Polish producer Ania Gawlita (Kijora Film) has a busy festival with two major pitches in KFF Industry and two films in official selection.
Tomasz Wolski’s The Big Chief, which Polish producer Ania Gawlita is pitching at KFF Docs to Go!, tells a tale of espionage, deception and anti-Semitism revolving around the shady figure of Leopold Trepper, a Polish Jew and Soviet spy who headed up the notorious Red Orchestra espionage network during World War II.
The film was inspired by previously unseen footage from 1972 that director Wolski unearthed when researching his film An Ordinary Country (which screens in National and Documentary competitions at KFF 2020). As part of a campaign to allow Trepper to leave Poland, a French journalist interviewed him in Warsaw. But the film stock was confiscated as the journalist was leaving the country, and was assumed to have been destroyed.
“There was an anti-Jewish campaign in Poland [at the time] and all Jews were got rid of to Israel,” comments producer Gawlita. “Trepper was also a Jew, but he was one Jew who was not allowed to leave. Now we know that the KGB did not allow him to go abroad because they were afraid of the knowledge [that he gained] during the Second World War as a Soviet spy.”
This episode is the entry point into a film that attempts to lift the veil on Trepper’s life and activities, a man who operated between The Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany during the Second World War and was then imprisoned in Russia until 1955 before his eventual return to Poland. He finally managed to emigrate to Israel in 1974, dying there in 1982.
While much of the film will be made up of archive sourced in Poland, Russia, Germany and France, new footage is needed as well, such as an interview with Trepper’s granddaughter in Copenhagen.
Gawlita is looking to deliver the 85-minute, €320,000 budgeted (€25,000 still to secure) film in April 2022. In Krakow, she is looking to attract interest from international broadcasters, sales agents and festivals.
“This is a very complicated story. Treppel was [considered] a spy for the Germans, but for the French he was a traitor. In the Russian archives he was considered to be a dilettante. In the film we will try to show that history is very difficult to tell. But we have documents and we also have people who know him, so we will try and find out who was the real Trepper,” says Gawlita. (Wolski’s 15-minute Problem also screens in the festival’s Short Film Competition).
The Kijora Film producer is also pitching White Queen at Krakow during the CEDEC market. The subject must represent a goldmine for a docmaker, one assumes, with its story of a humble and guilt-ridden Togoan king in exile who relinquishes executive powers to his pragmatic and strong-willed German wife. She must make decisions both on their daily life and critical issues concerning the African community, much of the time over the telephone.
Gawlita stresses how she and director Grzegorz Piekarski were inspired by an example offered up by eminent Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi of a concierge in a Monaco hotel who was exercising powers on behalf of his Cameroonian wife who had assumed similar head status following the death of her African father.
So they settled on the Munich-based Togoan Jules and his wife Manuela for their 70-minute doc, budgeted at €200,000 (€141,000 in place).
There are, however, two issues that must be squarely addressed. One is, obviously, the global pandemic and subsequent restrictions on movement, the other is illness.
“The situation is very difficult as Manuela has cancer,” says Gawlita. “We are waiting for the possibility to travel with her to Africa. Right now we can’t…but we have been shooting them as a couple, and their very specific marriage, at parties they attend such as the Oktoberfest and Carnival parties where they are very active in the local society. We have scenes of how she tries to [govern] through phone calls, and how she is learning the local Togo dialect.”
“But [when possible] we will come back to them and shoot their ordinary situations and their real daily life. They also work very hard in in their charity as they want to help people in Togo with medicine,” Gawlita adds.
The producer is pragmatic, therefore, and is assessing the two options for the project’s future trajectory. “We think that we might have to finish this film in Germany. But if we have the opportunity, then we will certainly go to Togo to shoot the film,” she underlines.