Klara Kochańska and The Tenants

Klara Kochańska is a Polish filmmaker with an eye for life’s everyday madness. Explored, she says, up close “and with a bit of irony”. Her films have a streak of the theatrical about them, there’s an economy here in terms of style and scale – just a few locations and a couple of characters being throw curveball after curveball; one could easily imagine these stories unfolding on a stage. Unsurprising then, that she comes from a family connected to theatre. Her grandfather was administration manager of a Polish theatre, her father was an actor until he lost a front tooth in a fight at 20, ending his career, and her mother ran theatre classes for children until recently, when she decided to enroll in film school – just after Klara herself began studying directing.

Klara’s most recent short, The Tenants, was made as a graduate film – although it has the look and feel of an experienced, steady hand. It’s screened at festivals around the world, picking up prizes including the Student Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. Here we look at The Tenants in more detail…

It begins with a familiar life dream. The one where you work hard, save up and eventually buy an apartment. When the day comes to move in, you’ve packed your life up into boxes, you’re ready to start a new chapter. But things take a turn. When you arrive, the keys don’t fit the lock. Not only that, the previous tenant has not left. It seems they have no intention of going anywhere.

And why should they? They’ve lived in this social housing block for years. Would you really kick them out into the street? In this quiet but searing film, two women, owner and tenant, are stuck together in an apartment they both have a claim on. It’s a vivid look at the fault lines of gentrification. Where the characters are all simultaneously right and wrong. And where everyone is doing their best to survive in a world that seems firmly set against them.

Crammed in a tiny room amongst her unpacked boxes, the young owner becomes a tenant in her own house – a clever reversal of power that earns our empathy. In fact, it’s almost like she’s being a little too obliging. We get the feeling the tenant is taking advantage of her and is never actually going to leave. As this reality hits the owner, she is driven to ever more desperate acts in a bid to get the tenant out. “You’re a lawyer,” a work colleague says. “Just get rid of her.”

Yet this story is not about the black and white of law, it’s about morality and shades of grey – something the owner is yet to fully comprehend. As she listens to memos of legal transcripts, the law feels sterile and restrictive compared to the moral ambiguity surrounding her. For all her knowledge, the owner still has much to learn about life.

On first inspection, The Tenants might feel small, simple even. There’s no crafty camera-work, no score driving the story; the sound and production design are unassuming. But simplicity isn’t simple. Without all the trappings, there’s nowhere for the film to hide. The restraint reveals great skill: script and editing hit every mark, the performances are brilliant and the technical elements, seamless. It doesn’t need to be flashy: this is classy, smart, provocative filmmaking.

One of the distinctive qualities of the film is what’s left off screen, what we infer, what we hear but don’t see, and how this becomes a critique of our inherent bias. Told from the owner’s point of view, we get only fragments of the tenant’s life from behind walls or through doorways. From here, the tenant fits a lower-class stereotype: unemployed, perpetually wearing a dressing gown, with a “sick” daughter whom we hear, rather than see, for most of the film. The tenant doesn’t fit the accepted image of “virtuous, contributing citizen” and is thus poised to be the receiver of our worst assumptions. All the more shocking then, when we find these assumptions to be false.

When the reality of the tenant’s life is revealed, our mind flicks back through the film, seeing previous scenes with new clarity. We are struck by our willingness to jump to the wrong conclusion; a middle-class luxury of seeing only what is convenient to see. There’s no mistaking the intention: Kochańska forces us to face issues of class and gentrification, making us keenly aware of how easy it is to let our unconscious prejudices inform our worldview. This a powerful portrait of the quiet class warfare being waged across so much of the “western” world today.

When Jill Soloway spoke about the Female Gaze at TIFF this year, she spoke of a mode of filmmaking that is conscious in its effort to create empathy as a political tool. I think The Tenants is exactly this. Without ever reducing itself to the polemical, it weaves a decidedly political and emotive story. It is tender and tragic, messy and great. If this is the new wave of Female Gaze films and filmmakers, we have much to look forward to.

The Tenants is Directed by Klara Kochańska, Produced by Anna Kasinska and Written by Klara Kochańska & Kasper Bajon.