Intertwining Tales

Olga Chajdas’s Nina is a story that sees the fates of two women, whose lifestyles couldn’t be more different intertwine. Magda (Eliza Rycembel), a young lesbian has friends, lovers and enjoys to party when not working at the airport. Meanwhile teacher Nina (Julia Kijowska) lives in a stylish apartment with her husband Wojtek (Andrzej Konopka), which is paid for by Nina’s mother. Yet something is missing from Nina and Wojtek’s seemingly perfect existence – a child. When they meet Magda by chance, the pair plan to ask her to be a surrogate mother but decide to bide their time before putting the proposition to her. In the meantime, an unexpected connection forms between the two women, and when their secret intentions, the intimate feelings between the two women only grows stronger.

In conversation with ASFF, Chajdas discusses the discovery of her creative voice and her interest in female characters, the use of the camera to conceal part of the world of Nina and reaching the end of a chapter on her creative and personal journey.

ASFF: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
It’s actually a funny question because I always perceive myself as a scientist. Up until I was fourteen, when I was going to have to make a decision about what I should study at university, it was between filmmaking and astrophysics. I was even applying to MIT and so that was very close to me. At this same time something terrible happened in my family, a personal loss. I always wanted an artistic way of expressing myself, and so in that moment I wrote my first script, which was very bad. But it was not about the quality of the script, it was about finding a way to perceive the world, and so that’s how it happened.

ASFF: In searching for a way to perceive the world around you, how have you come to understand your creative voice?
I think it’s something that you learn through the years. I learned my language with those first two films I did, which were both female orientated, and Nina, which I started writing ten years ago has been my life’s work up until now. I learned that I like to focus on female characters. I have a need to explore their bond with nature, with their motherhood or with their mothers, and with their hidden female emotions. I’m just reading this book by Yuval Noah Harari called Sapiens, and I see how generally we as humans grow up in the world and learn nothing, which is sort of my path for now.

ASFF: The emotions in Nina feel authentic and not crafted for dramatic effect. In order to capture this emotional truth is time needed to allow the layers of the characters to be discovered?
When I started writing the script, I was 23 or 24, and it was never a personal story, but of course some details were personal. As I see it now, when I started writing it, I was more of the Magda character, but it wasn’t that I needed the time to write the script, I just needed the time to grow and to find the financing. So it wasn’t that I wanted to write it for ten years because nobody wants to do that. Everybody wants to make their first film and then go on, but it just didn’t happen because we didn’t find the money for the budget. In those years I learned that I became more of the Nina character. I grew up personally, and if I had made the film ten years ago, it probably wouldn’t be as good as it is now because I wasn’t as mature, and I didn’t know as much as I know now. So even though it was never a personal story, I did want to focus on personal aspects of both characters.

ASFF: The camera is a powerful tool for the filmmaker, and so how did you employ the camera to capture the characters and their emotions, which serve to convey the film’s ideas? 
Well first of all was my amazing DOP Tomasz Naumiuk, who its worth mentioning won the Cameraimage Film Festival competition, which is the cinematographers festival held in Poland. He’s a very talented guy and he just finished a film with Agnieszka Holland, which is going to open in Berlin. Tomasz was very much involved in the process of writing Nina, and he was the first one to tell my co-writer and I if he believed in something or he didn’t. So, he’s an amazing person to feel the story as well. 

When we talked about the picture, we said two words to each other: “It should be intimate and subjective.” In order to achieve this, we needed to stay close to the characters and find a way for the world behind them to disappear. Our biggest inspiration was Nan Goldin’s photography and then we realised that the picture needed to be graphic. So what Tomasz did was he chose a Panasonic camera that is very sensitive to the lighting, so that he didn’t use all that much light. But he also attached very small old lenses to the camera and that made the picture a bit rougher and grainy, and imperfect. I always think imperfections are the best because that makes film original in a way. So, coming from those two words and from Nan Goldin’s photography, we just took it from there and decided to stay focused on our characters, to stay with and on them. 

ASFF: In editing Nina, did the performances of your actors convey feelings or an emphasis on the narrative that motivated you to make changes?
I like to prepare, and even though we did rehearse the film for a few months, I will always say to my actors that I like to be surprised. Not that I like improvisation, but I like to be surprised because I know that every day brings something else, and if that particular day brings something, then let’s try it. So, I am open to new things, even if they are out of my comfort zone or outside of what we discussed. And that’s why I chose intelligent actors who had this ability to anticipate the story and the characters from within. 

Way before Nina, I was doing casting for another project that I didn’t end up doing, and this was the first time in my life that someone made me cry during the casting audition, and it was Eliza. She has this amazing ability to look at you in a different way or change something in the way she looks, and that’s always surprising. It’s the small things, it’s not about going crazy, and the best part is when actors surprise you in this emotional way.

ASFF: Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process for you personally, and do you think the audience should be transformed by the experience of watching a film?
Well this has already happened to me a few times after screenings. There was one lady who approached me crying, and she said that she understood from the film that she needs to change something in her life. It’s not about her becoming gay, that’s not the main topic, but it’s that she realises she needs to change something in her life because she’s lying to herself. This has happened to me numerous times and I couldn’t be happier or prouderthat the film resonates with people andbrings up emotions so that they question themselves. This is the most important thing in Nina, where the characters are questioning their happiness, questioning whether they are not being honest with one another or with themselves. So,it’s amazing that people realise this after watching the film.

Paul Risker

Nina was released in UK theatres on 22 January and will be released on DVD 25 February by Peccadillo Pictures. 

1. Stills from Nina. Courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures.