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.

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