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“Without the Consent of our Child Protagonists We Would Not Have Made the Film”: Lidia Duda on her Locarno-Premiering Doc Fledglings

Premiering at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, Lidia Duda’s Fledglings is an entrancing look at a trio of seven year olds who bravely travel far from home to board at a school for the visually impaired. Forced to rely only on themselves, their teachers — and most importantly one another — Zosia, Oskar and Kinga spend their days mastering everything from handrails to utensils, to spelling words and playing the piano. Not to mention navigating often overwhelming emotions. (At least for the creative Zosia and sensitive Oskar, whose developmental disabilities can sometimes stress the besties out. Kinga, on the other hand, is one stoic little chick.) And equally remarkable is the unseen force behind the lens who, through respectful closeups and evocative black and white imagery, attempts to meet her young protagonists on their own terms, and, in the process, allow us all to experience a new way of seeing.

Filmmaker reached out to the multi-award-winning Polish director the day before her film’s international debut in the Semaine De La Critique section of the fest.

Filmmaker: So how did this film originate?

Duda: My films are created because I am close to the life that is beside me. I look at people passing by me, observe mini scenes right next to me, catch snippets of conversations. And sometimes these “crumbs of life” stop me because something interests me — most often worlds I don’t know. I enter them with curiosity, without directorial theses that impose a film’s meaning.

The world of blind kids was also an “unknown land” for me. Thinking about the film began after my accidental visit to a school for blind children. In the crowd of senior students I noticed a group of toddlers. The teacher was leading them down the corridor, and passing me she said, “Now we are going to the boarding school.” That one sentence stopped me. I thought, what do you mean to the boarding school? After all, at this age they should be with their moms and dads!

An objection arose in me. But then I realized that these little kids have no choice and that they will probably find the strength to meet this lifelong challenge (all too early in life) by actually being independent without parents. I assumed that they would have to fill the void left by family relationships with new relationships. They would have to build their new micro world from scratch, based on relationships with their peers.

Filmmaker: How did you actually go about casting your three main protagonists? Did you follow other kids as well?

Duda: I chose the children based on my knowledge of each of them. I knew their character traits, their weaknesses and their strengths. I just trusted my directorial intuition. (And my documentary experience.) But choosing the characters was certainly the most difficult stage of production. I couldn’t do preliminary shooting at the subject documentation stage because my potential heroes were in their family homes at the time. These were their safe worlds, with mom and dad at their fingertips. They knew everything there by heart — the house, the nearby park, the voices of familiar people. And the film was to begin the day they would have to leave those family nests and enter a strange space filled with unfamiliar voices.

We showed up on the first day of school with our fledglings. And those first shooting days really confirmed the right choice of characters. We knew from the beginning that the first class would have only three students: Zosia, Kinga and Oskar. Which meant that we wouldn’t have the chance to follow the other children in parallel, and possibly change the characters during filming. Production-wise it was a big realization risk, but we decided to play vabanque.

Filmmaker: Regarding access, what were the discussions like with both the children’s parents and the school? What rules were set for filming? What was off-limits to the camera?

Duda: I first obtained the school’s permission. I explained that my goal was not to make a film about the education system. Instead I wanted to show the world of children’s emotions, feelings and the building of peer relationships in the challenging situation of living at a boarding school at the age of seven.

The second step was to get the parents’ approval. I also presented them with my directorial assumptions about the film. And most importantly, I made it very clear that they should not expect any laurels, because I wanted to show their children both in moments of success and failure. In other words, they should expect that the film will show their children as they really are, with all their flaws and advantages. (Thankfully, this attitude was met with their approval.)

The third step was really the most important — getting the children’s consent (although from the legal side I didn’t have to do that). I explained to the children why I wanted to make a film about them, what our cooperation would consist of, that nothing would take place without their consent, that they would always be informed when we were starting to record, and that they would be the first to see the film as soon as we edited it.

So all in all, we established partnership rules of cooperation. Without the consent of our child protagonists we would not have made the film. The children trusted us and let us into their intimate world. They allowed us to listen to their conversations — not only those about everyday life, but also about emotions and feelings. If they hadn’t trusted us they would have remained silent in our presence. And that would have been the end of our dreams of filmed fledglings.

Filmmaker: Interestingly, the scenes I found most unnerving had less to do with the kids than with the school itself. The militaristic standing at attention, the nationalist anthem-singing — even the overt Catholicism on display with the caring nun — just struck me as more indoctrination than education. Why did you choose to include these particular scenes?

Duda: What you’re talking about — the “standing at attention” or interrupting the meal of a child who holds a spoon incorrectly — also aroused my internal objection. I thought the school would question these scenes in the film. However, they were accepted, probably because they are truthful. Such are the rules there. We may or may not like these rules, but according to school educators blind children don’t need sympathy or pity because it doesn’t give them anything. They need challenges and tasks to complete because these are the only things that allow them to grow. There is no discount just because they are blind.

The school is run by nuns so it is a Catholic institution. This is not a unique situation in Poland — religious lessons are already in kindergarten, and then in primary and secondary schools. We are a Catholic country. But in my opinion, the institution of the church is currently experiencing quite a crisis in Poland (caused by abuses similar to ones in other countries). The issue of teaching religion, in the case of young children, is quite an interesting documentary topic. I actually looked into it a bit during the realization of Fledglings. In my opinion, young children have quite a problem translating religious dogma into concepts they can understand. (Their life experiences negate the Resurrection, for example.) However, in Fledglings I did not deepen the thread of religious instruction — this is a topic for a separate film. I only signaled the connection between schooling and religious instruction. This is important information for the viewer.

Regarding the anthem of Poland, which is sung by children during the school academy, I think that this is rather normal. Patriotism, including knowledge of the history and art of one’s homeland — or the words of the national anthem — allows us to identify with the country in which we live. I recall the first time I was in the United States and saw the almost ubiquitous American flags in front of private homes. At the time I thought that they were inhabited by people who were not ashamed of their country; in fact, quite the opposite.

Filmmaker: How did you ultimately present the film to the children? What form actually allowed them (and their classmates) to “see” or somehow experience it? And what’s their level of understanding when it comes to filmmaking and being in a movie?

Duda: The children watched the film in our audio-descriptive version. The voiceover actually doesn’t supplement much. In fact it limits itself to giving information about where the scene takes place, because the film is very dense with words. This is due to the fact that our characters are blind. Thus, they can’t see body language, can’t read emotions from faces, from the expression of eyes, so they must convey everything to the other child in words. They must name in concrete words their emotions and feelings. They have to say what they expect. By remaining silent they disappear for the other child. They are left alone in the dark. Only by speaking do they confirm their presence.

As for the level of understanding of the filmmaking process, and one’s participation in it as a blind child, the biggest challenge was to explain to such young kids what the image the camera captures is. I referred to their experience of learning about a new object: “When you get a new doll you touch it to see its head, legs, arms. After awhile you already know if it has long hair or a short dress. The camera will do the same. She will also see if you have long hair or a short dress.” That’s basically how we came to an agreement about the film’s image.

Once the film was finished I was very curious to hear how my child protagonists would receive it. And I can’t hide the fact that they surprised me. I did not expect such an emotional reception and such precise memory regarding the filmed scenes. The children would recognize a scene after just 5-10 seconds and immediately say what would happen in a moment, which one of them would speak and what they would say. I think that the scenes we chose for the film were important both for them and for us. They remembered them. After the screening was over Zosia even asked, reproachfully, why the film was so short when we had recorded this scene, and that scene, and this one, etc. So then our conversation turned to the issue of editing — choosing a certain number of scenes for the film. I then made an agreement that they would get the omitted scenes from me in the form of a soundtrack.

I should say that before Fledglings I had already made films with child protagonists. Child protagonists should always be treated as seriously as adults. There must be clear rules of cooperation. They must have the right to negate something. They must know what the purpose of our work is, why we want to make a film about them. Sometimes I had to use simpler words, but the sense of my speech was the same as in a conversation with an adult. Without mutual trust the film will not be made. Parental consent for their children to participate in the film is just not enough. Like I said, if the fledglings did not trust us they would have been silent in our presence. Instead they let us listen to their conversations about longing, hugging, marriage plans. They really let us into their world.

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