Polish short ‘All Soul’s Day’ shows at Aspen Shortsfest

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Contributed photoThe Polish short film "All Soul's Day" shows at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Wheeler Opera House for Aspen Shortsfest.

ASPEN – If “All Soul’s Day” had been a feature film, with even a decent budget, the last thing the filmmakers would have wanted to do is shoot on All Souls’ Day itself. On All Souls’ Day – a national holiday to remember the dead, observed on Nov. 1 in Catholic countries – the cemeteries are crammed with people, traffic is a mess, and no sane film crew would want to work around such chaos.

But “All Soul’s Day” was a short film, written and directed by Aleksandra Terpinska with a crew comprising her friends and fellow students at the University of Silesia in Poland. The budget for the 18-minute film was minuscule, so the filmmakers decided that All Souls’ Day would be an ideal day to film: The cemetery would already be filled with candles, flowers and people in masks.

“We didn’t have the money to make it look that way. So we had to shoot it on exactly that day,” Bartosz Bieniek, the film’s cinematographer, said at the filmmakers lounge at the Mountain Chalet, on Tuesday, the opening day of Aspen Shortsfest. “Getting the permits – that was difficult. Normally, you’d want to avoid that situation, with traffic, where you’d have to block people out. I’d feel much more comfortable having everything under control.”

Shooting on a major holiday was just one compromise in making the film. For the cast and crew, Terpinska and Bieniek called on friends and asked for favors.

“Being a student, where you don’t have money for anything, you’re begging people for help,” said Bieniek, a 32-year-old who is also a student at Silesia. “I used all the contacts I had, asked as many people as possible to work for free.”

The day they filmed in the cemetery, Bieniek used a tiny crew – “documentary style,” he said – to avoid getting entangled with the All Souls’ Day crowd.

One compromise the filmmakers refused to make was on the technical medium. Bieniek insisted on Super 16 – that is, film rather than digital – which added to the expense and complication. But Trepinska’s script was about a teenage girl, Lena, tangling with her younger brother, mourning the death of her mother, seeking the whereabouts of her absent father, all while hoping to have some fun on her birthday. The story, centered around true-life emotions, called for Super 16 – “that grainy, naturalistic look,” Bieniek said.

Bieniek’s efforts have been validated. At Cameraimage – a festival in Poland and only one dedicated exclusively to cinematography – Bieniek earned a Special Award. “All Soul’s Day” has screened at Clermont-Ferrand, a massive short-film festival in France, and at Los Angeles’ Polish Film Festival, where Bieniek says the film was praised for capturing something specifically Polish.

“All Soul’s Day” shows Wednesday at Aspen Shortsfest, on the 5:30 p.m. program that also features “Three Light Bulbs,” a father-daughter drama set in a rural Chinese village; “You Don’t Know Jack,” a three-minute film by Morgan Spurlock about a teenager who came up with a profound breakthrough in cancer detection; and “The Death of the Bar-T,” a look at the Roaring Fork Valley ranching tradition by Carbondale filmmaker Anson Fogel. The program also includes a family comedy from Finland, a portrait of a South African veterinarian and more.

“All Soul’s Day” started as an even smaller production – far smaller. It was a homework project assigned to Terpinska. The assignment – film two scenes that revolve around All Souls’ Day – was planned over one night and filmed, with Bieniek handling the cinematography, over two hours on another night. A third night was devoted to editing. Despite the absence of lighting and a cast made of available friends rather than actors, the results were promising.

“I think she was happy with the outcome, and the story was growing with her,” Bieniek said.

Not long after, Terpinska and Bieniek redid the film with a longer script and a fresh cast of performers. The shoot took six days, and four months later, when they were dissatisfied with one part, they did an additional day of filming.

Bieniek – who became fascinated with cinematography at age 13 when he visited the TV set where his father worked as a camera operator – matched the small scale of the production with his cinematographic approach. The visual look is quiet, ordinary.

“I didn’t want the cinematography to jump out in front of the story,” he said in a fluid English that he learned a decade ago while working in the U.S. to save money to buy a camera and study film. “I wanted to hide it behind the story. So the lighting is soft, not visible. The biggest job of the cinematographer is to match the look to the story, to find that language.”

Bieniek allowed himself one flourish. The final scene, an emotional uniting of family members, starts with an overhead shot, and then the camera moves farther and farther upward.

“We wanted this shot to look totally different than the whole movie,” Bieniek said. “It does something irrational for the movie – a heavenly touch. It makes the story not so much from the ground, this look from the top. It reminds you, you have to look at your life from a bit of distance.”


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