Ted Matkowski - Elizabeth Taylor, Gaddafi and the Polish Film Festival
Before launching the first Polish Film Festival in Sydney, Ted Matkowski had lived a very colourful career as a reporter and photographer, shooting thousands of photographs for politicians, actors, from Pope John Paul II to the Queen of Sweden. Ahead of this year’s 5th Polish Film Festival we spoke with the festival’s charismatic director about his very colourful experiences and his approach to this year’s program.Ahead of this year’s 5th festival we spoke with the festival’s charismatic director about his very colourful experiences in journalism and the creative industries, and his approach to this year’s program.
Can you tell me a bit about your career before you became the Polish Film Festival Director?
We have to start at the beginning, because it’s a long story, you know? I’m an old man and it’s a long life I started – I always want to be journalist, and during my university time in Poland I was a correspondent of the largest Polish student weekly. And then I was working for a commercial newspaper - there was one condition required for me to continue – I would have to be member of the Communist Party. I said no, no way, nobody in my family was a member of Communist Party. And I was blacklisted...Anyway, to make a long story short, I managed to escape to Austria, to Vienna, and funny enough, I always said I was born under a lucky star.
From your move to Austria you began a very colourful career as a reporter and photographer, shooting thousands of photographs for politicians, actors, from Pope John Paul II to the Queen of Sweden. Your images have featured in some of the world’s most well-known publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, as well as here in Australia including The Age, Newsweek, The Bulletin. It must have been a very exciting time?
I started as a press photographer, at the time working for both for the largest weekly publications in Austria. Because I was single, and I could write and photograph - it was very easy for the publications to send me overseas on assignments. During that time, I witnessed the SALT-II agreement between Brezhnev and Carter. I met all the European politicians of the time, like French President Mitterand, Bruno Kreisky - the Chancellor of Austria, Helmut Schmitt - the Chancellor of Germany, Shimon Peres – President of Israel, Anwar Sadat - President of Egypt, and artists such as Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Junior, Barry Manilow and many more, sometimes in funny situations. I still have in my collection one bottle of red wine given me by the Pope; I think it was via his secretary. I had received that from during a project with the Thai Government, in 1984 – I was asked to work on an exhibition called Flying Pope – it was part of the official visit to Thailand.
You also met Gaddafi.
The story of Gaddafi was one of that stands out in my mind. My girlfriend at the time, was a TV journalist. She went to Tripoli, Libya, to interview Gaddafi before his visit to Austria, his first visit to a western country, invited by Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. She was asked if she knew a photographer could do life-size photographs. So obviously she gave my name one day – I got a phone call from the people’s bureau; it was the name of the Libyan embassy if I can do this photograph etcetera, but we need this same day. I said ‘Geez, how many?’ ‘Thirty, life-size.’ I said, ‘Gosh, it’s going to cost you a fortune.’ They said, ‘money’s not important.’ And then the photo editor of the New York Times called me; he said, ‘Ted, I beg you, we need Gaddafi in civil clothing, not in the Army uniform, not in Bedouin uniform’. I said, ‘I can’t undress him.’ In the end, with the help of a translator and convincing him that the Austrian people were averse to seeing people in military outfit, we did manage to convince Gaddafi to take the photos without his uniform, and the pictures are now the only ones of him ever taken for a foreign correspondent in civilian clothing.
With such a wealth of experiences behind you, you must enjoy sharing your passion for storytelling to audiences through the film festival. How will audiences in Australia relate to the Polish experience?
You see, that’s – one of the main reasons why I invite an Australian jury to select films for the Polish Film Festival. For people with Polish connections, like me, it is easy to understand the background, the culture and history of Polish cinema, which is mostly produced for the domestic market. If you don’t know the history it can be confusing. I realised that it’s not, it’s very important that you don’t select films yourself – that you have opinion from other people independent, especially people that are not from this country, place, country, whatever.
And can you tell us about this year’s program?
We have 12 films, and all kinds of films to please everyone. It’s not enough to rely only on Polish-speaking audiences in Australia to attend, we want to appeal to everyone. And in this program, we touch subjects that were once taboo under the Communist rules, they were prohibited. Now, the Polish industry, its filmmakers, are trying to look at the country’s history independently.
Its no surprise for me that more and more films are being produced about the history, for example, our opening night film The Last Family, which is a biopic story about what life was like for a famous artist under communist rules. The films’ director, Jan P. Matuszynski's, will be a festival guest, and has created a respectful biopic of the last 28 years in the life of Poland's foremost apocalyptic surrealist Zdzislaw Beksinski.
Then there is the film Afterimage, the last film by director and writer Andrzej Wajda. It is a film about real people, real life, that’s true stories – it’s not a fiction. It looks back at the life of famous Polish artists and painter, WÅadysÅaw StrzemiÅski, one of the most accomplished Polish artists, who was wiped out of the public memory by the consequent actions of the Communist government. It askes many questions, what is the price one has to pay for freedom of expression? What are the choices each individual is faced with in a totalitarian country? Although we thought these are questions of the past, they are relevant today.
If you like thrillers then see Volta, written & directed by Juliusz Machulski. There are many great films.
It seems that Polish cinema is really taking a look back in time now, rewriting its history. Thinking about the trends in the Australian industry, such as authenticity casting, are you seeing any parallels in Poland also?
It’s very hard to answer, especially because I haven’t even come across this problem. I mean, I have never seen a Polish film where someone pretended to be someone else. Sometimes the war movies, where Polish actors are supposed to be German soldiers could be an example, where they’re speaking with a horrible Polish accent. That’s not that proper German. Mostly Polish cinema doesn’t have this problem.
To anyone who hasn’t been to the festival, why do you think they should they come?
Well, I believe that the program's 12 feature films, four short feature films and two short documentaries, is a package that everyone will find something of interest. I try to avoid showing too many films that are similar so if you like to laugh, you can find a good comedy. Many films will appeal to those who like the history, especially history of voices that were silenced, especially those voices of the Holocaust. With that in mind we have Reconciliation, about communist secret police forces in Silesia build a labour camp for Germans, Silesians and Poles on the site of a former auxiliary camp of Auschwitz Birkenau. Another great historical film is a biopic about Marie Curie (Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge).
One of the films that I’m showing, The Righteous, is by a filmmaker, actually a scriptwriter Michael Szczerbic, who decided to make some film about his own family – how they had to survive, save the life of a Jewish girl during the Holocaust time, and then refused to accept the special Israeli award for people who were saving lives etcetera because we haven’t done anything special. The film is set in 1942. The Nazis launch the decisive phase of destruction. From the ghettos, Jews are transported to the death camps. They are deported from rural areas loading stations. This is the case for one of the Sandomierz region villages, the setting of the film. In the film Anastazja takes in an abandoned Jewish girl - Hania. It doesn't go unnoticed with the local blackmailers, who demand ransom for their silence – it’s based on the writers’ real history, so it is a great film that will give audience to a chance to look back on a time where those things were our duty.
Polish Film Festival: http://www.polishfilmfestival.net/
17 - 26 November, Event Cinema, 505-525 George Street, Sydney CBD
18 - 26 November, Event Cinema, 6 Franklin Street, Manuka
30 November - 10 December, Classic Cinemas, 9 Gordon Street, Elsternwick
1. Ted announcing the name of the Golden Kangaroo 2016 award winner 2. Ted presenting Golden Kangaroo award to Jan Matuszynski 3. Image from Afterimage