Caught from Above — The Balcony Movie by Paweł Łoziński as a Portrait of Society

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I’m making a film about the passers-by, a sort of metaphor for life.” 

When I walk through the streets at night passing the angular rectangles which light up brightly, the question of what might be hidden behind these rectangles runs through my mind from time to time. What stories —and whose stories — would open up to me if I could catch a closer glimpse of other people’s homes and lives? What is it that sparks our curiosity again and again about the paths others choose and how they deal with them? A little glance through the window could probably also turn out to be a look in the mirror. Through this the differences as well as similarities regarding each person’s own story would become apparent. The Polish director, screenwriter and producer Paweł Łoziński opted for a different perspective for his film The Balcony Movie from 2021 — but holding the same curiosity inherent. As the title already suggests Łoziński recorded passers-by passing below from the perspective of the balcony of his apartment in Warsaw. Passers-by with whom he had a chat about life such as asking them questions that at first seem simple. Questions about how they perceive life and what it means to them or simply how they feel about themselves. These questions which at first seem trivial hold answers that are far more profound as they show different ways in which people experience life.

How about a quick chat? About life?“

Scene from The Balcony Movie (2021), photo from The Economist ©

Due to a creative blockade including struggling with ideas for a new film, this concept originally was intended being kind of an unusual casting in which the aim was to find various passers-by as possible protagonists for a new project. Contrary to the more usual method of searching for protagonists by going outside within a city or country, Łoziński this time asked himself the question: ”Is it possible to have the entire cross section of people just by putting a camera in one fixed place on the balcony?.“ However — following this intention — this search turned out to be a developed film itself. This idea came to his mind as he sat on his balcony itself as he reports in our interview. ”I realized that I am watching people passing below my balcony and then eavesdropping on their conversations. These conversations raised my curiosity because they were crying on the phones, they were like whispering to each other, they were like having flowers in their hands. And I was so curious who will have these flowers after that.“

Even though the director’s position on the balcony standing out as a platform above seems hierarchical in some way, Łoziński’s moderate manner and impartiality create a space of communication in which both the passers-by and he himself can interact with each other on the same base. It is fascinating to see how variably each person reacts to the questions and how some conversations develop from initial skepticism to a private talk. Certain conversational dynamics also seem familiar to us as recipients of the film and make us identify with the respective passers-by. These different characters which can be seen in the film were chosen from about 2000 different conversations. When Pawel Łoziński explains in what way he makes decisions based on such a selection he particularly points out the relevance of the emotions he felt during the shooting time referring to each person’s individual story. ”So when the first feeling was I was not laughing shooting this guy — it won’t work on the audience.“

Angela – Scene from The Balcony Movie (2021), photo from IDFA Archive ©

As we are the observers of different stories we can gain insights of the intimate spheres each person is willing to show off in a sincere way and also be listeners to diverse paths of suffering and realities. These are characterized in particular by their diversity. Each story tells of its own origins, doubts and events. Loud patriotic slogans make their way across the sidewalk, an elderly couple cross the path always holding onto a shopping cart together, a sad man laments about the loss of his partner. Each of these stories exists in a similar — but never exactly the same way — elsewhere in the world. And each one shows that we all find ourselves — the way we are and feel — influenced by certain systems and relationships we stick to. 

Łoziński’s neighborhood almost seems to be a reflection of society itself representing people of different ages and circumstances which Łoziński agrees on. In his eyes ”it’s a film about people and it is a film about Polish people. But it’s still universal because we all have nationalists,  fascists or patriots as they call themselves.“

Due to a shooting period of about two and a half years, Pawel Łoziński makes it possible that we as recipients build up a special relationship to different people as they appear on several occasions over a longer period of time. Like the cheerful Angela from the neighborhood who first dances on the sidewalk at the beginning of the film and later, when fall has started, tells us about her pregnancy. There are only a few moments that were captured here, yet they can be seen like small pieces of a puzzle which piece by piece form a picture and spark something in us. 

If we pursue the question of whether and to what extent it was also difficult for the director himself to distance from individual stories and characters, it turns out that both — compassion and distance towards individual persons — are indispensable. ”I can’t put material in a film from a character that I am not empathizing with. But empathizing does not mean that I don’t have a distance. This is permitted because I need to edit the film“, Łoziński mentions.

Robert – Scene from The Balcony Movie (2021), photo from The Polish Film Institute ©

”I need a hero for my film.” – “I don’t think it’s me.“

In the first few minutes of the film the director strikes up a conversation with a young woman sharing his film idea with and asking her to tell something about herself. She starts talking about her passion for fashion and her profession as an interior designer. As she is ready to move on to meet a friend, Pawel Łoziński mentions he still needs a hero for his film which she quickly and clearly dismisses by saying that she does not think this hero is her.

The person who for me would turn out to be the hero appears quite shortly after for the first time. A man who tells of his thoughts and fears and what the world would hold for him now that he has been out of prison for just two days. 

“So I wander the streets of Warsaw and I don’t know what to do with myself. Should I do a robbery or something, just go back to the old path, back to jail, ‘cos that’s easiest.“

He begins taking us on his journey sparking new and unanswered questions within us. When he shows up another time on the sidewalk below the balcony, it seems that what started as an encounter has already turned into an acquaintance: seen when he borrows a shirt from Łoziński for the photo of his identity card which he would then give him as a present. Unlike other passers-by, this time it is not the director himself who asks the man for his name but the other way around. The man introduces himself as Robert who would turn out to appear for a little chat and come by more often from now on. For months we get to know about his life in short passages standing there on the sidewalk telling us about his new job and how he still always has to ask for a place to sleep at night.

The director describes his relationship with Robert as a special bond by saying that he himself ”became his let’s say friend, let’s say advisor. A guy in a position like his older brother or even a father.“ It seems Łoziński becomes a person Robert can confide in as the space between sidewalk and balcony functions as a spot that is inherently close but distanced enough at the same time. He manages to ask questions at the right time and to remain silent as he appears merely as a listener himself. Therefore the recipient becomes an observer without attempting to evaluate or classify the realities of the people’s lives.

Regarding making conversations with various passers-by, Łoziński emphasizes that he saw himself as both — a conversational partner as well as listener — yet was tempted to avoid too many questions on his part. ”I tried to preserve silence because when you are silent and you have a camera, the protagonists will tell you a story.“

Robert – Scene from The Balcony Movie (2021), photo from IMDb ©

In the last sequence in which Robert appears it seems that he must have felt the inner need to talk to Łoziński himself who does not answer at first. We can see Robert apparently feeling the necessity to speak into the camera and let something or someone know about his inner thoughts. 

He ends his presence in the film with the words

“But I want to pass on as a decent man, not as trash, a drunk… and a criminal. You have no idea how I envy you, like, for the situation you’re in. You’re loved, you’ve got warmth, you’ve got a home, a family. A dog. Stability in life. Cherish it.“

According to Pawel Łoziński the last sequence in which Robert appears can be seen as ”his biggest confession that night“.

So why is Robert the hero in this journey through all these stories? For me it is because through his openness and sincerity he creates an awareness of one’s own life with all its facets, holding a mirror up to oneself. Who did I become? What do I have? What delights me and what makes me sad? Not only Robert but also all the other characters who have opened up with their sometimes little and sometimes bigger stories are heroes in their own unique way. There are deliberately chosen recurring persons who evoke a sense of closeness and identification in the film’s recipients. And to say it with the director’s words: ”You know, everybody is a hero“.

With his impressive and experimental documentary The Balcony Movie, Pawel Łoziński manages to catch a wonderful and authentic glimpse into the lives of a wide variety of people. A film that — in its simplicity of stylistic means — develops a sense of the interpersonal and all-encompassing things that accompany us day after day. A tribute to life which we can face with humbleness. 

By Ida Hensel

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