in their heads. And that they can’t agree with the slogans, but it helped them understand our point of view. That’s what it’s all about: dialogue.

K: I do think that it’s an excellent medium for that for a couple of reasons. It is less common than “regular” film, so it gets more attention and it’s also visually pleasing. It can be understood in any language and with no sound, so it can be screened at protests, and that quality is very helpful with social media, as it acts as a moving illustration. And it can convey very complicated processes in a simple graphic way, very digestible to the viewer. Also comparing it to live-action film, the actors are humans, they can’t really become a symbol. Animation operates in symbols.

Have you had any previous experiences as to social or political issues?

W: Recently I got engaged in a Palestinian cause. I’m working with a Dutch collective @act.of.benevolence that raises money for Palestinian refugee camps and also they raise awareness in Europe about the culture of Middle Eastern countries and fight stereotypes.

K: As an animator yes, almost all of my films somehow connect to that. I try to work on social campaigns whenever I can. You Are Overreacting, my student film that was invited to many festivals and awarded, was actually made in a very similar context, if not identical. I started to work on it during the first wave of Polish women’s protests in 2016. I was just as angry and striving for change then as I am now, and I think it’s a universal feeling among young Poles. I can’t believe the government is trying to take our already extremely limited health rights, even after they witnessed how much social resistance it sparked in previous years.

Does this experience open a new path for you? What could follow?

W: The experience united us as a group of animators and gave a spark of hope that we could make a small change in the world. We are glad that we could contribute in this way to the protests and express our and other people’s fears and feelings. We realize that one animation will not change the decision of the “Constitutional Court”, but it helps us to stay present in the discussion.

K: Well, it definitely opened me up towards the idea of working with others, because I struggle with that. I’m very happy that it might have shed some light on animation in the context of social engagement. I love seeing more and more films that actually have something important to say at festivals and on the internet.

How has this production of yours sparked similar contributions from others?

W: We were very touched when we saw the response of another group of Polish animators from Poznań and also a film by Hungarian animators. It is very important to stay together in this and talk about the problem.

K: I was very touched when I saw the Hungarian animation, especially considering the unfortunate similarities between recent Polish and Hungarian politics. Now there is an idea of doing a “solidarity” animation about the situation in Belarus. I think animation is such a good way to raise awareness about important topics. I’m very amazed at how supportive the animation community is— people from festivals contacted us to see how they can help, they shared the film as individuals, but also on their professional platforms, translated subtitles in 16 languages, even you contacted me to write about it. You just feel this positively overwhelming sense of support and solidarity, and I think with police repressions getting worse and worse we really need that.

Personally as young artists, what do you plan to do next?

W: This project is a protest of 50 young people, me and Karina are only a part of it. It’s hard to say about everyone else’s plans. But I am sure we will all still use art as our weapon to make a change.

K: I’m finishing film school. I just wrote my master’s thesis on “socially engaged animation,” so the plan now is to make the diploma film. It will be about greedy corporations, climate change and how capitalism kills our planet.

Do you think this general movement to defend women’s rights over birth control can also bring a greater change in Polish society, mostly talking about people of your generation?

W: Yes. The protests started with this issue but there is a wider context. It is a movement that wants to fight about sex education, protecting women from abuse at home and letting women be free and decide about themselves.

K: Yes, not only in people of my generation! I think that change started in 2016. Polish society is extremely divided, but more and more people are rebelling against oppressive, outdated and obsolete stereotypes, social roles and general ignorance of this kind of government-controlled narrative. The protests show that it’s not only happening in big cities, the small ones and villages have also joined. And it shows in polls, even conservative voters don’t want to support a government that acts with so much ignorance towards its citizens. I just hope that people won’t forget this before the next elections.

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