Lech Kowalski makes uncomfortable films. They are so uncomfortable that they even frighten his producers. This was the case with Arte, the French-German television channel, concerning his film Drill Baby Drill (2013). No TV station wanted to distribute the film in the countries concerned, namely Poland, the USA and Great Britain. Its subject: the habitants of a small agricultural village located in far eastern Poland discover that the world’s fourth largest energy corporation, Chevron, wants to build a shale gas well in their village. When it comes to money and the destruction of nature through fracking, state channels prefer to stay out of it.
Lech Kowalski is the son of Polish immigrants who fled a Russian concentration camp during World War II. They finally settled in the suburban town of Utica, upstate New York. Lech moved to New York City in his early twenties and today lives in Paris. Perceived as an ‘American director’, his engagements are characterized by two guidelines: following personal traces and being on the side of different forms of rebellions. His first documentaries treated the struggle for freedom in the early rock, punk and sex scenes of New York. When the ‘underground culture’ became a lucrative market, Kowalski lost interest.
He discovered a new frontline for resistance: farmers, normal people who want to protect their natural environment and livelihood from being destroyed by the financial interests of big corporations. This dying breed of people is the result of the ever-increasing void between rich and poor, and the crisis of the middle class in general.
Kowalski’s latest film entitled I pay for your story is set in his hometown of Utica, where he spent a large part of his adolescent years. In a key scene, he kisses his mother’s coffin and promises her, “we are making the next film together“.
I pay for your Story was selected for screening at the Visions du Réel competition in Nyon, Switzerland. Another film in the same competition already explores the deterioration of the social classes in attempting to explain the ‘Trump phenomenon’.
Utica, a four-hour drive away from New York City, was a flourishing industrial town when Kowalski was growing up, attracting workers from around the world. Today, it is just one of the many devastated cities in American’s ‘rust belt’ offering little hope of a future to its marginalised black community. The lack of basic social structures, including education or formation possibilities, and high unemployment rates has led Utica residents to turn to crime to survive. Kowalski revisited the former hot spots of his youth; the record shop, the music club and the once covered ice-skating rink, the perfect place to cool off on a hot summer’s day, available for everybody for free in these days. Now all that remains are ruins of the past, as nearly every shop or amusement park have disappeared.
Kowalski starts to collect life stories, for which he offer to pay double the minimum wage to anyone who come along to offer it. Very quickly the prevailing conditions of true lives is evoked. Getting accused of a crime in their youth, usually drug or theft related, in consequence being suspended from school, facing little to zero chance of finding a decent job in their adult years, forcing them to turn back to a life of crime.
Their lives interspersed between incarceration and dismissals. There is only one agent to profit of this circle; the prison industry. Prisoners often hear on their way out; “come back with a friend”. Quite a lot of the defeated in Kowalski’s film admit preferring prison life to wasting away outside. At least there they get three meals a day and basic medical care. One storyteller, speaking in front of his wife and children, revealed that despite having a bullet in his arm, a skull fracture, a partly damaged brain and eye, has no right to disability benefits, as ‘Whites’ would have for far fewer injuries.
Also, business men from abroad, who arrive with some business start-up money, have an easier life in Utica. They are exempt from paying taxes for the first ten years. In sharp contrast, the local inhabitants have no access to education or guidance. A lucky few may find training as unpaid skilled workers, but not a permanent job. The only source of comfort for many of the young women living in these conditions is their children. They hope for a better future for them but remain very sceptical.
A rising level of police violence adds to this vicious circle. A growing number of black men are shot in the streets in cold blood. Investigations into their deaths are rarely followed up. Most of the storytellers in Kowalski’s film suspect a violent uprising in the near future. Drugs and violence characterise their daily lives. One storyteller estimates that 80% of his childhood friends are in prison whilst the rest are already dead. It is easy to understand how these people, who have been abandoned and repressed, react to promises of bringing work back to their town.
These promises were made by Trump along with his denunciation of a ‘government mafia’. These marginalised victims do not have the means or the background information to question the legitimacy of his promises, thus proving to be the perfect electorate target group. Kowalski puts his offer sign ‘I Pay for Your Story’ in illuminated letters on a terrace of a simple house in the neighbourhood. He gets part of the declining world. That is precisely why he was able to capture all these voices, who only just asked not to be disprized.