The co-director of Polish film Papusza, screening in Karlovy Vary’s competition, tells Screen about her desire to bring the Polish poet back to prominence.

Bronislawa Wajs, better known as Papusza (or ‘Doll’), was the first woman from the Gypsy Roma community in Poland to find fame as a poet. However, her fame caused many problems for a community which was proud of keeping their secrets from outsiders. Husband and wife duo Krzysztof Krause and Joanna Kos-Krauze’s film serves as both a biopic of an artist and a snapshot of the Romanies and the persecution they faced before and after World War II.

“In my high school I had a very good teacher and so I knew the poetry of Papusza,” explained Kos-Krauze to Screen. “In Poland not a lot of people know Papusza. Her biography is on the level of myths and legends. So, for the last 10 years we were considering making the movie but we couldn’t find the ‘key’. It was all about how to show the poetry. And I remember six years ago out friend asked us ‘Do you know about the opera Papusza’s Harp?’ We discovered the fantastic composer who did an opera in the Roma language about Papusza’s poems. Then we knew we had a key and inspiration for how we would tell the story.”

The film is a long and languid one, shot in crisp black and white with a relatively large cast. Was it a rather daunting prospect to try and tell the story not only of an artist but an entire community?

“The story of how we prepared for the movie also deserves to be a movie!” says Kos-Krauze with a smile. “It was quite a huge challenge because everything in this film we built. For example the Roma caravans, there are only two in the museums. And there were the make-up artists as two of the biggest problems was ageing Papusza: we finally used these guys from Hollywood. We decided to do a black and white movie, mainly for economic reasons. And we also used a lot of computer graphics. In so many places we had a lack of budget and we needed to do it in post-production.”

“We also had to reconstruct  the Roma dialect,” Kos-Krauze continues. “We had some fantastic actors but I think the some of the biggest work was done by the people who had to reconstruct the Polish Roma dialect. It’s completely different from Polish. And we only have two professional actors in the film. We decided the actors would have to speak Roma, so they spent one year just learning Roma. We were not interested in them not just learning the lines by heart but they needed to speak the language. We were not convinced at the beginning but our friend told us ‘No, you have to make it in Roma because they deserve it and it will be the first movie in the Roma language.’ There are enough movies were you see – for example – everyone in Auschwitz or in the ghetto speaks English. And it can’t work like this”.

The film makes use of a non-linear narrative. “The first time we decided that we didn’t want to use a linear structure. We knew that it was going to be quite epic because besides Papusza it’s eight years of Roma life. I think the structure is an emotional one.”

“But it was worth it. But in Poland we hope that they are going to do big educational events and programmes about gypsies and the situation of modern Roma people. When it’s released in Poland they’re going to publish her poems again.”

For Kos-Krausze and her husband Krzysztof (who is unable to attend Karlovy Vary) the film is yet another chapter in the long relationship with the festival. In 2005 they won the festival’s Crystal Globe for the film My Nikifor. “Nine years ago they chose our movie and they changed our lives,” remembers Kos-Krauze. “Our artistic life. Our personal life. I think it’s a good place for Papusza. Cannes or Venice just wouldn’t be right. It’s the most important festival for this area of Europe.”

And what does the future hold? “We’re going to start shooting a film in November, it’s a story about a Polish ornithologist and starts in 1994 in Rwanda and he saves the daughter of his friend and brings her to Europe.”