Bread and Salt: Damian Kocur’s portrait of small-town Poland at war with itself

Tymoteusz Bies in Bread and Salt (dir. Damian Kocur, 2022)

On New Year’s Eve 2016, a 21-year-old Polish man was killed following an altercation at a kebab shop run by Arab immigrants in the small north-eastern town of Ełk. The following day, an Islamophobic riot broke out as protesters descended on the shop, with the violence quickly seized upon by the then-ruling Law and Justice Party as part of their long-running campaign of racialised resentment. Five years later, the events behind the Ełk riot became the basis for Bread and Salt, the feature debut from Polish filmmaker Damian Kocur. Having already established himself on the festival circuit as an accomplished short film director, Kocur brought his potent blend of documentary and fiction cinema to bear on the social tensions animating provincial Polish society: his film, which received a Special Jury Prize in the Orrizonti section of the Venice Film Festival, casts local non-professional actors and is informed by the director’s own experiences in parts of the country often neglected by mainstream filmmakers.

Real-life siblings Tymoteusz and Jacek Bies play small-town brothers who are both talented concert pianists. The elder, Tymek, has returned from the prestigious Warsaw Academy of Music for the summer vacation. He quickly falls back into his old habits: hanging out listlessly with school friends who never left town, trailing around familiar streets. The favoured hang-out spot is a new kebab bar run by two refugees. While Tymek cautiously attempts to engage with the pair, especially the demure Youssef (Nadim Suleiman), his companions are more hostile. Tensions mount, until the inevitable tragic explosion of violence. The slow-burn drama is reminiscent of American indie auteurs like Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant, as well as the social critique of the Romanian New Wave, in its consideration of the limits of solidarity the definition of difference. To mark the entry of Bread and Salt into the Klassiki Library, we spoke with Kocur about his methods and the challenges involved in staying faithful to his and his characters’ experiences.

Nadim Suleiman, Nikola Raczko, and Tymoteusz Bies in Bread and Salt (dir. Damian Kocur, 2022)

Could you tell us why you decided to adapt these real-world events for your feature debut?

I had already made several short films. I was interested in the story, and I was about to make a short film [about it]. But when we started preparation, I realised pretty quickly that it would be too complex to squeeze it into a short film. So, I took a break with that project, made another film in between. It took a couple of years for the possibility to make a feature film [to arise], and then the pandemic came, so that was another break. But I wrote the script pretty quickly, in a couple of weeks. All these things were just inside my brain and my body already – some of them were memories from my teenage years. The incident was the starting point, but then I incorporated my personal stories and memories and teamwork. And the Bies brothers as the protagonists: I would never have written a script about two pianist brothers without knowing them already, that would have been too sophisticated.

 

What was it about that accident, that killing, that you thought was important to address? Did you see some special political significance to it?

The far right used that accident to political ends. But there was no surprise for me that it came to that: the young adults and the workers at the kebab place, the tension from the beginning. It’s a city where not many foreigners live, a small city in what used to be the poorest region of Poland, in the north-east. The political [aspect] was also a reason to be interested in the story, but I think outside of that context, it’s something more universal. I would say it’s about violence itself.

The political aspect was a reason to be interested in the story, but I think outside of that context, it’s something more universal. I would say it’s about violence itself.

I wanted to ask about the Bies brothers. How did you come to cast them? Like you say, if these weren’t non-professional actors, it would seem like a cheap kind of screenwriting trick: two concert pianist brothers from the same small town…

They really do still live in that small town: it’s half an hour by car to the place where we shot. I’ve known them since they were kids. There were seven Bies brothers; the eldest was a friend of mine, we attended the same school. I’ve known Jacek since he was four and Tymek since he was seven. So, it wasn’t hard to convince them to take part. There was a lot of trust in our relationship. I left things like their way of talking, their dialect, in the film. So, they didn’t have to pretend to be somebody different. I mean, their life looks a bit different. And they have a different environment. But they still more or less the same guys that see in the film.

 

Why did you incorporate them into this story? What was it about their dynamic that you thought would make them as the protagonists?

I think it’s part of my method, this combination of documentary and fiction, real people with a fictional story. And I knew they would bring with them the special skills they have. I always wanted to have classical music in the film, and not just as “illustration” – it’s easy, it’s super overused to have this piano [music] as a kind of emotional prop. I just wanted the piano playing to be something from the inside of that world, something very natural. And I knew that combining the classical music of Chopin – who is the most popular Polish composer – with these kinds of housing projects, these blocks, would be a nice contrast, you know?

Nikola Raczko and Tymoteusz Bies in Bread and Salt (dir. Damian Kocur, 2022)

Lots of directors work with non-professional actors. What’s your method, as you put it? Do you do a lot of improvisation, do you spend a lot of time in rehearsals?

If we had the budget, I’d probably spend a couple of weeks with the people before shooting, just to observe them and to rewrite the script. But because we don’t have this kind of budget, we are forced to take huge risks, [by] giving them the free space for improvisation. I mean, it depends on the scene: sometimes I’m really precise, doing 30 or 40 takes just to achieve a certain level of realism, and sometimes we just do one take, for more purely observational scenes. So, there is no one method: the goal is to achieve something reliable. And something very real, something you as the viewer can perceive as a real emotional state. I think it’s always about the viewer: it’s not about the protagonist. I don’t care if the protagonist is crying in a scene if I’m not in a similar emotional state as a viewer.

 

Alongside the work with the actors, I was struck by certain cinematographic techniques that you return to: the repeated use of tracking shots to follow characters through the urban environment, and the black frames that you use to cut between scenes.

Regarding the black frames, I just wanted to avoid classical establishing shots, wide shots of the buildings, you know. In the edit I wanted to avoid that, and to give you as a viewer the time to stay with what you had just been through emotionally, to process what you just watched. At the same time, it was purely intuitive: I knew [when] it would or wouldn’t work, because I’ve tried to use it before. It shouldn’t be just a concept, you know – if it’s getting too conceptual, you can feel it and you know it’s not working.

In terms of the camera work, we decided with my director of photography to keep the camera fixed for the whole time, without any handheld scenes; only when [characters] move does the camera move naturally with them. Then it’s moving, but it’s also kind of “fixed”, because it stays with the character, it doesn’t change perspective. We decided to keep the camera fixed because in these semi-documentary movies with non-professionals, they always use handheld camera to give you the feeling that [what you’re watching] is happening for real. But I don’t think that’s the way to achieve that feeling. Let’s say you’re sitting on a bench, and you’re observing what’s happening at the bar between two people. They start to argue, have a fight: you’re not moving, you’re just sitting there. You can turn your head, but you’re still in one spot. So, [we wanted] to give the viewer the feeling that you’re a witness, but you’re sitting not so close to the characters. I have to say that I was super inspired [in this] by Ruben Östlund, the wide shots in his early movies.

I think it’s always about the viewer: it’s not about the protagonist. I don’t care if the protagonist is crying in a scene if I’m not in a similar emotional state as a viewer.

You also have the sequence towards the end when you employ CCTV footage, which reinforces that idea.

I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to show the violent scene. Because it’s easy to see violence on YouTube, you don’t have to use it in cinema. That obligation isn’t fulfilled by cinema anymore. In a way, we should hide it, and just give you the feeling of the act. I think we always associate CCTV images with real events. And [when you’re watching them], you know that something’s going to happen: when somebody’s killed or something bad happening, it’s always caught on the CCTV camera and put on YouTube. These are only cameras which are recording 24/7. The idea was to put these small [clips] from the CCTV cameras throughout the film, but we had a lot of talk with my producer and sales agent, and they were like, it’s going to be, too much, you know? I would have used it, definitely. Because I think it’s part of the visual reference. [Like in Charlotte Wells’s film] Aftersun, it’s a matter of storytelling.

 

Can you say a bit more about the contrast that you draw out between classical or “high” culture and hip-hop or “low” culture? It’s a very deliberate choice to have those two things side by side.

I think we all think that classical music is something different to “low” culture, but it’s not. The guys who are pianists are normal people, they are not from another planet. The guy that you see on the screen is wearing the baseball cap, he’s a guy from the block. He’s not drinking a cup of tea while his friends are drinking beer. Tymek, in real life, is also a hip-hop producer as well as one of the most talented pianists [in Poland]. He’s expressing himself in another genre.

Jacek and Tymoteusz Bies in Bread and Salt (dir. Damian Kocur, 2022)

I wanted to ask about the question of Tymek’s sexuality. His relationship to masculinity, if not his sexuality outright, is very much part of the story, but it’s kept very implicit; it’s not turned into a “theme” or a grand narrative arc. Why did you choose to incorporate it in these terms?

I just wanted to give him a reason not to react to what’s happening, so that you can feel that he has a fear also. Being homosexual in this kind of society is not a huge problem but being accused of being gay – that’s something that happens all the time. Even small kids in kindergarten use “faggot” as a bad word. It’s like that everywhere, in many [different] countries. [Tymek] wants to pretend to be like the rest so that this aggression won’t turn towards him. And just because he doesn’t want to date [female friend] Nikola doesn’t mean that he’s gay, you know? His interest towards the immigrant character can have many, many reasons, not only sexual ones. I was inspired by [French philosopher] Didier Eribon’s book Returning to Reims: he was a gay guy living in a small town in the north of France, trying to hide himself, and he was turning violent towards gay guys in order to pretend that he was heterosexual.

 

I read an interview with you where you said that Polish arthouse filmmakers tend to treat these kinds of settings as a kind of safari, as something exotic to comment on from afar.

There is that type of society… But this is my environment, you know: that’s the place I come from. And this is my story. These are my friends. So, I wouldn’t say it was like a safari. For me, it was more like going back to my own experience. And that’s why I think many people [who saw the film] didn’t feel like they were on a safari. They started to like those guys, because I didn’t treat them as just a bunch of racists, I gave them a voice. There was one old lady who said: I know that guys like this are bad guys, but I would like to spend some time with them. I would never make a film about people I don’t like, because I can’t. I have to love them just to stay engaged with the project. I cannot be emotionally against someone at the same time as I’m forcing myself to spend time with [them]. I’m not that type of filmmaker.

Watch Bread and Salt on Klassiki from 30 November.