“Without This Kind Of Journalism, Democracy Won’t Survive”: Interview With Agnieszka Holland, Director Of MR. JONES

One could never accuse Agnieszka Holland of being a frivolous filmmaker. One of the most prominent directors to come out of Poland, her works have a consistent weight to them. From Fever (1981), which tells the story of the Polish Revolution of 1905; to Europa Europa (1990), an adaptation of the memoir of a German Jew who survived World War II by masquerading as a Nazi; to In Darkness (2011), which tells the story of a Polish sewage worker who hid Jews during the Holocaust; Holland’s films portray some of the ugliest and most important periods in human history with an unflinching gaze that has caused its share of controversy.

Holland’s latest, Mr. Jones, fits right in among these landmarks in her oeuvre. The film stars James Norton as the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1933 to uncover the story of the Holodomor, the man-made famine in Ukraine that killed millions. Yet, despite Jones’ bravery in obtaining eyewitness accounts of the famine in the face of incredible danger, many of his fellow intellectuals refused to believe his story.

I was privileged to speak with Holland about her attraction to Jones’ story, the most surprising thing she learned while making the film, and the role of journalism in keeping democracy alive today.

Lee Jutton for Film Inquiry. The story of Gareth Jones is an incredibly compelling one, made more so by the fact that it is also rather unfortunately a timely one, with journalists under attack and being accused of spreading “fake news”. When did you first learn about Gareth Jones and his story, and how did you get involved in bringing that story to the screen?

Agnieszka Holland: I was familiar with the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine; I heard about it and read about it in several books. In one of the books I read about ten years ago, there was a chapter where [Gareth Jones’] story was mentioned.

The script for the film was written by Andrea Chalupa, an American screenwriter of Ukrainian origins. She sent it to me directly, not through my agent — she’s quick and smart. Most of the scripts that are sent to me are about the Holocaust and the human troubles of this time but after reading 15-20 pages [of the script for Mr. Jones], I couldn’t put it down. I realized it speaks to me because it speaks about the terrible Communist crimes that were forgotten and forgiven. I think it’s terrible that those crimes are not part of the global conscience. And I thought the story about the journalist was very relevant, with “fake news” and everything we are living through. With this story, we see the past, but it proves what Faulkner said: the past is not dead, it is not even the past. It feels as though it is part of the present.

“Without This Kind of Journalism, Democracy Won’t Survive”: Interview with Agnieszka Holland, Director of MR. JONES
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

I thought James Norton was wonderful in the lead role — there is such an earnest desire for justice running through his whole performance. What led to him being cast as Gareth Jones?

Agnieszka Holland: When a movie is not fully financed and it is complicated — it’s not easy to sell entertainment — it’s not easy to cast it, to convince actors to read. So it was a long process, but by some happy circumstances, a big agency found ten interesting actors ready to jump on the adventure. So I did something like five castings, talking to them and watching their movies. Among those contenders, James was, for me, absolutely the best. He has this discreet British quality of a genuine man who is not a flamboyant character but who is easy to care about. He is very intelligent and very curious and a very kind man, so it was a great pleasure to work with him. He’s very loyal, very steady. He was somehow what this character was — he is not that colorful but he needs to carry this movie. When I was editing the movie, I realized how deeply good he is, when those little very subtle pieces of work he did came together. I’m very happy to have worked with him.

Many viewers might be surprised to see George Orwell [played by Joseph Mawle] show up as a supporting character in Gareth Jones’ story. Why was it important to include him in the film?

Agnieszka Holland: With him and Animal Farm, which was inspired by Gareth Jones’ reporting and the story of the famine, he gives a metaphorical quality to the story of this particular young man. He represents, when they meet together, this position of the Western intellectual, in that he believes — even when being wise and skeptical — that Communism is the real hope for humanity. If he expresses this opinion and somehow refuses to believe Gareth’s report, he shows with his authority what the situation at the time was, and how difficult it was to judge and recognize the truth about Stalin and his regime. So he adds a metaphorical dimension to the story and also shows the state of mind of people at the time — people like Walter Duranty [played by Peter Sarsgaard] and Ada Brooks [played by Vanessa Kirby] — it shows how easy it was to be seduced by this vision of the world.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in making this film?

Agnieszka Holland: Well, I knew about Holodomor and the history, but when I was researching I started to read different opinions of historians regarding the number of victims, and I learned that the difference is five million: some count about three and a half million dead and some went up to nine million. When I was shooting in Ukraine, I met old ladies who were witnesses and survivors, but that we don’t know all of the victims’ names and graves, that they are forgotten and only exist in the emotional memory of the nation… I found it so heartbreaking. I felt those victims were calling to me, and needed me to shine a light on them. This didn’t happen when I was doing Holocaust stories because those names are known and we have records of what happened. Here there were millions of names, lost.

“Without This Kind of Journalism, Democracy Won’t Survive”: Interview with Agnieszka Holland, Director of MR. JONES
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

As we previously mentioned, Gareth Jones’ story is all too timely. Many journalists today are accused of spreading lies when they only want to reveal the truth, much as he did. What do you think we can learn from the way his reporting was received by the public?

Agnieszka Holland: When you combine the corruption of the media and the politicians and the indifference of global public opinion, the worst things can happen. It’s why objective, investigative, fact-checked journalism is so important. I wanted to make a tribute to this type of journalism because I think without this journalism, democracy won’t survive. In places like the U.S. and Poland, societies are so divided, so polarized, it is easy for the media to serve a one-sided agenda. They are reporting the facts that are only believable for one part of the population and losing credibility for the other part. It isn’t always corruption, it is sometimes done with the best intentions, but it is dangerous. Someone like Gareth, who had ties to the government and knew what would be profitable for them, decided to report the truth and the facts and decided to do it regardless of what it meant for him and his political mentors.

What projects are you working on right now? I know with the pandemic it’s hard to go out and shoot anything, but do you have anything in production?

Agnieszka Holland: Immediately after finishing Mr. Jones I jumped into another movie, a period movie shot in the Czech Republic called Charlatan. It premiered quite successfully at the last Berlin Film Festival. It was supposed to be released in some countries in March… we are hoping the theaters will reopen successfully. Mr. Jones was supposed to open in France two days after the cinemas were closed. So we’re in the position where those movies are waiting for the new normal. I am also preparing a new series for Apple, which is supposed to be shot in Paris, but we don’t know yet what will be possible.

Film Inquiry thanks Agnieszka Holland for taking the time to speak with us!

What do you think? Are you familiar with the works of Agnieszka Holland? What are your favorites? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mr. Jones will be released digitally on June 19, 2020.

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