Oscars 2015 Foreign-Language Spotlight: Poland's 'Ida'

Ida Film Still - H 2014

Ida Film Still - H 2014

Pawel Pawlikowski's drama could win Poland its first-ever foreign-language Oscar after a slew of past nominations.

Polish-British filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski has enjoyed anything but a typical film career. Previously best known for 2004's My Summer of Love, which brought Emily Blunt overnight fame, he also has written and directed Last Resort (2000) and The Woman in the Fifth (2011). After a successful career in London, he returned to Warsaw and embarked upon Ida, his first Polish-language film.

The drama is Poland's 10th nominee in the best foreign-language film Oscar category. The country has never won. Its first nomination was in 1963 for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, while its most recent one before this year came in 2011 for Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness.

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Set in 1960s Poland, where nationalists have criticized the film, Ida tells the story of a woman on the verge of taking her vows as a nun when she discovers from her communist prosecutor aunt that she in fact has Jewish ancestry. Together they set out to find out what happened to their family during World War II.

Like its dense subject matter, making the film, which recently won the foreign-language BAFTA award, was challenging, from casting difficulties and crew upsets to weather delays caused by Poland's so-called "winter of the century."

Yet Pawlikowski ended up turning this series of random setbacks into what he calls "hidden blessings," and such a trajectory seems to be typical for the nontraditional director. "He writes with the camera," says producer Ewa Puszczynska, describing Pawlikowski's style of adapting his stories by changing lines and sometimes entire scenes during filming. In fact, little of Pawlikowski's 64-page script -- which secured Ida's financing -- made the final cut. "I kind of forget about the script and live the film," he admits.

After securing funding, the next hurdle came in casting the role of Ida. When typical methods failed, Pawlikowski put out a call to friends to be on the lookout for the ideal woman. A friend in Warsaw spotted Agata Trzebuchowska, a hipster-looking student at a cafe, secretly snapped an iPhone photo of her and sent it to the director. Trzebuchowska wasn't immediately interested in being in a film, but she wanted to meet with Pawlikowski, as My Summer of Love had made an impression on her in her youth. "We took off the makeup and the cool clothes and saw that she was really special, as if from a different era," recalls Pawlikowski.

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Then came a series of problems. The film's original director of pho­tography, Ryszard Lenczewski, left on the first day of film shooting due to illness, came back after a few days, and then left again. Pawlikowski went through his rolodex for a replacement, but everyone was busy. The film's camera operator, a young man named Lukasz Zal, stepped up. He'd graduated from the prestigious Lodz Film School and had shot a couple of shorts.

"He had no reputation to protect, so he was up for it. But it was a bit scary at first. He looked like he was 18!" says Pawlikowski. "The electricians were old hand and at first skeptical of having this young guy boss them around, but slowly we all found a rhythm." It's a rhythm that didn't go unnoticed by the Academy, which bestowed Lenczewski and Zal with a best cinematography nomination.

"The idea was to shoot most scenes from just one angle and in one shot," says Pawlikowski, admitting that he had to do quite a few takes of each scene. "I wanted it to feel like a Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph, expressive but seemingly random, and with God-given light rather than lit like a movie."

Keeping the budget low, at $1.9 million (1.4 million euros), Pawlikowski, who attended THR's Nominees Night part at Spago, was able to stay flexible, reworking the story until the last minute. It was a process that would give most producers pause, but he credits Puszczynska for supporting him every step of the way. "We had some scenes that didn't have the bite and the poetry that I wanted everything to have," he says, "so I put them at the end of the schedule."

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One week before the film was scheduled to wrap in December, a huge winter storm hit and stopped production. They thought the snow would set them back a couple of weeks, but it went on for three months, forcing the 40-day shoot to spread from November to April. "It was a disaster for the production but a blessing for me," says Pawlikowski, who had time to recraft certain scenes during the long cold season.

Ida has since swept the European Film Awards, and many consider it the favorite to win the foreign-language Oscar. But can it stand up against the juggernaut Academy campaigns like that of Sony Pictures Classics entry Leviathan? "It's simpler in Europe. There is no lobbying. It makes no difference who the distributor is," says the director. "In the States, it's not so straightforward."

Submitting country Poland
Director Pawel Pawlikowski
Top awards Spotlight Award, American Society of Cinematographers; Audience Award, European Film Awards

Read up on the film's competitors in the foreign-language race, which are from Russia, Estonia, Argentina and Mauritania.