Matej Bobrik Gets Close to Migrant Family From Nepal in Jihlava-Winning ‘Distances’: ‘We Wondered Why They Never Said Stop! to Us’

During the making of his Jihlava Film Festival winning film, “Distances” director Matej Bobrik walked right into the middle of an argument.

“Actually, I was standing a bit to the side. It was my cinematographer Filip [Drożdż] who was at the center of it all,” he jokes, recalling heated discussions of his protagonists: a Nepali family who moved to Warsaw in search of a better life.

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“It was an intense experience and there were moments when we wondered why they never said ‘stop!’ to us. I think we managed to get so close, because we never forced them to do anything. They knew we were always rooting for them.”

Named as the Best Film from the Central and Eastern Europe of Czech fest’s Opus Bonum section, “Distances” was produced by Agnieszka Skalska for Koi Studio and backed by the Polish Film Institute.

“A few years ago, we noticed there were so many immigrants from India and Nepal [in Poland]. They worked as Uber drivers or delivered food and we knew nothing about them,” explains Bobrik.

While most of them were single men – “They would work all day and stare at their phones all night” – he decided to look for a family instead. To his surprise, Shiv, his wife and son welcomed him into their lives.

“Imagine: A stranger comes to your house and says he wants to make a film about you. And yet, unlike most people in that situation, they didn’t immediately assume someone was trying to trick them,” he says.

“At first, everything was very official. The house was always clean, there was always food on the table. Luckily, after a while they got tired of me. One time, they buzzed me in, but no one greeted me at the door. They went to sleep! I sat in the kitchen and realized we could finally start filming.”

Later, things got more complicated. So did their situation.

“They dreamed of having a house, especially their son Nikesh. This caused all sorts of conflicts, because Shiv knew they wouldn’t be able to afford it. I thought we would focus on that, and then he revealed a secret: ‘I think we are getting a divorce. I’m having an affair.’ Suddenly, it became a completely different story.”

While witnessing a breakdown of a family, Bobrik also wanted to talk about identity in the film. Something that he, a Slovak filmmaker living in Poland, also gets to experience firsthand.

“I am not comparing myself to them, but me and my wife Mariko [Bobrik, Japanese-born director behind San Sebastian premiere ‘The Taste of Pho’] aren’t from Poland either and yet we are raising our kids here. My daughter already corrects the way I speak. Her relationship with this country is stronger, just like Shiv’s son. Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to them,” he wonders.

While his character’s illiterate wife Shushila finds herself completely isolated, hoping to return home, for Nikesh, “home” is right where they are.

“She thought they would be back in a couple of years, but this boy doesn’t even speak their village’s language. He came here when he was 5 years old. He belongs to a different world now,” he notes. Pointing out that despite focusing mainly on their struggles, the situation of other immigrants was very much on his mind.

“We still talk about racism here; we just do it through their problems. I’m from Slovakia, which is a very similar country, but they find it extremely hard to adapt. Unlike Ukrainian refugees, they come here not knowing the language and not understanding the Polish mentality. Which often leads to exploitation.”

“I have seen these apartments with 15 men all living together. They would often ask me for help and I think it was precisely because I am not Polish. They felt safe, complaining about local bureaucracy or their employers.”

Bobrik, behind “Our Little Poland” and short “The Visit,” also awarded at Jihlava, often finds himself attracted to personal stories, he says.

“I want to show something truthful in my films. At one point, Nikesh started to talk back to me the same way he did to his parents. I’m his father’s age, so to him, I was the enemy. I tolerated it, but our relationship wasn’t good. Then, when I showed them the footage, he said he felt embarrassed. For the first time, we had a meaningful conversation.”

He still believes documentaries “can bring people closer,” he says.

“I really hope they will survive, even though we keep talking about A.I. and the dangers it poses, also at the festival. I will keep making them – up until the point when everything around us becomes completely artificial.”

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