Amsterdam-based Polish émigré Urszula Antoniak hit the ground running this summer with her debut feature Nothing Personal. Pursued by selectors representing the festivals of Karlovy Vary, Venice and Rome, the film eventually went to Locarno where it scooped six awards, including those for best first film and best actress (Lotte Verbeek). 'I was in this very privileged position of being able to choose between these festivals,' Antoniak stresses. 'I chose Locarno because it is a good festival for daring artistic movies, and it was amazing to receive these prizes on the Piazza Grande.' The film also won top honours at the Netherlands Film Festival in September scooping, among others, the Golden Calves for Best Film and Best Director.
A co-production between The Netherlands and Ireland, and produced by Dutch production house Rinkel Film, Nothing Personal stars Stephen Rea (Angel, The Crying Game) and Verbeek (Links) as two solitary people who attempt to find solace within the mutually beneficial, initially platonic, relationship they choose to embark upon. The English-language film was shot in Ireland. Employing a tiny cast and crew, Antoniak felt enough confidence in her talents to extemporise within the confines of a well-crafted script. 'I knew from my previous experience that shooting a film is not simply a matter of just filming what is on the page,' she stresses. 'I decided to take risks. Whatever happened on the set was much more important than what happened in the script. If what I saw before my eyes was interesting then I wanted to use it. Directors who want to assert control really stick to the script, but my story was simpler - it was like a musical piece for two characters. And afterwards I assessed all the material that I had at my disposal. Yes, this can be a risky strategy – to an extent I was like a child lost in the desert - but I decided to enjoy this risk'.
Antoniak came to Amsterdam in 1988 while her Polish homeland was still under communist rule. 'I went to film school in Poland, so when I came to Holland I already had an extensive film education,' she points out. 'But I thought the best way to integrate into a new society was to continue with what I knew about movies, but in a Western way.' Antoniak enrolled therefore at film school in The Netherlands to recalibrate her approach to the trade. 'Once you emigrate, you really feel like an émigré,' she continues. 'This is what is difficult for people who remain in one place to understand. I tell you, I can pack up everything in my apartment within half an hour and be gone. I can travel light. I can move from one place to another. I love Amsterdam but I feel neither Polish nor Dutch. I feel like a filmmaker, like a woman, like an émigré.'
Her first film, Biljmer Odyssee (2004), was a 40-minute project shot for the One Night Stand tv strand supported by Dutch broadcasters VPRO, NPS and VARA. Based on Homer’s Odyssey, the film is a love story set in the no-go Amsterdam neighbourhood of the title. 'It was very well received and sold to many countries, including Arte France and Arte Germany,' she confirms. 'Not too many Dutch films sell as well as this. In Argentina they even have a fan club dedicated to this film.' Her second film, Netherlands voor beginners was, she explains, an audience-pleasing parody of Dutch integration politics. Both projects were produced by Rinkel Film and TV.
Antoniak claims to have five projects ready to role, the favourite being Code Blue that she is looking to make for IDTV in association with Denmark’s Zentropa. The project has been selected for full development treatment at next year’s Cannes Film Festival artist in residence programme (Residence de Festival). 'Code Blue is about a nurse who kills her patients, an angel of death who thinks she is helping them,' she stresses. 'This project is very challenging for me, and very risky. It is a very heavy subject but I go for the unnerving projects that present the greatest risk. But what is more, Code Blue offers great scope for irony. I love irony. Irony is a spice of life. It is a welcome. It is something that makes life bearable. I come from middle-Europe where you have Jewish, Russian and German cultures mixed together, all with a certain ironic way of looking at life. For me, the most important thing for me as an artist is to inject irony into my characters, into my subjects and into everything I write.'