The drama played out in the screenplay of Silent Night was not inspired by either a newspaper article or a famous person’s life. It is a story which speaks of a world I know well, the world I grew up in. The world of my childhood and youth was north-east Poland and a village in the predominantly rural Podlasie region. I have always wanted to portray the communities living there. Where I come from, tradition and family are the values which bind the multigenerational community. I want to talk about that community objectively, without evaluating its members and their behaviour or assessing their decisions and choices. I aim to avoid any sense of agreeing or disagreeing with them. In the screenplay, I adopt the perspective of Adam, a young man who is planning to leave his birthplace for good. He is an economic emigrant who has resolved, by way of a conscious decision, to forge a different fate from that written into his family’s tradition of migration driven by economic need. He wants to break that pattern and intends to settle abroad and raise a family there.
From the outset of my journey as a director, I have been fascinated by films which use a simple story, the drama of a central character who is in no way distinctive, to talk about a wider community or a general social problem. My short films, including Stranger, The Moment and 60 kilo niczego (60 Kilos of Nothing), were attempts at making that kind of film. Even though I examined a different problem in each of them, working on them consolidated my belief that this way of telling a story is the most interesting artistic direction for me to take and the road I would like to continue following. In my view, the exemplar for this kind of cinema is Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning A Separation, where it is not only the moving story of the intimate drama played out between the main characters which is laid bare for audiences, but also truths about a society unfamiliar to them. The central characters’ drama and their ways of coping with the problems that fate confronts them with convey the situation of the entire nation.
What is important to me is making a film where I can address some truths about Poland and the Poles and the screenplay of Silent Night offers an opportunity to do exactly that. The key to achieving this aim lies in finding the right central character, a person with whom a wide audience will be able to identify. Nowadays, a main character like that, of my generation, is not going to be a rebel oppositionist. Neither will it be a member of the wartime Home Army or a gangster. The central character of our time is the economic emigrant; a young person who, after graduating, is seeking their place in a world driven by the values set by capitalism. In a world which presents the illusion that borders do not exist and that anything is possible, the main character is never at home. Everywhere is ‘other’.
It is important to me that the central character of Silent Night, Adam, arouses the sympathy of the people in the audience, that they will feel able to root for him, that they will understand his motives, that they will follow him and finally, together with him, find themselves trapped, suspended somewhere between what he is aiming for and what he genuinely needs. I want to tell the story of a young man who is capable of giving everything in order to alter his lot in life. He is torn between his ties to tradition and his powerful urge for change, between his religion and a sense that the traditional values are becoming degraded, between a need for community and an awareness of the limits which that community imposes.
Economic migration is a crucial issue at present and not only on account of the widely discussed matter of ‘Brexit’, where the outcome will affect the Poles who are making their lives in Great Britain. We are living in a period where, for the first time in history, Polish society has begun to perceive that the outflow of young people is impoverishing it and that, in the none-too-distant future, this egress will bring dramatic consequences in its wake.
Another vital aspect of Silent Night is creating an authentic picture of a Polish family. I want my central characters to be real people to the marrow. I want to avoid the falseness which often appears in Polish cinema, where, time after time, we see well-known celebrities in the same, hackneyed role as always. Of course I want to use ‘A-list’ actors, but I shall do my utmost both to avoid typecasting them and to enrich the cast with actors who live and work in Eastern Poland, since what matters to me are powerful acting personalities. For the main characters, the Christmas Eve supper, the focal point of the traditional Polish Christmas, is a boxing ring, a fight over whose sense of humour and arguments will triumph; it is bragging about their successes in life and a battle in defence of their values. My central characters and, hand in hand with that, the actors creating them, will have to face up to themselves in that ring. I make no secret of the fact that this method of handling the dramaturgy springs from my experience of working as an actor. In the stories I tell, the main character always stands in first place, their viewpoint is always the overriding value which determines the visual form and cinematic language. In order to enhance the believability of the world I’m discussing, I plan to shoot the film in Eastern Poland, in the places where the action is set.
I have always been fascinated by entangled central characters. Central characters who have to take decisions here and now, in front of the audience’s eyes, as happens in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful. These are characters who have to make choices and the consequences intensify the drama in which they are participants. I tested my strengths in constructing my short films on the basis of characters like that. I am also fascinated by confining my stories to a specific, and limited, time span. Christmas Eve, which runs a particular course and has a natural dramatic tension that plays out during the ritual, is a superb background for an intimate, family drama. The selection of this as the time setting for the action is no random matter. Winter and the Christmas period is a singular time in our culture. For the families of economic migrants, Christmas Eve is one of the few moments in the year when a gathering with the entire family is possible. On the one hand, it is a cultural prism, an element of Christian practices and, on the other, it is occasion for having fun and getting together with those closest to us.
The atmosphere of the film oscillates between tragedy and absurd humour. This method of presenting the tragedy which touches the family is akin to what Sam Mendes did in American Beauty. I believe that a drama told with a large dose of humour and set within a light convention is capable of being more piercing than trauma cinema.
Silent Night will be a film in which audiences can see themselves, which is also why I envisage further work on the screenplay. That work will focus primarily on increasing the depth and authenticity of the relationships between the central characters because those relationships are the carriers of the drama being played out. I would also like to emphasise that Adam is driven by a noble motive and that, even if he does appear to be using the closest members of his family, he is doing so out of concern for the good of his child and his girlfriend.
I firmly believe that, holding to the tragicomic form, Silent Night has considerable box-office potential. Thanks to the topicality of the theme it addresses, the circumstances in which it is played out and the sharp sense of humour that springs from the nature of the main characters, who maintain a distance to themselves and the world alike, Silent Night will draw large, multigenerational audiences to the cinema.
Piotr Domalewski (director and screenplay)