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“I wanted the film to be a kind of lament, a way of grieving something that is yet to come”

— Marta Pajek

interview by Mariana Hristova

Marta Pajek

Marta Pajek is an independent author of animated films, connected to the Warsaw based Animoon Studio. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow Faculty of Graphic, where she specialized in animated film in the workshop of Jerzy Kucia.

On the occasion of the screening of ‘Impossible Figures and other stories I’ at this year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival, but also to mark the wrap up of the trilogy that “deals with the paradoxes and illusions we encounter in various aspects of life”, we talked to Marta Pajek about the overall idea behind her animated triptych, its possible interpretations and its prophetic nuances in the current context of global anxiety.

Marta Pajek is an award-winning Polish animation filmmaker. After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, she studied at the Animated Film Studio headed by legendary animator Jerzy Kucia. Later on, Pajek trained under the mentorship of Estonian animator Priit Pärn at the Turku Arts Academy in Finland. Her filmmaking style has been shaped by an interest in the arts and graphic design, as well as inspired by dance, psychology, spirituality and human experiences.

Pajek has directed several animated shorts, including ‘After Apples’ (2004), ‘Nextdoor’ (2005) and ‘Sleepincord’ (2011). In 2016, she released the first film of her trilogy: ‘Impossible Figures and other stories II’, an instant critical success, winning more than twenty awards, including the Grand Prize at the Stuttgart Animation Festival and the GLAS animation festival. The second part of the trilogy ‘Impossible Figures and other stories III’ debuted at Cannes in 2018 and won several international prizes. As a final film but also first part of the trilogy comes Pajek’s most recent work ‘Impossible Figures and other stories I’, which is a co-production between Animoon and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). This is Pajek’s first collaboration with the NFB.

Mariana Hristova: ‘Impossible Figures and other stories I’ starts with a blast, leading us through a chaotic, yet architectonic world, that was left deserted and inhabited by seniors only. You are describing a post-apocalyptic setting and I am wondering what inspired you for the plot?
Martja Pajek: When I was writing the script, I based it on a feeling of frustration that the world is inevitably going in a dangerous direction. I felt that this angst was in the air and that a catastrophe was nearing, but we didn’t know what, where and when it would hit us. I wanted the film to be a kind of lament, a way of grieving something that is yet to come. I also searched for inspiration among the fruits of the civilization I wanted to depict — architecture, sculpture, film. Those found bits and pieces helped me shape a city nearing its end, with all the young people gone and only a couple of old ones left wandering the streets.

As for the setting, during the process, I had the opportunity to spend time in cities that have been strongly marked by history — Warsaw, Vienna, Moscow. All of those places, with their grandiose architecture, museums stacked with artifacts, and painful pasts, inspired me and found their way into the film, whose protagonist is the city itself.

From the song that the old lady is singing in the end, we understand there is a war going on. You completed the film last year when there was still peace in Europe but now a war is happening next to Poland which makes your film sound prophetic. How do you feel about this coincidence?
MP: The film was built around this feeling of helpless waiting. Then the pandemic came and added a different context to the deserted city streets shown in the film. Suddenly those images weren’t a vision of an apocalyptic future, but something we started to experience on a daily basis. Now there’s the war. We felt it coming, we were unable to stop it and now it’s here. It’s sad beyond words. At the end, when the protagonist is singing the song, we don’t know whether she’s referring to the past or present, but I wanted her cry to be the ultimate gesture of a human being — a gesture that can somehow save us.

In a way you intuitively captured that collective gut feeling of a looming disaster. Going back now to the period when the film was conceived in your mind, are you able to rationalize more clearly what particularly was worrying you in the world before the pandemic and the current war?

MP: When I started working on the project, my concerns mostly had to do with the rise of nationalist attitudes and what seemed to be a relatively long period of peace in the area where I live. There was a notion of the cyclical nature of war and peace, and that the latter would sooner or later come to an end. Those concerns, however, seemed unreal, almost abstract. With time, they became more substantial and were accompanied by the looming climate catastrophe, as well as the information chaos and manipulation brought by social media. It was a very strong feeling that we are heading towards the edge.

Unfortunately, your concerns proved to be very reasonable. Let’s talk now a bit about the whole trilogy. Did you have the idea of all the three parts from the very beginning or each next part was developed gradually?
MP: I came up with the idea for the triptych and wrote all three parts before going into production of any of them. When I was writing part I, however, which was the last of the three, I felt that I would need to develop it a bit more in order to give the story a more personal feel, to make it more convincing and authentic. After completing parts II and III, I came back to the storyboard for part I to give it its final shape.

Mentioning “a more personal feel”, I was wondering where in the whole picture/among the characters we could find more of yourself, having in mind the Renaissance saying that “every painter paints himself”?
MP: This part of the triptych differed from the previous two, because it concerned a subject that was broader than that of my own experience or even my observations. I built the story from images taken from the collective memory locked in sculpture, architecture, film. The personal element I was looking for was more in the way I wanted to tell the story, with a tenderness I needed to find. During the making of the film, I suffered a loss but also, more importantly, I became a mother. I feel that this connected me to the subject of the future in a more emotional, sensual way.

Why have you decided to start with the second part, then to do the third part and go back in the end to the first part?
MP: Each of the stories explores a different space. After the space between two people (Part III) and the space within a house (Part II), Part I takes the audience into a city. I decided that, contrary to its title, this film should be the last of the three to be made. I felt that I needed more time and experience to tackle a subject that goes so far beyond my own experience and knowledge — namely, the failure of utopias, the fall of our civilization, the end of humanity. It almost seemed arrogant to take on the subject at all. But the vision of the fallen city intrigued me. After all, I am one of its citizens. The first two parts (named II and III) are related to my own experiences and observations, which I used to create these stories. At that time, it was either a journey to the depths of one’s own psyche (II) or an exhausting relationship (III), which I found particularly relevant and resonating with my personal life path.

I planned that the three films would be shown independently as well as together—in the form of a triptych, but not in a particular order. It is up to a programmer or curator to choose the chronology and thus give the project a final form. I decided to start with those parts that at the time of the making felt closest to me in terms of the subject matter.

All stories are different but featuring female characters in critical situations. What made you unite those particular plots in a trilogy?

MP: All three stories show situations for which simple solutions seem at hand, but in practice are hard to find. Each of the stories is an impossible figure, but on a different scale (city, home, the space between two people). We can also think about the relationship between the protagonists. Is it the same woman at various stages of her life? Or are they completely different women? Are they related?

The idea that we are observing one sole character in different stages of her life crossed my mind indeed. If we accept this interpretation, probably the sense of fatality in part I could be applied not only to the disasters in the world but also to that inner premonition of a personal apocalypse which overwhelms one’s soul towards the end of life?
MP: This is a beautiful interpretation. When I think of my role as a filmmaker or a storyteller, it’s not about sending a message, but rather about creating a space for meeting with one’s own disappointments, frustrations or fears. My hope is to go beyond my own experience but at the same time stay authentic. It is most rewarding when the film reaches places that I couldn’t have reached myself.

You have a very distinctive graphic style. Because of the decorative motifs and the repetitive usage of patterns I relate it to art nouveau and symbolism but you might want to share some further influences?
MP: Each part had its own inspirations. Part II was inspired by what you mentioned: various traditional patterns, but also the drawings of M.C. Escher and anamorphosis. The visual layer of part III was inspired by masks used in traditional Japanese theatre, and part I by renaissance and baroque sculpture, Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia’, as well as architecture and social realist sculpture.

Are you working on a next project and in case you do, would you be willing to share some insights?
MP: I’m planning a new project: an animated feature for children, however at the moment I’m still focusing on showing the ‘Impossible Figures and other stories’ triptych. We would like to present it in the form of an installation, to put an emphasis on the spatial relations between the three films and a less linear way of perceiving the stories.

Sounds very interesting! Do you already have a certain space in mind where you think your installation would fit best?
MP: I was thinking of a gallery space, but I’m only starting to work on that for presenting the triptych, so we will see what possibilities we will have.

© Images

1 Portrait picture of Marta Pajek
2 Still from 'Impossible Figures and other stories I’
3 Teaser for 'Impossible Figures and other stories I’