Confessions of a ‘Vampire Documentalist’ Roaming New York’s Subways

Will Tizard

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — Polish documentarian and cinematographer Piotr Stasik seems to relish breaking conventions, having shot “21 x NY” on New York subways, without permits, filming with his lens unattached and handheld while finding random interview subjects willing to talk about love, sex and obsession.

Describing himself as “a harmless vampire documentalist,” he admits his technique can be highly stressful: approaching interesting-looking subjects, chatting them up, offering to show them links to his past work (“A Diary of a Journey” and Russia-shot “The Last Day of Summer”), then starting to shoot.

Darkened subway cars, shadowy streets and dimly lit clubs form most of the settings, invariably accented by strange, silvery slashes formed by his bizarre shooting technique — rather than attaching a lens, Stasik connects one to his camera loosely with gaffer’s tape, then adjusts the focus by moving it by hand while shooting.

If all that went well, Stasik would talk one of his 50 or so subjects into letting him visit their apartment, where he found he could get them to speak about more intimate things with better sound quality — something important with a film crew of one. Culling those interviews down into the best 21, he created an essay documentary that has been captivating audiences since its premiere at the Krakow docu fest in June and at the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, and has been nominated for the European Film Awards.

“If I hadn’t found my own method of cinematography, we would have observed in my film objective reality, almost like from a CCTV camera. To me, the camera in a documentary is the extension of my body.”

The more intimate approach seemingly gives a DP special powers, says Stasik. “Sometimes it even scares me — when I look into the viewfinder, I feel like I see more of life. The camera becomes the speculum into the human soul. My protagonists feel that.”

As for getting strangers to share deeply personal stories of broken hearts, cheating and sexual fixations, he says: “There’s a bond forming between us, which doesn’t only imply trust, but also it’s a feeling that we’re experiencing an important moment, a feeling that we’re co-creating a film.”

He has nothing but praise for his subjects, several of whom would be reviled by many in polite society. He often manages to connect with a “protagonist who gives me a piece of his or her life, realizing that we’re doing something more — together we’re registering a fragment of our lives’ gallop.”

One advantage of being director, DP, soundman and interviewer in one, Stasik says, is a low profile, which is helpful in keeping his subjects at ease. It probably doesn’t hurt that several are also somewhat drunk when he approaches.

“I try to put together a set as small as possible, which does not intrude into my protagonists’ lives.” Using the unattached lens contributed another layer of strange intimacy, he says, adding “a human flaw to the digital registration, light getting straight to the image sensor, selective focus. It helped me to reflect my way of seeing the world and it gave me the feeling of being inside the heads of my characters.”

Stasik says he drew inspiration from intensively studying art photography, though in the end it was mainly instinct that guided him.

“Usually, you only have a split second to decide where to put the camera, at what angle, how close to the protagonist, and when to press the record button. You need to define what you’ve got in a moment but also you need to predict what’s going to happen next.

“It’s tension of a higher degree,” he says, recording “to the full, red-hot processor.”

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