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Reclaiming Stories: Małgorzata Szumowska Discusses “The Other Lamb”

Polish filmmaker Małgorzata Szumowska discusses her cult-centered English-language debut.
Savina Petkova
Małgorzata Szumowska's The Other Lamb is exclusively showing October 16, 2020 - November 14, 2020 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
“Would anyone like more lamb?,” a jolly voice proclaims, as pairs of arms pass around the dish in question. Arranged in an orderly fashion, the seats around this scant dining table are gendered and color-coded—a single male figure in the center separates girls in blue from women in red. This strict hierarchy makes up the world of The Other Lamb, a male-dominated religious cult led by a charismatic leader. The less the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) speaks, the more suffocating this social circle seems, and his power, as is made evident early on, is bestowed via gestures of violent touch, gazes, or merely his presence.  The women appear complacent, like lambs headed to the slaughter, all except Selah (Raffey Cassidy), whose tremendous (but blind) devotion proves most prone to disillusionment.
Polish filmmaker Małgorzata Szumowska has turned to issues of womanhood before in her earlier work, for example in Stranger (2004), 33 Scenes From Life (2008), and Elles (2011), but The Other Lamb is her first attempt at a female coming-of-age story, as well as a project entirely in the English language. Set amidst the enchanting Irish woodlands, the film conjures up a hermetic world in which crooked trees provide the proper backdrop for incestuous deeds and filicide, when the time eventually comes. The tone of the film remains serious throughout and while the imagery is a piercing combination of nightmares and fantasies, the trimmed down dialogue relieves some of their weight.
The film prefers to exist on the surface, like when a slow-motion underwater sequence moves into a blurry close-up of a waterfall and finally comes upon two onlookers. Ominous silence bursts into laughter as one girl teases the other about an imaginary presence but in the end, the scene’s enigmatic backdrop and lack of spatial context counter any humorous potential. The Other Lamb unfolds in this rather somber atmosphere, consciously paring down occasional glimpses of irony. Keeping that distance turns out to be important for the narrative drive: Selah’s journey of emancipation from both the group and the privileged and ultimately pathetic Shepherd.
In keeping up occult aesthetics, The Other Lamb owes much to Szumowska’s one and only cinematographer, Michal Englert, and his intuitive use of cinematic grammar. His camerawork is restrained to the point of almost surgical preciseness, creating static long shots that capture the amalgamation of sylvan dangers and claustrophobic existential dread. Often, these long shots are promptly followed by close-ups, forging a kind of unnerving intimacy. By making the few emotionally-laden sequences stand out in such a disruptive manner, Englert’s camerawork mirrors the characters’ overbearing environment of discipline.
But rather than showcasing the occult through recognizable symbolism, thus linking the women’s obedience to some sort of higher religious ground, Szumowska makes use of deliberately plain objects to emphasize the grip of dominion. Every woman’s hair is meticulously braided, white cords are strung between the trees to signify a cultivated space, and storytelling is an act exclusively for the patriarch. There are piercing images that resist a metaphoric function and that, in and of itself, is an ethical gesture. The Other Lamb is decisively carnivorous and weaves an explicit thread of empathy between two disadvantaged beings—Selah and a lamb—united by sacrificial logic. There’s strength in vulnerability, a message carried through Cassidy’s performance with subtle insistency.
Throughout The Other Lamb, Szumowska integrates dichotomies to show that they no longer need to clash. By rearranging vantage points of power, reworking the networks of carnal desire, and by reclaiming the command of storytelling, the film stands behind its heroine entirely on her personal quest to liberation that mirrors the societal one against rigid patriarchal orders.

NOTEBOOK: You usually write your scripts alone or work in very close collaboration, but for The Other Lamb, Catherine S. McMullen’s script found you. Can you share with us what that journey was like and if it affected the stakes for you when starting to work on the film?
MAŁGORZATA SZUMOWSKA: I received many English-language scripts, especially after I won the Best Director Award at Berlinale [2015 for Body], but I never found them suitable enough. All of them seemed far removed from me and not too interesting as scripts etc... And then, at the Cannes Film Festival,  I met David Lancaster, the producer of Whiplash and eventual producer for The Other Lamb. I found him interesting as a person, as a character, as an individual, and I said to myself that it might be good to collaborate with him. A few days later, Stephanie [Wilcox], who is another producer at his company [“Rumble”] sent me Catherine McMullen’s script. I read it and the first thing that struck me was that it was so easy to read. Catherine is a regular writer and the script itself was a standalone piece, like literature more than a normal script. On the other hand, the story in the script was set in Australia, in a very very hot environment, in the desert actually. What we have on screen in the final film and in the script, they’re two different worlds. These things happen, naturally, as we couldn’t shoot the film in Australia since the budget was just 3 million dollars. That’s why they decided on Ireland and in this way, the new setup of the film influenced the story because we had to change so many elements from the script. It was cold, raining, different costumes, a whole different journey, plus, we had only 25 shooting days! The whole script was more than 100 pages and it was so clear that we had to trim it down. If  I were to do the same film with a very big budget though, in Australia, it probably would end up being a very different film. I’m not saying ‘better’, but just different. With these kind of English-speaking, genre-driven projects, so much of it depends on technical specifics, it’s an interesting experience for an auteur to have.
NOTEBOOK: It does sound like this was the most suitable way to make it “yours,” as in, for you as an auteur, and collectively “yours,” for the team behind the project?
SZUMOWSKA: Yes, definitely. But on the other hand they gave me this freedom because they know I’m an experienced director. Yes, at the end of the day it’s an auteur piece but I must say, it’s something that came straight from my sensitivity, from my heart, but not totally like when I do my 100 percent author pieces. When I’m a director, writer and producer, it’s just a different system but also very interesting to be a part of.
NOTEBOOK: If I take the question of difference even further, this is your first film entirely in the English language. I’m assuming proficiency is not an issue but still, do you think language itself effects the filmic atmosphere in a significant way? 
SZUMOWSKA: To be honest, I cannot imagine The Other Lamb in any other language than English. It was of course written in English but there was American, Irish, and Australian English to deal with. We wanted to find a singular language for all of them to sound, let’s say, believable. Actually, language  is not an issue for me.  I did a film with Juliette Binoche called Elles, it was in French and I don’t speak any French. I tend to look at the actors, if they’re lying with their eyes, what kind of emotions they’re delivering, I look at their movements but I don’t think the words are as important. I’m a very visual director and I’m not trying to find my way through to the audience via words. For example, I reduced so much dialogue from The Other Lamb, I cut, cut, cut, and cut. In the original script, the Shepherd, he had very, very long sermons, he had to keep on talking and talking. Can be a bit boring.
NOTEBOOK: But thinking about voices in a more abstract way, for most of The Other Lamb, Selah is silent and instead communicates her feelings visually through dream or surreal sequences, or she screams. What’s the role of the voice, especially that of the female voice, in a power-regulated society?
SZUMOWSKA: We were trying to deal with the fact that women were muted by the Shepherd. They are under his power and influence and they probably wanted to scream but couldn’t. So, it was important that Selah was the only one who could scream. But about the voice in general… in a documentary I made I asked women at different ages, from eighteen to sixty-something, to scream. And only one of them could do it. I guess women haven’t taught themselves to scream, they are kind of muted by society from the beginning.
NOTEBOOK: What you just said made me think also of fairy tales and female empowerment. The film presents Selah’s coming of age and by the end of the film she assumes the role of storyteller, to the horror of her sisters. How did you feel about fairy tales growing up and how do you feel about them now?
SZUMOWSKA: Definitely, especially when I saw the Irish landscapes.When we had to change the costumes for more solid textiles because of the cold it all started to remind me of fairy tales and my childhood. The girls in the woods, the dark powers of nature, something hiding in the forests, coming at you from the unknown, all of this, from the beginning, made it very clear to me that I had to turn to fairy tales as a tool in telling this particular story visually. And the fact that the Shepherd was the only authorized storyteller, it was Catherine McMullen’s idea, that he had to be in charge of everything in this society, even storytelling, which is originally a woman’s deed.
NOTEBOOK: The Other Lamb doesn’t take the easy way out, it holds the balance between the Shepherd’s alluring charisma and its dangers, but it doesn’t feel endorsing or fetishistic. How did you ensure the film wouldn’t fall into any of those categories while keeping the high intensity at play between the protagonists intact?
SZUMOWSKA: I was trying to focus on Selah more than on him. For me, the Shepherd was just a figure. An interesting one, but still a figure, a charismatic, handsome leader and a sexual object for her to contemplate. But I wanted to stay with her, with a young teenage girl who’s just started revealing her sexuality, who is exploring her character as an individual. It was an interesting journey for me too, staying with her, and maybe that’s why the film holds a subtle balance and doesn’t steer into the wrong direction. I think I found some kind of truth with Raffey. We had amazing communication and when I was her age, I was actually that same type of a teenager. I think because of her performance and seeing the whole world through her character’s eyes, that’s why the film has value. In the end, I made it personal, opposite to the focus of the genre aspect and entertainment, I wanted to stick to her and her emotions. Maybe it was my authorial self driving me to do that.
NOTEBOOK: The power dynamics within the film correlate with the cinematic grammar of long shot/close up that is repeatedly used to convey the push and pull between Selah and the Shepherd. On the other hand, most sequences are shot with a still camera and zooms. Did you and your cinematographer Michaeł Englert plan what the rhythm would be like, especially since you mentioned the tight schedule you were on?
SZUMOWSKA: Of course, everything was precisely planned because the less days you have to shoot, the more prepared you need to be. We knew that the camera would be static and only a couple of times we were going to use handheld when the situation got more emotional and out of control. Everything was planned and we had to stick to it. At some point it became a very good thing, to have such an experience, to have to make a film in such a short amount of time and to come fully prepared, to answer so many questions upfront. It was somewhat of a lesson for us. We never worked like that before and actually now we know that we’re probably able to do anything!
NOTEBOOK: Does that mean that you had less time for the editing stage? It was your first time teaming up with Jaroslaw Kaminski, who’s worked extensively with Agnieszka Smoczyńska and Pawel Pawlikowski.
SZUMOWSKA: Yes. Jacek Drosio, who won the European Film Award for Editing for Body, didn't want to work on an English-language film. In his opinion, he doesn’t know the language well enough so I asked Jaroslaw, who’s the editor for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Cold War. Jarek was amazing for this project in particular because, you know, before with Jacek, sometimes we’d edit for a whole year. Our system of work was: we’d finish a film, then we’d take a break, then we’d watch it again after two months, and we’d decide that we needed two additional shooting days because this or that is not working, and again back to editing, break, edit etc... Somehow, when The Other Lamb was on the table, everything was different—little prep, not many shooting days, and the same goes for editing—less than two months. We were rushing of course and another thing that was new, we had the voices of many producers to keep track of. At the end of the day, all of this was so new to me but the result was cool.
NOTEBOOK: I suppose it shows you how much you can achieve within certain limits of directorial freedom? 
SZUMOWSKA: Exactly. But at some point, auteurism and always working on your own script is, in a way, limiting. In a sense you can be bored, it can get repetitive, so what we’ve done during the work on The Other Lamb, it’s amazing for us because we proved to ourselves that we can do it.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a recent upsurge in cult horror films lately. Do you think that says something about contemporary society in particular? That what we find scary has to do with something within a societal structure, rather than, for example, invasions or monsters? 
SZUMOWSKA: Oh, for sure. People have become so insecure, especially with the fact that religion has lost its power, the greedy role of capitalism on top of everything and now we have the pandemic… People are trying to find a deeper meaning wherever they can and it’s not surprising why people end up in cults. In general, I think that humanity is totally losing its path and we’re in a devastating moment for both the environment and morality. Also, the wealth discrepancies in our society continue to grow bigger and bigger, even in Poland, as well as the rest of the world. But why would people want to watch cult films? I think because it’s easy, you know? Like TV series. People want to watch entertainment, something that’s sensational.
NOTEBOOK: Did you have any specific references, maybe in photography or artworks? The only presence of technology in the film is a still photograph on the wall of a deserted house...
SZUMOWSKA: Modern art for sure. There was this American artist and his beautiful forest series, Gregory Crewdson. The album is called “Cathedral of the Pines.” We also used photography from the 80's and 90's.  
NOTEBOOK: What about films? 
SZUMOWSKA: You cannot avoid thinking of other films when working, it’s simply not possible, but I try to not give in too much. For example, with The Other Lamb, we had in mind Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) by Peter Weir. Mostly things removed from recent times, more from the past, one or two at the most.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve used humor in a very clever way throughout your works to date.
SZUMOWSKA: I was trying to use humor in this film but I’m not sure if it worked because it had to be a deadly serious film from the beginning—the script was so very serious and the ambitions of the producers were to make it solemn and very creepy. It seemed there would be no space left for the irony I usually use. I need irony because I’m an ironic person. Probably I’m not the best genre auteur out there because I dislike being too serious, you know? [laughs]. Of course, there are examples of films, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which are funny and ironic. But this combination, it’s not easy. 
NOTEBOOK: Your work doesn’t really engage in dichotomies, it doesn’t treat two different ends as contradictions. Like, in Body it’s not just a battle between body and spirit and it would be reductive to say The Other Lamb presents a conflict between nature and civilization. I get the feeling that you don’t like to label things in such an oppositional way?
SZUMOWSKA: No, definitely not. It wouldn't be true to life but it also wouldn’t be very smart to do so. I always want to keep it open, presenting the audience with more questions than answers.

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