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Polskie Oscary

Zbigniew Rybczynski (Tango)

In 1983 Zbigniew Rybczyński`s "Tango" was awarded with the Oscar as the best short animated film. It was the first such a prize given to a Polish film by the American Academy. "Tango" with its eight minutes of the running time had been produced by the Polish Film Company (Film Polski) and Se-Ma-For Studio in 1981.

Entirely Polish

The Academy Award for Zbigniew Rybczyński`s "Tango" is one of the two entirely Polish Oscars, along with the Honorary Award for Andrzej Wajda.  And here`s why... Academy Awarded Leopold Stokowski was born in London as the son of an Irish mother and a Polish father; Bronisław Kaper had emigrated to USA before he was given the American Academy Award; Stefan Kudelski left Poland with his family by the age of ten – and settled down in Switzerland; Janusz Kamiński had left for the USA by the age of twenty-one and later he was awarded for his cinematography in American movies; Allan Starski and Ewa Braun both received the Oscars for their creative input in the American "Schindler`s List"; when Roman Polański was awarded by the American Academy for his French-German-British-Polish "Pianist" he had been living abroad for forty years; Jan A.P. Kaczmarek was awarded for his music composed for the American "Finding Neverland" when he had been living in the USA for sixteen years; it was Suzie Templeton who picked up the Oscar for the short, animated, British-Polish-Norwegian-Mexican-Swiss "Peter and the Wolf".

Then "Ida" was awarded as the best film not in the English language – the film that takes place in Poland, was shot in Poland, is Polish spoken, is performed by the Polish actors and is made by the Polish crew. But it is not entirely Polish – in my humble opinion – as Paweł Pawlikowski`s film is the Polish-Danish-French-British production  and its director had emigrated with his mother to the United Kingdom as a teenager (he had also lived in Germany and France).

A suspicious winner

The day when Rybczyński picked up the Academy Award for his "Tango" was probably both the best and the worst in his life. After the magic words had been delivered by the presenter "...and the winner is..." he heard "Zbigniewski Sky"... It is hard to imagine a bigger mispronounciation of a winner`s name. As the director approached her (with his interpreter) to pick the Oscar up he could not say much because his speech was cut off by the orchestra.

After the short press conference Rybczyński stepped outside the auditorium to have a cigarette. When he tried to return, an overzealous security guard refused to let him in. Rybczyński looked suspicious and plainly dressed to him – he was wearing a cheap suit and sneakers because he could not afford better clothes – and he did not speak English. Even though he was holding the Oscar, the security guard pressed him against the wall, mistaking his Polish for a drunkard`s gibbering. Outraged Rybczyński yelled insults and tried to kick the guard in the groin. As a result he spent the night in jail.

Life as a "living space"

Zbigniew Rybczyński spent a year of his life to make eight minutes of "Tango" running time. As he did not want to waste the time, he moved out into the Se-Ma-For Studio and he started living in one of the rooms where the shooting was taking place. The director named it "the living space" and that is how the film was to be entitled. The film which was being made as a complete – though entirely well-thought-out – experiment, was carried out masterfully, back in the times when there were no today`s technological conveniences.

The surrealistic "Tango" is set in the confines of the single room where the twenty-six characters` mundane, everyday, routine actions are repeated and overlapped to create a cleverly choreographed dance of life via the power of editing and digital sleight of hand. Some of the characters act alone – e.g. a girl doing her homework, a thief, a man changing the electric bulb, a drunk drinking vodka – and some act as couples – for example a mother nursing her baby, a man with a woman and flowers, lovers having sex, a man training his dog. All the characters appear in the room one by one – entering either through the one of three doors or the window – to perform a simple action and walk out only to come back and immediately begin the process again. All is set to a tango playing in the background. At the climax of the film all characters are on-screen. Then they gradually leave "the stage". At the beginning of "Tango" it is a boy who enters first, at the end an elderly woman walks out as the last one.

Rybczyński photographed each character separately. Creating the dense choreography of "Tango" required hand-painting each frame of his original footage and countless hours compositing that footage on an optical printer. Later he carefully created animated sequences out of ready frames. The result was a fresh and witty film that allows for many interpretations. While watching the characters entirely devoted to their activities – tremendously significant and deliberate for them, incomprehensible and pointless for viewers – it is hard to resist the feeling that we look at the people bustling about the room with the same empathy and interest that could be shown by an alien from a far away galaxy, who would land on a planet which is the third from the Sun, for the first time. Rybczyński splendidly portrayed a banality of people`s everyday bustling about, which is, in fact, us repeating the same actions over and over again, until we finally leave "the living space"...

A predilection for experiments

Zbigniew Rybczyński`s attitude towards cinema has always been innovative. After he had graduated from a cinematography faculty at the Lodz Film School he shot in the Se-Ma-For Studio the first Polish video clip for Zbigniew Namysłowski in 1973. This studio is exactly where the director made many experimental films, shown at international film festivals. The one among them that especially draws attention is witty movie "Oh! I Can`t Stop!" that makes a viewer dizzy. Other interesting titles are, among others: "New Book", "Locomotive", "Media", "Soup", "Holiday", "Friday-Saturday", "Inhale Exhale".

On "Tango"

"Tango" is pure and simple" ( "Remembering that it was 1982 and nobody had used this video technique before, it is easy to see this film as nothing short of genius. And the universal message related to us since its release is sadly that nothing has changed. We keep performing the tango of social disconnection in our day to day life. Our ensconscement in social media has only heightened this sensation as we try to distinguish ourselves from the crowd with our every post, our every share, destined to fail."

"The soundtrack (by Janusz Hajdun) that plays through the whole film is probably one of the most important elements, too (Martin Steell, It`s orchestral and it fits perfectly. It either adds something or takes something away every time a new person enters the room. Speaking of the people, each has their own sound that adds to the soundtrack. The bouncing sound of the ball, the man yelling every time he falls, the sighing sounds of the lady getting changed etc. They all have their own sound that adds together".

And then...

After he had made "Tango" Zbigniew Rybczyński decided to leave Poland. When the martial law was declared there, he received a political asylum in Austria. After winning the Oscar in 1983, Rybczyński and his family emigrated to the USA and settled first in Los Angeles and later in New York City. He continued making experimental films using HD technology. His most interesting films are: "Manhattan", "Washington", "Kafka". "Steps" alluded to the famous Odessa steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein`s "Battleship Potemkin". He was given the Emmy Award for "Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects" for his HDTV program "Orchestra" that he produced for the Japanese market in 1990.

Rybczyński made many video clips for many world-famous artists, such as Rush, Lou Reed, Alan Parsons Project, Chuck Mangione, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Simple Minds, The Art of Noise, Pet Shop Boys, Yoko Ono, Supertramp.

Since 2009 the director lives in Poland.

Anna Kilian

© Anna Kilian, 2015

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