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Still from All These Sleepless NightsCourtesy of All These Sleepless Nights

A cinematic ode to Warsaw nightlife and the freedom of youth

Michal Marczak talks about All These Sleepless Nights, a beautiful story of two art school friends in the Polish capital

Polish director Michal Marczak loves to wander; his favourite activity, he explains, is walking “aimlessly” around a city, soaking up its atmosphere. It was on one such stroll in Warsaw that he landed upon the idea for his new film, All These Sleepless Nights – the first since his 2012 debut Fuck For Forest. “I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t the youngest person anymore, that this whole new generation had emerged,” the 32-year-old tells us over the phone from the Polish capital. “I got really curious: what had changed?” Discovering the answer to this question would go on to preoccupy the next few years of his life, the resulting film premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews.

Marczak’s work blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction: he uses real characters but drafts out rough plotlines with his cast to conjure up a ‘constructed reality’ that is raw and candid yet masterfully cinematic in a manner reminiscent of the French New Wave classics. For All These Sleepless Nights, he spent six months taking in the Warsaw nightlife and the people that punctuate it, casually auditioning potential subjects over coffee or a walk in the park. Then one night, at a house party, he spotted two art school friends, the handsome and athletic Michal Huszcza and the lithe and chiselled Krzysztof Baginski, engaged in a deep conversation. “It was love at first sight,” he recalls. “I just knew it was them. They had this energy about them; this empathy and determination to figure out the world on their own terms, to find beauty in the banal. I loved their dynamic together too: Michal is completely free and doesn’t give a damn about what he says, whereas Krzys analyses everything.”

Having found his protagonists, Marczak and his cast spent three months rehearsing together and a year and a half in total shooting. The final film is a heady, free-form affair, following Baginski and Huszcza as they drift from party to party, smoking copious cigarettes, falling under the spell of beguiling women (notably the mesmerising Eva Lebeuf, who puts their friendship to the test) and engaging in lengthy existential ramblings. While on paper this may sound like a recipe for pretentious filmmaking, the overall effect of these interwoven vignettes is a vibrant and poetic homage to youth and freedom; one that isn’t afraid to laugh at itself when erring on the self-indulgent. Here, ahead of the film’s screening at the Barbican as part of the New East Cinema series, we catch up with Marczak to find out more about Warsaw’s renaissance and breaking free of the confines of cinematic genres.

What was it that you felt differentiated the generation depicted in the film from your own?

Michal Marczak: They want to live life in their own way, which is clear in their use of language, the way they form sentences and express themselves; they obviously feel very free. That isn’t all that special if you come from England or America, but in Warsaw it is. When I was their age I don’t think we felt like that. I remember travelling to London when I was 19 and I felt inferior like I came from a shit hole.

What brought this change about do you think?

Michal Marczak: Well, this is a generation born after ‘89, which is when Poland gained independence, but I think the real independence – the independence of the mind, the economic independence – only really happened about five or six years ago. That was when we stood on our own two feet, developed our own style, our own culture. We stopped looking towards the west, stopped copying Berlin or London or Amsterdam. Now Warsaw has its own identity. You can see it across all the arts – theatre, graphic design and so on.

“Warsaw has its own identity. You can see it across all the arts – theatre, graphic design and so on.” – Michal Marczak

The city definitely comes across in a very dreamy light on screen...

Michal Marczak: Looking back I think I realised we were living in a sweet spot. Although Warsaw is becoming more gentrified now, we’re still at a stage where the rent isn’t that high, the food isn’t that expensive, there are jobs, everybody gets to live in the city centre so you can walk everywhere. Politically too – back then – we were in quite a sweet spot; there was a definite sense of autonomy. I think I sensed that this beautiful time might end, which is why I wanted to document it, and sure enough when the film premiered at Sundance in February of last year, that’s when the right-wing government took over and really did fuck things up.

So is Warsaw today a different place than it was when you were making the film?

Michal Marczak: You might not see the effects of it immediately but it’s in the souls of the people. If I shot the film now, there would be a lot more talk about politics. Some journalists in Poland have criticised the fact that the characters don’t have any problems or anything to fight for but at the time I was like, ‘It’s the first time since 1939 that young people can take a year off and fuck around and try to come to terms with who they are and what they want to do in life. And that is the definition of a free society. Stop telling them they need to have problems to solve. They’re going to have them very shortly!’ And we did. Now we’re all in this, going to protests and gathering people to bring back the good old times.

This film won the World Cinema Documentary prize at Sundance but it’s not strictly a documentary, is it?

Michal Marczak: No. There are certain films that fit into certain categories very well and there are others that I don’t think need to be categorised, they’re just films and they either move you or they don’t, which is the case with this film. I never set out to push boundaries. The intention was to portray the characters and what I was seeing as authentically as possible but at the same time to convey the euphoria of youth, which is very much a feeling and not a situation. Cultivating that feeling, I believe, requires music and light and timing, all the tools of cinema. So the only way to tell the story, for me, is just to combine everything – the real and the constructed.

There’s something about it that reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s first film Permanent Vacation...

Michal Marczak: Definitely. I’m a huge Jarmusch fan, and I love Paul Auster and Wayne Wang, and Godard, of course. In all of those directors’ films, the form really emerges from the leading characters and what the filmmaker has set out to tell. I think that all the answers to a film are in your story and in your characters. That’s why I think this form is so interesting; it’d be difficult to get to it another way, through a predetermined narrative or cinematic structure.

Did you have any kind of narrative treatment to begin with?

Michal Marczak: I had a ten-page treatment laying down the big things I wanted to put in and I rewrote it as we were shooting. In certain scenes, I’d pre-written some of the dialogue and for others I'd just written down ideas for where it should lead. It was a very organic process feeding off what worked and what didn’t work.

There are a lot of party scenes which are very intimate in how they’re shot – did you stay sober for these or did you have to get involved?

Michal Marczak: I never stayed sober. No, I’m joking; I was operating the camera half the time, and I learned very quickly how many drinks I could have before I started losing focus. But I love to create these magical atmospheres where everybody forgets that we’re doing something contrived and just gets lost in the moment and flows through the scene. When I put down the camera and realise that I’ve been focussing and panning and framing subconsciously, that’s when I know we have something good. It becomes like a dance. I hate that sterile, ‘silence on set’ way of shooting; it’s super unnaturalistic. That’s why I recorded 80% of the film’s sound in the studio afterwards. I’d rather spend two months doing that and tearing my hair out than having a shitty time on set.

Will you continue to make films like this do you think?

Michal Marczak: I want to stay true to this form. The next one I’m writing will have professional actors in it because that’s what (is) needed –  it’s very complicated stuff that requires a very big array of emotions from the leads – but all the other people in the film I’d like to be non-actors. Using actors means it’ll be dictated by a different set of rules, but I hope to do it deep down in the same mindset. There’s always value in doing something truthful.

The New Social will present All These Sleepless Nights at the Barbican on March 29. Tickets available here.