An interview with Mitko Panov on With Raised Hands

Richard Raskin

How would you describe your relationship to the photograph that inspired With Raised Hands? When did you first see the picture and had it been particularly meaningful to you for some time before you made the film?

I can't say that I had much of a relationship with the photo before I decided to make the film. I first saw 'the image' of the boy (with raised hands) in a painting by a known Italian painter, Renato Gutusso. That must have been about seven years before the film was made. But at that time, I had no idea that the boy in the painting was taken from an authentic photo, nor that it treats a real historical event. I think it was clear that the colorfully painted image of the boy was related to a war, but it was unclear which one. Nonetheless, the image stayed with me for a long time, and when I recognized it in the actual black and white photo, I was surprised to discover that it was taken in Poland, during the extermination of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In any case, that boy with raised hands, surrounded by armed soldiers, aiming their weapons at him, must have spoken to me in some way. At the time I saw the actual photo, I was studying directing in the Lodz Film School, and I very soon decided to make a short film about the photo.
In order to understand the main reason behind that decision, and exactly what attracted me to the photo, I will have to tell you where I saw the print of the original picture. It was in a book of a (former) Yugoslav, I believe a Croat/Jewish art critic Oto Bihalji Merin, another acclaimed name from the post WW II art scene. His book was entitled A Re-vision of Art and it is a comparative art study about various "eternal" themes (images, visions, forms) that keep re-appearing throughout the history of culture and civilization. The chapter containing the photo was called With Raised Hands and knowing the film's godfather will probably help explain the content of the film, and the reason for it's existence. Basically, Merin was comparing images of the same motif - of raised hands - throughout the history of culture. For thousands of years, these images had been reappearing from the planes of the ancient Latin and Central American civilizations, to the tomb stones in the Jewish cemeteries. According to my understanding, they have expressed man's eternal and deep striving toward 'the skies' and in a visual way, spoke of man's innate spiritual aspirations. In a way, they are testimonies of the sacrilegious nature of the human.

I don't know of any short film made before yours which invents a fictitious a story about the making of a photograph. Do you recall how the idea first came to you? Did you know of other blends of documentary photo and fictional film at the time?

There must be quite a few films that incorporate documentary photos within their narrative. Bergman's Persona for example uses exactly the same photo in a sequence that is shot and cut in the style of a 'photo-roman'. I learned about that - and saw Persona - after I shot the film, but seeing it beforehand wouldn't have prevented my use of it, because I felt it was used in a very different context. However, I am not sure if there is a short film about the making of a documentary photo. I'd be surprised if there isn't one. I believe that by now, pretty much everything has been covered.

Did you have any moments of hesitation when you wondered whether or not it was entirely legitimate to weave a fiction around the making of the photograph?

I never had that kind of hesitation. In my eyes, all art and culture weaves fiction with history, sometimes up to the point that no one knows any longer what was real, and what's part of the teller's imagination.
However, I did have some concerns about the fact that the picture was already pretty well known and used in other art forms, and that it was a commentary on an important part of our history. I am not sure whether I make myself clear but: you don't want to make a false or even mediocre piece of media about something that deeply affects millions of people. (Even though journalists do that all the time and they keep getting more sophisticated at it. In my opinion, they specialized in it during the recent wars in former Yugoslavia. )
But to get back to With Raised Hands: even though the film uses a real historical event, and brings fiction (or wishful thinking) into it, I don't think it manipulates, abuses or in any way violates the historical truth. People crave freedom and 'salvation' whether they are Jews, Christians or Muslims, and whether they live in conditions of war or peace. I hope that that's a truthful assumption and that's what the film is about: the desire to be free, whatever that means.

Did your story evolve at all at a later stage in the production process, from shooting script to final cut? Were there any shots you filmed but chose not to use?

Not at all. There was an 'iron' story board and shooting script, and only one shot in the film was not planned and one (that was shot) was not included in the final cut. The entire film was shot in a ratio 1:3 and the editing pretty much consisted in simply assembling the shots. For example, the second (and most complex) shot had only two takes. Both of them pretty similar. But this is not to say (to the students) that all films should be shot with an 'iron shooting script' but it just so happened in the case of this one.

Can you describe your preparations, including casting, location scouting, arranging the décor, finding costumes, etc.?

The film was shot as a student étude during the second year of my studies in Poland, and that was in the mid eighties. That matters, because the production model of the film school at that time pretty much determined the way you work.
The school itself was organized as a small film studio with strong links to the "real world" and we (the students) had many of these resources available.
Of course, you had to pay out of your own pocket for some 'extras' but the bulk of what you needed was provided. A lot of the tasks, like casting extras, selecting costumes, finding props, etc., were pretty easy, because everything was there in the studio. At that time, they had just completed a feature film about the Holocaust and a lot of the stuff was still in place.
When it came to the casting of the child-actors, I had to do everything on my own. I don't know who suggested this idea, but since I was clearly looking for children with Semitic features and there weren't enough kids to choose from, someone suggested that I try the Gypsy communities. It sounds strange to me now, as I tell it, but that's how it was. So I started visiting pretty much all of these communities in Lodz, making portraits of the children, and getting to know them. It took some time to find the right ones, but I was very lucky in general. The boy that I found for the main role was a natural. Of course, it helped that I had the photograph, so I knew exactly what I was looking for. The same was true of the locations. I held the picture in my hands and spent a lot of money on taxis, driving around, looking. I didn't have location scouts or a production designer, so I had to find it all myself and then verify it with the director of photography (Jarek Szoda). But since it's impossible to find a perfect location that will give you all the desired angles (it's a period piece after all), I had to concoct the film locations from several different locations that in reality had nothing to do with one another. Some were in the vicinity and other about an hour or so away. If it wasn't a student production, we would have probably built a set on the studio lot but I am not sure that that would have worked better.

Could you describe the unique form of "story board" (photos) you made, and why you chose to do it that way?

I often take photos in preparation for a shoot. I photograph the locations and use random people as stand-ins. It helps me discover the right angle, distance, lens. It is a great tool for visualizing the film, (assuming the visuals are very important). It is much better than the video camera and there are reasons for that: not only the image and the lens is more alike, but because it is still, it helps you to reflect on what you've got. You can line up the stills on the floor and create a film sequence, you can switch their order and do some editing.
It is like a 'frozen' film that you keep before your eyes, and you animate it with your imagination.
The reason I used it in With Raised Hands was because it gave me a clearer sense of how the film would look even before it was shot.

How did you direct your actors? Do you recall what instructions you gave to the main German soldier at various moments in the action? To the little boy? To the other characters, for example at the moment when you shown them in close-ups?

Some of the faces you see belong to professional actors and others (like the children) are non-professional, so the approach varied. When it comes to the children (there are three of them), they all belonged to the same neighborhood, so once I cast them, I spent about one month, working with them on weekends. The assignments we did were very simple, pretty much in order to establish a rapport with them. During the shoot I simply stood right next to the camera, and made sure that each of their reactions and motions corresponded to what we had established during the rehearsals. I needed that rapport because I was not sure how they would handle the close ups if I were not right there with them, doing almost exactly what they were supposed to do but on the opposite side of the camera. It was very important that we already knew each other, and they felt familiar and comfortable with me. I actually remember that the younger boy started crying when he first saw the men in uniforms, holding guns, and he refused to 'act' for half a day.

The second shot in your film is quite long and complex. It lasts almost a minute and covers a number of actions: first people out of focus approach the camera, then the main German soldier appears from our left within the frame in a close-up. He smiles to the camera, then begins coaxing someone off-camera to do something. (Soon, of course, we will understand that he was speaking to the boy.) He then moves out of our view and a woman, whose back was toward the camera, turns around, after which another soldier pushes her away, as well as about 18 other people, one at a time. All of this in a single, unbroken take. It would undoubtedly have been easier for you do divide these various actions into separate shots, but instead, you chose to cover them all in one continuous take. What were your thoughts in going for that kind of continuity rather than cutting at that early point in your film?

The overall visual concept prevented me from breaking down the opening scene into more shots than there are. The idea was that until the moment of the freeze frame (when the boy raises his hands and we reveal the full situation as in the documentary photo) everything is seen from the POV of the soldier who is a cameraman/photographer. So, everything had to be shot from one single angle, the angle of the German photographer. Since that was supposed to be the camera of a war photographer, shooting propaganda footage for the Wehrmacht, we decided that our own camera had to behave in a similar way: as if the DP [director of photography] behind it is someone who is just getting ready to shoot his still; someone who is not familiar with the subjects or with what is about to happen. For him, as for us, it is a process of gradual discovery or disclosure. First, he fixes the focus, then adjusts the speed (the shot starts in slow motion and then reaches 24 frames per second) and only then, he starts identifying the characters. Then he switches the turret (shown in the opening shot) in order to find the right lens and camera distance. Since there were three primary lenses on those cameras, there are only three shots until the moment we come to that freeze-frame (the moment when the photographer 'discovers' the image that we recognize from the documentary photo). In other words, the camera behaves like any camera in preparation for a given shot. In addition, the director of photography and I saw a lot of WW II war footage and borrowed the stylistic features of that camera work. As I said, what follows after the freeze frame is kind of a fantasy, and it's no longer from the POV of the reporter. Therefore, there isn't only one point of view.

Could you discuss your choice of music for the film and your decisions as to where and when it should be used? I would very much like you to describe in your own words the moment when the boy finally raises his hands in the air, and we hear a musical note when this happens.

The music was the only element that was changed after the film was completed. The original music featured a women's voice singing a cappella and that was meant to replicate some traditional Jewish singing. It didn't work.
I could afford hiring a seasoned composer, whose work I was familiar with, and who had done a great job on a short that I liked a lot. He suggested the piano as the right instrument and referred to Haydn's children's concertos which I was not familiar with. As with most written scores, we recorded the music while screening the film. We didn't do much music editing either. But overall, the choice of music belonged to the composer, Janusz Hajdun, who simply did a great job.
That musical accent at the freeze frame (when the boy finally raises his hands - the moment of "giving up") is meant to lay stress on the dramatic importance of that moment. To get back to what I was saying about the development of the plot: that is the moment of transcendence, when we switch from one reality to another. From the documented world of a war photographer (who wants to capture his photo), to the internal world of his subject (who dreams of escape).

The boy's throwing his cap into the air is of course an important symbolic gesture. Your thoughts when you decided to have him do that after he disappears from our view?

I am generally a great fan of film lapses. I like films in which more is hinted than told. I jokingly call them 'interactive films' because they don't spell everything out for you, but leave a lot to your imagination. That way, you can also do your own share in making the film. That's a huge topic and I often like talking about it. Before that moment (in the film) there is another lapse, when the boy actually escapes from the sight of the photographer. We never see that critical moment of the boy running around the corner. We just see that he is no longer there.

Did you ever consider trying to contact Tsvi Nussbaum - possibly the little boy who survived, and to arrange for him to see the film? I believe he was living in upstate New York in 1985. Do you think that it might be interesting to know how he would experience the film or would that not be of particular interest to you, considering that the film is a work of fiction?

I would love to know how he would react to the film. I actually wouldn't even mind making a film about it, even though I am not sure whether that should be a documentary or a fiction.[1]

Do you believe that the short film has its own kind of storytelling, very different from that of the feature film? If so, how would you describe the ways in which the short fiction film tells its story?

In my eyes, it definitely has it's own, unique way of storytelling. I almost compare it to a different medium, like an oil painting versus watercolor, even though I know that's not an appropriate comparison. As one of my colleagues says: the short film is based on a strong idea or even a gimmick. I'd like to avoid making generalizations but I believe that the long film is primarily based on a strong character and involving story. A strong idea doesn't suffice. I think that sometimes even a strong concept can't hold two hours together. It's mainly the human drama that can sustain one's attention for that long a time. By the way, I consider as shorts only films that are up to 15 minutes long. A 30 minute film used to be called a 'medium-length' film and I think that's a time in which you can also do some character development.
However, there are some similarities when it comes to structure. Structure-wise, the short film is like a nucleus that contains all the basic elements that exist in the long film: exposition, confrontation, resolution; plot point, twist, climax, etc.

Is there any advice you would give student filmmakers about to make their own first short films?

I have been teaching for ten years now, and I always try to start with the infamous "visual story telling"; a story that can be told without using words. A very academic approach indeed, but it still works. It's kind of teaching the forgotten language.
But I have no general advice. In my opinion, teaching film-making requires a strictly individualized approach to every student and film.

27 October 2002

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1 Since the time this interview was made, Mitko Panov and I visited Tsvi Nussbaum and showed him With Raised Hands. When I asked Tsvi Nussbaum how he experienced the film, he answered: "It touched my heart." Tsvi Nussbaum is quite possibly the boy in the photo, though this cannot be established with any certainty. And Mitko Panov did in fact film our meeting. RR