Kasia Zimnoch and Pawel Kleszczewski charmingly describe themselves as “a duet of Polish filmmakers”. Whether the “duet” reflects the fact that English is not their first language - art is obviously their first language - or the intertwining of their lives and work is not clear.
“It’s complex but we know each other so long that it’s hard to say who does what,” begins Pawel of their work partnership. “We usually say that we both do everything. When it comes to research, reading books, collecting stories, drawing and computer editing - it’s hard to split, it’s totally joined. But Kasia has art history background so it is very helpful for deeper studies.”
We’re sitting in their studio in the upper reaches of Townhall Cavan, a starkly furnished room with sketches and ideas pinned to its plywood walls, to discus their beautiful new animation Broken Tale, which gets its first screening in Cavan as part of Culture Night.
Pawel had been working as a theatre set designer in Warsaw, and took his girlfriend Kasia to visit his father who had moved to Cavan. They quickly became immersed in the local arts scene and in 2013 set up ‘Konik Art Studio’, producing two short animations, ‘Balor the evil eye’ and ‘The Voyage of Saint Brendan’, and now they are excited to release their latest.
Broken Tale shows the journey of a girl and her friend, a moose, through a charcoal forest, where nature looms almost as a threatening force. A floating crown lures the girl ever deeper into its sinister interior where she encounters a snaggle of menacing, dancing creatures - Trolls and Huldra from Scandinavia, Wila, Leszy and Chochol from Slavic folklore and, Lurkeens and witches from closer to home. One diabolical sprite, a wizened old bearded man, tries to abduct her.
It was the forest at the Tyrone Guthrie artist’s retreat in Monaghan which left them spellbound.
“We both agreed that we wanted to create a forest - that was our dream,” explains Kasia. “We were in Annaghmakerrig for a short residency, a week or two, and we fell in love with this forest, absolutely beautiful and we take this Irish forest for our animation.”
“It is very wet and very dark, and very scary actually,” adds Pawel, “Before we saw this forest, we thought such forests were only in horror movies, but they are very common here - this was maybe our first major inspiration for style.
“So we said we want to find a story to have this forest as a main character and did research and that led us to Swedish folk tales.”
Specifically, Broken Tale is based on ‘Sagan om älgtjuren Skutt och lilla prinsessan Tuvstarr’, variously translated for English readers as ‘The story of Skutt the Moose and little Princess Tuvstarr’ and ‘Leap the Elk and the Little Princess Cottongrass’.
“We enriched the story and added some elements from different cultures - you can find in this animation a relation to Slavic folklore or Celtic folklore, so it’s a type of compilation, but the base is a Swedish story,” Pawel explains.
Artist John Bauer illustrated a popular version of the tale in 1913, and his influence can be seen in Kasia and Pawel’s work, particularly in their glowing depiction of the girl’s purity contrasted starkly against the ominous background. By co-incidence Kasia and Pawel applied for an arts residency in Smedbyn, Sweden, not realising that this was Bauer’s native region. “That was amazing because we were in his museum, we saw his drawings for real and it was really magical because we didn’t know this was his place,” enthused Kasia.
The soundtrack by their Poland-based friend, Yann Ciennik, is an intrinsic element of Broken Tale. With its clever, seamless switch between stark, folksy playing and lavish strings, atmosphere and emotions are subtly heightened.
“We finished the video without music, and he created the music to the movie, it was hard for him because we didn’t give him too much time,” says Pawel.
“But he managed,” adds Kasia.
Yann did more than manage, it’s truly wonderful, the soundtrack and animation feel inseparable.
Amongst the many film festivals Broken Tale has been invited to is the Baboró International Arts Festival for Children in Galway. The Celt wonders if it’s not a little spooky for children; apparently it was a thought shared by the festival director.
“She wasn’t sure,” recalls Kasia delightedly. “Is it too scary for children? But the curator said her children love scary stories - they like them more than the beautiful stories, so they agreed with her and will show it next month at the Baboró.”
“We didn’t focus this especially for kids, so yeah it can be scary but actually children’s fairytales like the Grimm Brothers should be banned,” he jokes. “They are so scary.”
The pair are fascinated by fairy tales’ origins.
“The stories survive in written folklore, and we give the stories to children, but the destination for the stories was totally not for children - it was for some secret Shamanic society - you get all those degrees of violence, and cutting bodies - they many times appear in the stories. There is a good proverb about fairytales: maybe sometime I will be adult enough to read fairytales!
“So maybe fairytales are more for adults than kids. Disney creates a vision of some very beautiful stories and softened them, maybe too much.”
Disney this certainly ain’t, and the lack of softening could well work in its favour when it comes to the various film festivals it has been entered into - Stockholm, Poland, and Girona are coming up, and in the latter it’s a contender in the category for experimental movies. “It would be nice to win something,” says Kasia looking ahead to the festivals.
“And also many people will see it, which will be very very good. We have a few chances and hopefully there will be more festivals,” says Pawel. “You never know what people will like, especially for animation, it’s more experimental film.”
They explain in the promo material that at its heart Broken Tale is “a story about adolescence, passing through the stages of life, the thresholds and the life cycles of women”. This narrative isn’t especially obvious upon first viewing. What does strike the viewer immediately however is the beauty of this artwork, the dedication and the love that for over two years went into a work that lasts just over nine minutes.
“It’s very painterly, very rich. I think personally it’s because your background is painting,” Kasia says to Pawel.
“I cannot control it,” he replies with a laugh.
“It’s in your blood,” adds Kasia as she shakes imaginary blood off her hands.
While they love living and working in Cavan Kasia notes it would be “nice to have more collaborators” in Cavan. “In Ireland there are very good professional companies, and it’s not a level of people we can work with, with the small budget we have, so we are looking for young people to collaborate - let’s say who have just finished school.”
What if you were offered jobs with a professional company?
“We will not take it,” insists Pawel without hesitation.
“Unless we are directors, that’s okay!” beams Kasia.
“We are coming from visual arts, we are not focused for commercial works so more what we do is more artwork than something that can be used for making money. So we are in the, some can say, very naive approach to reality.”
• Broken Tale will premier at the side alley of Townhall Cavan on Culture Night on Friday, September 15 at 7pm. Free admission.
• For a full list of Culture Night events in County Cavan, click here.