Is Utica New York a dangerous place

Does a fee corrupt the truth?

With “I Pay for Your Story”, the American director Lech Kowalski presents an explosive social study in Nyon - and aggressively tackles a central ethical question of documentary film.

Utica is a city in the state of New York with a population of 60,000 today. In the 1970s, when the town was still home to large industrial companies such as General Electric, the number was 100,000. In the course of deindustrialization, the city fared like countless others in the Rust Belt of the USA. Lech Kowalski, born in 1950 and the son of Polish parents, grew up in Utica, in a neighborhood where many immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe lived.

The director, once celebrated as the "answer of the New York underground to Werner Herzog", has in his long career, in which he made films about punk bands like the Sex Pistols, about the drug misery, the porn business, but also about his Polish roots, established as one of the most prominent representatives of a documentary film, which also goes to places where no one else goes. Whereby “established” is not quite the right word. Because Kowalski is someone who, despite his successes, still exudes the charm of the rebel, even with his 67 years of age and his long white hair tied in a braid.

A taboo subject

In the case of Kowalski's latest work entitled “I Pay for Your Story”, the place where no one else goes is his hometown Utica, where decay and poverty are omnipresent today; Former workers' quarters have turned into poor quarters, today there are many Afro-Americans and whites who would be politically incorrectly called “white trash”, says Kowalski's voice off-screen in one of the first scenes of his film.

"I Pay for Your Story" is not only interesting as a milieu study aimed at the unheard heart of America, but also because the film touches on one of the most sensitive and taboo topics in documentary film: the question of whether or not to pay protagonists . Actually, the prevailing credo is that you shouldn't pay protagonists because it falsifies the documentary situation; it contradicts the “truthfulness” of the documentary. At the same time, this imperative is being weakened more and more: on the one hand because the forms of the documentary have expanded and opened up to the fictional, on the other hand because the strong medialization of our reality has also led to a strong economization of it.

The media demand good stories and are willing to pay well for them. Directors are increasingly confronted with monetary claims, but this is rarely disclosed. In many cases, filmmakers decide to pay in “kind” in order to comply with the requirement of non-payment. In “Namibia Crossings” by Peter Liechti, concerts were organized for the African musicians, as producer Franziska Reck told us on a podium in Nyon, Ulrich Seidl left the meat of the animals shot to the black extras in “Safari”, as he did in an interview explained.

Hypocritical arguments

These are just two examples of the fact that directors are aware that the so-called `` do not pay '' rule is also based on something deeply unethical: The filmmaker enriches himself with the story of his protagonists, and the story is often the only thing they have - especially in the milieu in which Kowalski mainly makes his films. He reacts to the unequal situation by exchanging money for history, but with real payment. This may be a controversial but perfectly legitimate way of handling it.

Kowalski says that around 2002 he was refused funding by the British TV channel Channel 4 for his film "On Hitler's Highway", a documentary road movie about a highway built by the Nazi occupiers in Poland, which is now being used for streetwalking. This on the grounds that one could not risk reading the headline at some point: "Channel 4 pays Polish prostitutes." That is hypocritical, says Kowalski and explains: “These women are practically around the clock at the roadside. If I now spend time with them to tell me about themselves, they may miss out on suitors. So it is only normal that they have to be compensated financially for this. "

At the beginning of “I Pay for Your Story” you can see Kowalski in the streets of Utica handing out business cards with his mobile phone number and the film title. The director explains to people that if they told him ten minutes about their life and he was allowed to film them, he would pay $ 15 (twice the minimum wage in the US). Shortly thereafter, Kowalski settled down on the balcony of a young rapper's apartment in a black neighborhood, and hung up an illuminated sign with the film's title there.

The "story sellers" now come to this place in quick succession; later Kowalski changes location and lets people - almost all of whom are black - talk about themselves in an abandoned former Jamaican club. The result is a diverse overall picture of fragments from biographies that are characterized by alcoholism, drugs, sexual abuse, extreme experiences of violence and prison stays. The failure of American politics becomes clear in the stories of the protagonists.

Too dangerous for the US

It is amazing what Kowalski experienced with the film in his home country. "I have received rejections from four renowned film festivals in the USA, they did not want to include 'I Pay for Your Story' in their program," says Kowalski and is angry about the reasons for the rejections. It does indeed seem adventurous. The festival officials announced that his film was successful in terms of form and content, but it was too dangerous to show it in the USA. "These people probably think my film is dangerous because it shows what life really looks like in the black ghettos of American cities," says Kowalski with a bitter undertone, adding that it is nice that people in Europe are interested in his film: Next Monday it will run on the TV channel Arte, which co-produced the film.

But he made “I Pay for Your Story” primarily for an audience in the USA. "About 45 million Americans live in conditions like those seen in my film," explains Kowalski. And adds that those in charge of film festivals in the USA are worried that Trump supporters could feel that the film confirms their prejudices against blacks.