Ola Jankowska is a Polish writer and director working in Poland and the UK. She studied Directing at Lodz Film School and the NFTS. She has made close to a dozen fiction and documentary shorts which screened around the world. Her first feature documentary I Was Here premiered at CPH:DOX 2018. 

She is now shooting her first feature fiction film Anatomia, developed at TorinoFilmLab Script&Pitch and Ekran+. Anatomia is produced by Oscar-winning company Opus Film (Ida, Cold War) in Poland and Kometa Films in France. Ola has also participated in programs such as CPH:LAB, European Short Pitch, or Zurich Masterclass. She teaches screenwriting at the Lodz Film School.

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

To be honest, I can’t recall a particular desire to be a director. Indeed, I watched a lot of films in my teenage years back in Poland, sometimes I would go to cinema three times a day, yet I don’t think at the time I felt I would seriously and actively pursue making films. In my group of friends we all enjoyed films a lot and certainly it didn’t feel like we’d all go on to become filmmakers.

However, at some point towards the end of high school I went on a trip to Lodz (where the most renowned Polish film school is) and I came back, to put it most adequately, possessed. Still then, I don’t think I was so taken by the idea of directing itself; I wasn’t even 18 and as much as I had always been up for a challenge, being the person who’d have to lead the whole crew seemed slightly out of my depth.

Yet something else got me during that trip. I had always been very much into writing. It had been one of my favourite things in the world and suddenly discovering at one of the lectures at film school, where the first five minutes of some film were analysed for three hours, that there actually exists a whole other language, made of images, movement, time and sound. A language in which you can communicate a whole new spectrum of feelings, impressions and perspectives completely took over me. I wanted to do everything to speak that language. And becoming a director seemed like a necessary evil to achieve that. 

Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?

Once I knew I wanted to make films, I nearly completely abandoned preparing for my final exams and started secretly preparing for the entry exams to film school (which were really long and cumbersome). I thought it was embarrassing to admit I wanted to apply to film school to anyone, as it was widely known they didn’t want to admit youngsters. Yet, I got a little miniDV camera for my 18th birthday and started making a short film that was required as a part of the portfolio. I cast my best friend as the lead (and the only cast member) without sharing the future use of the project with her. I didn’t even have a proper tripod apart from a tiny table one, so I was using books and all sorts of things to prop the camera up. It was all a bit of a disaster.

During the entry exam, to my complete confusion, I was asked if I had submitted a documentary. The film included a person jumping out of the window so I was, to say the least, perplexed. Only a couple of years later, did I realise that the film was so rough that the selection panel struggled to see it as a fiction film.

I did, however, get into the school and things started speeding up from there. I studied there for three very intense years and as I still felt too young and hungry for life experiences to start working as a director. So at 21, I applied to the NFTS where I studied for a further two years. 

What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?

I had it relatively easy at the start. I applied to two film schools, which seemed pretty difficult to get into and got in the first time of applying. I was making a lot of films, meeting fascinating people. Things were on the roll. Many people around me seemed to think I was this little prodigy, such a young girl, moving up so fast. Which probably wasn’t the best thing for me.

And then the schools came to an end and reality struck. I was quite rebellious in my years at the NFTS. I wasn’t interested in commercial films, ‘the industry’ and my ‘career’. I did nothing to make contacts, present my work to anybody. I just wanted to make films I believed in and felt like it would simply happen. Little had I known how tough it would be. 

I ended up as the only one in my class of eight without an agent after the graduation show. I had no idea how to earn a living or how to pursue the kind of projects I was interested in making. Worst of all, five and a half years of very intense studying, left me drained and lost. It felt like I had woken up from a very long dream and had to see the place where I actually was, at for the first time. It took time. And effort, and patience.

I had to face rejections from festivals, funding programs and jobs before things started getting on track. I think a lot of people search for validation from the film industry when they start off, which is understandable, yet rather pointless. The difference between people who manage to make films and those who don’t, doesn’t actually lie in talent or special skills (just think of how many films you hate are out there!). People who make films are simply those who keep making them. Not all are ‘successful’, not all are great filmmakers but all find their audience of sorts. I have been observing aspiring filmmakers for 13 years and I don’t know a single person who really wanted to make a film and who didn’t eventually manage to make it. Yet, I know a lot of people who gave up, were too fearful their project wasn’t good enough and therefore incapable of finishing it or decided they just didn’t want the sacrifices this job brings. I know people who never seemed to make great films to have successful careers as directors and also those who seemed extraordinarily talented, who somehow gave up. 

How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?

Making my own films was definitely the most valuable experience I got; however, over the years I was also trying to visit sets of more experienced directors and assist on smaller projects. I would just call friends or e-mail directors to ask if they needed someone. Meeting other filmmakers at festivals, screenings and workshops has also been massively inspiring and helpful in seeing the many different ways in which things can be done, and that I am not alone in my challenges. 

I was initially quite hungry to hear how other directors worked, and I’m sure it can be useful to get some tips, but I have to say that occasionally I found it also hindered my own process. Sometimes I tried to adopt methods that were opposite to what I actually needed to achieve a certain result. Once I got a grasp of the basics, how the set worked, how to approach actors without blocking them, carving my own path through the process has been the most effective. 

Retrospectively, workshops and set visits were great to build confidence but I also learnt a lot in other places. For example very early on I took up photography (first analogue and then also digital) which gave me a much better sense of lenses and visual language. And for instance, what I think gave me some of the best lessons on how to direct actors and quickly build chemistry and relationships between them, were dance classes (contact improvisation in particular). 

I feel that no matter how much craft you might have, each project brings new challenges that won’t allow you to just use your old tricks. Some things get a lot easier with experience (for instance, controlling stress levels) but one has to be ready to always learn new things and discover the new project for what it is.

How did you get your first break?

I think I was quite determined to make a feature film and this was my main goal after finishing film school. It turned out that more important than having an agent was having a producer that was willing to develop it with me. I wrote a treatment and applied to different script workshops (like TorinoFilmLab) which was very helpful in having the source of support and guidance I needed at the time. Those labs can also give a project a quality stamp that the funding bodies consider important. I then received development funding from the Polish Film Institute and then production funding. What I think is very helpful in those first steps is surrounding yourself with a group of like-minded people, whether it’s collaborators or other directors who want to pursue similar things.

Film Credits: The Estuary of River Cuckmere (2013), I Was Here (2019).