Michael Heitz: Glimpse shows us scenes filmed in various places. How long did you stay at these places? Was it already known that Calais would be cleared when you started the project?
Artur Żmijewski: We spent more than one month filming in Berlin, Calais, Grande-Synthe (the suburb of Dunkirk), and Paris. Yes, it was announced that the French administration was going to “clear” the Jungle in Calais. It was also quite obvious that refugees would be removed from the streets of Paris. Such places, like the surroundings of Jaurès or Stalingrad subway stations, were full of immigrants living on the streets. Police forced them to leave. Some of them were relocated to the camp close to the Porte de la Chapelle. Hundreds of people were living on the streets close to this new camp. So we were filming in Calais, then in Paris in different locations—following policy of the French administration.
Can you tell me some details about the situation and the conditions that you found in the camps and something about your concrete state of mind that compelled you to do the work?
The conditions in the camps were extremely basic—people were living in tents or wooden kiosks in winter. In many cases whole families were waiting months for nothing. Many people in Calais or in Grande-Synthe were desperately trying to enter UK territory, but the French police were blocking them. People lost their property and had to rely on the support of the others: usually NGOs or activists. There is something deeply humiliating in such a situation.
There was and still is a specific way of talking about refugees in Poland—even if there are not really refugees in Poland: “They are potential terrorists”; “They spread exotic bacteria and viruses”; “Instead of escaping to Europe, young guys should keep guns and fight for their countries.” These were and still are opinions presented by the main political figures in government and state administration. It’s a way of talking which is also popular in other Eastern European countries. I wanted to try that kind of talk.
You once described “Art as an intuitional tool.” What is the intuition here?
Intuition helps artists to follow something behind the rational level, the level of rational thinking. In this case I was trying to follow a specific way of filming proposed by propaganda filmmakers and also to activate...
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Artur Zmijewski, whose current film, Glimpse, was described by the New York Times as the most important exponent at the documenta in Athens, seems to be so clearly identified with his role as a provocateur that impassioned discussion about his work, which surveys the boundaries of political art, have become rare.
Contrary to the film Realism—which is being shown at the documenta in Kassel—in which men amputated at the lower leg confidently act, pose, and play a sophisticated game (apparently) in conjunction with the artist, the work for Athens proceeds from an acute initial situation. In his 16mm silent film of people blighted by flight and hardship in refugee camps, Zmijewski shows staged scenes like those familiar from National Socialist and Stalinist propaganda films.
Zmijewski’s frontal, quasi documentary visual and storyline rhetoric not only deliberately makes the refugees once again the object of an examining gaze and demeaning gestures but also forces them into a precarious face-to-face with the art audience. Whether this audience sees itself reflected in the trans-historical patterns of a xenophobic public or participates in the implosion of its own self-assured sympathy is left to personal interpretation and public debate. What is certain is that Zmijewski sets the stakes high and pushes discomfiture into the unbearable. Despite all negation, aren’t there still vestiges of a humanist aesthetic in the film’s stringent artistic experiments and their mimetic violence?