25 Jan 2019

Agnieszka Holland -- Women are pushed into traditional roles because men are afraid

Oscar-nominated film director Agnieszka Holland discusses gender equality, #MeToo, and the importance of protesting for gender equality.

Wysokie Obcasy
Magdalena Środa Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Agnieszka Holland -- Women are pushed into traditional roles because men are afraid  - NewsMavens
Agnieszka Holland, Malwina Toczek, Wikimedia Commons

The following selections from Magdalena Środa's* interview with film and television director Agnieszka Holland originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in June 2018.

Magdalena Środa: Do you like to work with women?

Agnieszka Holland: I love it. I just finished the series [1983] for Netflix together with Olga Chajdas, Agnieszka Smoczyńska and Kasią Adamik -- there was such wonderful cooperation and a good atmosphere. We cared for this film like it was our common child. Men care more about being right.

MS: You’re always filming and traveling, but I always see you at protests, marches, involved with different citizen’s initiatives…

In January, I finished my episodes of “The First” with Sean Penn, a series about the first Mars expedition. Then with the girls, we did “1983,” a dystopian alternative history of Poland. And also the film drama, “Gareth Jones,” about a young journalist who finds himself in Ukraine in the 1930s, during the Great Famine (Holodomor) and who raised the alarm to the world.

MS: And the world didn’t react?

No. But one must react. After work, after hours, I go to demonstrations, sign petitions, and make up for lost time as a citizen.

MS: Were you at the Equality Parade?

Not this year. I had a meeting of the board of the European Film Academy, which I preside over. But I was there last year in Warsaw and two years ago in Poznań. I’ve been marching in it for years. I also marched when there were only a handful of attendees—a thousand, two thousand. And now it’s approaching 45,000. It’s important.

MS: Why?

Because it’s a crowd gathering for a worthy cause.

I support equality and equal rights, not only because my daughter is a lesbian, living in a beautiful relationship with another woman. I want them to have the same rights as everyone else, to be treated equally, to marriage...

MS: Adoption as well?

Why not? An adopted child in such a family is especially wanted and very much loved. I’ve read a great deal of research on this subject. I have homosexual friends in the United States who have adopted children. They are happy. The children develop well. There is nothing bad about it.

What is bad is violence, a lack of love, and a compulsion to give birth. It is also bad when a couple that has a child from a previous heterosexual relationship cannot legalize their marriage. The child then does not have a feeling of stability and safety.

MS: What do you think of the #MeToo effect in the US and in Poland?

#MeToo is in a certain state of crisis today. It’s been a victim of its own success. This action proceeded quickly, and then rapidly developed into an important social movement, which was therapeutic for very many women. Also, rather quickly, it was taken up by various initiatives and institutions. Even the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the actors’ agencies -- which had a few things on their conscience -- started to make use of the movement, and, with the help of the lynch mob, purged the most obvious predators.

But the presumption of innocence of potential perpetrators has been thrown out the window, which is a major flaw in this movement, and can result in backlash.

The building of awareness, teaching sensitivity, and bringing about justice is extremely important, but creating fear that deconstructs male-female relationships, may be harmful.

And this is a subtle, complicated matter. We could threaten ourselves into some kind of neo-puritanism. I know that the more radical feminists will make accusations toward me, but that’s tough. It’s what I think.

MS: Perhaps the price of revealing sexual harassment and the punishment of the perpetrators is high, but isn’t it worth paying?

That’s what happened with pedophilia. To protect children it was necessary to monitor relationships even with those who were closest to them. Yet I cannot accept the principle that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” There is a well-known story of a Swedish theater director who was accused of sexual harassment and committed suicide, and later it turned out that he was innocent. Such cases cannot be ignored.

Besides, children are different. A child is weak, dependent on protection, but for women it is not about protection, particularly, but about equality. And what kind of equality is there, when men employ intimidation? Pedophilia is easier to define than sexual harassment, and when one equates inept flirtation with rape, it becomes difficult to have spontaneity in sexual relationships.

At the same time, we are just beginning to recognize the enormity of the injustices endured by women. When you talk with your friends, you realize that 80% of them have been harassed in some way.

MS: What can be done about it?

Think it through; talk about it; set boundaries. Maybe establish a kind of code: what is allowed, what is absolutely forbidden, what may be permitted but is not recommended…

#MeToo also drew attention to other forms of discrimination in the film industry. Only a small percentage of directors are women. Declarations of quotas and even parity have emerged in the governing institutions of film. And I agree with this. Parity is necessary as a kind of bridge to normalize the situation.

MS: Or to cut out the so called “male dividend.”

But once the situation is normalized, you have to get rid of it.

Both #MeToo and demands for parity must be used as a medicine for the disease called “discrimination,” but you also have to pay attention to the side effects of the medication.

Paradoxically, in present day Poland without parity or the support of #MeToo, we have a surplus of excellent women directors!

MS: Have you ever felt there was a glass ceiling above you?

I still feel it. Producers, distributors at the big festivals behave one way with men, another way with women, independently of their work or merit. This year 82 women actors, directors, and producers walked up the steps of the festival palace at Cannes. This demonstrated the real proportions between the position of women and men. 82 women stood for the 82 women directors who have presented their films at Cannes since 1946, versus 1688 men. 

Discrimination hasn’t affected me so much. I was always “different.” First I was half Jewish, the daughter of my father. His biography and his tragic death resulted in my being on the blacklist even as a young girl.

[Henryk Holland, born 1920, was a pre-war communist, spent the war in the Soviet Union, and served in the Polish People’s Army. After the war he was a powerful propagandist and influential journalist. In 1956, he supported Władysław Gomułka and his reform plan. Eventually he began to oppose the regime, criticizing the growing conservatism of the ruling party (PZPR), and was pushed to the side. In 1962, he was arrested for leaking the contents of a speech by Khrushchev to the Western media, describing, among other things, the circumstances of the death of Stalin and Beria.]

During my studies in Czechoslovakia I found myself in prison, and when I returned to Poland, I was blackballed. Then after emigrating, I was “foreign.” I didn’t know the language. Yet somehow I was able to overcome everything. The glass ceiling in the face of everything else is not so scary. Negative experiences often make you stronger.


Agnieszka Holland (b. 1948) -- a film and television director, screenwriter. Her works include “Total Eclipse,” “Washington Place,” “Janosik: A True Story,” “Treme,” “Burning Bush,” and “Spoor,” based on a novel by Olga Tokarczuk. Winner of the International Critics Prize at Cannes for her first major film, “Provincial Actors.” Her films, “Angry Harvest,” “Europa, Europa,” and “In Darkness” were nominated for Oscars. Recipient of the Golden Globe award for “Europa, Europa.” She has lived outside Poland since 1981.

*The interview was conducted by Magdalena Środa. She is a philosopher, and ethicist at the University of Warsaw. During the years 2004-5, she served as Plenipotentiary for the Equal Status of Women and Men in the Cabinet of Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka. Wysokie Obcasy’s Polish Woman of the Year for 2009.

--Translated from Polish by David A. Goldfarb


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