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Lech Kowalski | I Pay for Your Story

[…] Even if the film shows us “only” the people telling their stories, and we don’t actually see their stories in context, «I Pay For Your Story» is highly cinematographic because of the incredible dramatic force behind the stories, and Kowalski’s masterful ability in editing them.

[…] Actually, the immediate element of hope I would like to emphasise is in the filming itself. In fact, Kowalski’s operation is openly performative, as his film not only shows and informs us about a specific situation, but actively intervenes in it by giving all of these people a clearer consciousness about their situation and, hopefully, giving them the feeling of belonging to one social group.

«I pay for your story»: That was Lech Kowalski's trick to get back in touch with the inhabitants of the neighborhood where he grew up in Utica, New York. Actually, more than hinting at an old and somehow arid debate on the ethics of making documentary films, this was his effective way to create a bridge between him (now living in France) and a world of forgotten and desperate people in Utica. Once their trust was won, Kowalski’s confession game revealed itself to be an incredible exercise of collective therapy. A therapy for the people in front of the camera, who finally found someone willing to pay attention to them – Kowalski and all of us viewing the film. The therapy is for all of us as well, as we finally awaken from a sleep of ignorance and misinformation about the current alarming situation in the USA.

Even if the film shows us “only” the people telling their stories, and we don’t actually see their stories in context, I Pay For Your Story is highly cinematographic because of the incredible dramatic force behind the stories, and Kowalski’s masterful ability in editing them. What is most striking is that almost all of the stories present the same common traits: the interviewees had suffered as children from the absence of the parents and from sexual abuse, they were busy dealing with drugs, they spent many years in and out of jail, they have now decided to straighten themselves out, but aren't able to find any job opportunity, they have many children, who are their only positive motivation in life. The other common trait is that almost all of them are black, but Kowalski is intelligent enough to avoid reducing all of the issues to the problem of racial discrimination – and to avoid the dangerous comfort of making a mere spectacle of his burning filmic material. The inquiry of I Pay For Your Story throws light on a simple truth: from the crack-cocaine boom in the Nineties to the street violence of today, there is one big parabola of death and marginalisation, which manifests itself now as the absence of a second chance for the people that have already paid for their errors in jail. During our meeting with the filmmaker (see the interview above) Kowalski’s accusation is clear: there is an economic system, in which the interests of the pharmaceutical industry meet the interests of the state itself, which in turn takes advantage of this situation of abandon and despair, impeding a real reinsertion of this marginalised people. But the demographic data shows us how the reality that Kowalski is focusing on today is a time bomb for future violent conflicts.

In I Pay For Your Story, the tears that are flowing are sincere, discharging their healing power on the interviewees. They always look directly into the camera, and we cannot help but to become completely absorbed into the drama of their condition. Yet, the leitmotiv of the children and the motivation they inspire in their parents seem to introduce an element of hope. Actually, the immediate element of hope I would like to emphasise is in the filming itself. In fact, Kowalski’s operation is openly performative, as his film not only shows and informs us about a specific situation, but actively intervenes in it by giving all of these people a clearer consciousness about their situation and, hopefully, giving them the feeling of belonging to one social group. If Kowalski would be able to show his film in the States and to the people concerned – apparently a very difficult task! –, I would like to imagine that this could develop more solidarity for these people and, moreover, between them, giving them the capacity to organise themselves in order to improve the situation and to fight for a better future. Finally, Kowalski’s performative commitment sets a strong example for all of us, as the problems in Utica are the same as those in many other realities in the States, in Europe, and around the world.

Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore | Audio/Video: Ruth Baettig
First published: May 01, 2017

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