"Life is sharper in HD!"
In our time and society, videos are most likely consumed on a daily basis and with growing frequency. This is done with a naturalness that suggests that we seldom even think about who is actually behind the work. Piotr Smolenski is one of those people. The young Pole can already look back on a remarkable and diverse body of work as a director and cameraman. His video clips are known far beyond the Polish borders and bands such as Taraf de Haiduks, Mahala Rai Banda or the Bester Quartett have already taken him up on his skills. Gypsy Music Network conducted an extensive and very personal talk with the man behind the camera.
piotr smolenski 1
Hello, Piotr. Kindly introduce yourself. Who is Piotr Smolenski?
To put it briefly, “Life is sharper in HD!”... I think horizontally and not vertically... I am a script writer, director and cameraman with an accordion on my back.
How did you end up in film and when did you get started?
Everything started when I was at secondary school. My parents gave me a Super VHS Camcorder for my birthday. As far as I can remember, the school was having a lot of problems with me at the time and I with it. Art and music were the only things I could get excited about and so the camcorder seemed to be the best choice for a present. From that time on I just started filming everything around me. Luckily some friends of mine had already had some experience in independent film-making and invited me to work with them. I had already been working as an independent cinematographer when the film “The Painter” was awarded top prize at the “Dekadencja-Festival” in 2004. The following years were the beautiful period of the “Growing Years” and my love for film grew from day to day. We were a group of friends and had experimented around a lot. And so we gained a bit of notoriety in our town and were then invited to many independent film events all over Poland. At this point, I would like to give a big thank you and send greetings to our friend Marek Nowak, who supported us in many projects.
This time came to an end once college finished. Everyone then went their own way. I, for example, went to Lodz to study. In the beginning, I was working primarily on commercial projects such as the videos to the hits “Bezele Kochana” by Tede or “Twoje Czary” by Rezerwat with Misiek Koterski. At that time I was working for the production company and was able to gather a lot of valuable experience for my later work. Together with Damian Bieniek, we made ad spots, video clips and the like. Through that we had the opportunity to work with people such as Jan Nowicki, Leon Niemczyk and other well-known Polish actors and were able to bring dance music to Polish TV. Many independent film-makers laughed at us at first because of our “commercial” leaning, but after a while they started doing the same thing, too, and became our so-called “silent competition”. That was the time when music videos were experiencing a bit of a revival and many TV stations decided to promote music clips. In the meantime, there are many production companies producing music videos, but I believe we were the ones to get the ball rolling. For Damian and me, it was a time of great friendship, personal development and hard work with thousands of hours spent in the car, behind the camera, in the cutting room and all. After a couple of years, we decided to go our separate ways on the business front. Our friendship still remains. We are both still active in the film industry doing our thing and like to reminisce about our time together and the things we did.
You have made some video clips for Roma bands such as Taraf de Haidouks and Mahala Rai Banda. What is your personal connection to Roma music?
I personally think of myself as “Gypsy by Choice”! Back when I was at university, I met the wonderful Roma musicians Wit Michaj and Lacy Wisniewski. They led me into the world of Roma music with great sensitivity and professionalism. From that came the documentary “Two Guitars - on Roma Romance” that we made together. The following year, I had the chance to meet the master of this genre, Mr Edward Dębicki and his charismatic son Manuel Dębicki and their band “Terno”. Their mission is to make authentic Roma music and Roma culture accessible to the general public. They led me into the fascinating world of the Roma where there is neither sunrise nor sunset – the sun lights up the faces of the people and shows them the way... Thanks to my “music family” Dębicki. I learned a lot from them about Roma traditions and their way of life... and to be honest, I like it! (laughs)
What is the difference when you make a video clip with a pop/dance/hip-hop artist and a video with an ethno/Balkan/Roma artist?
There is absolutely no difference. 100% commitment is essential for me, no matter what type of music is involved or what kind of project I am working on at the time... But, of course, ethno / Balkan / Roma music and tango are closer to my heart... Pop and dance music is the world of commerce and style and certain schemata and clichés have to be fulfilled plus you are relatively restricted as far as the visual realisation goes. That’s why that kind of work is of less interest to me. Even with hip-hop artists it is pretty much the same: the music is very emotional and many artists in this genre have a lot of trouble showing weakness and opening themselves up to true art. Still, I have managed to be able to make some very honest and personal pictures with them.
In many of your music videos you use recurring themes: the forest, the field, the accordion, people you have arranged as in a still life, etc. What is it about these motifs?
Outdoors, amongst the trees, in sunny fields of grain – those are the places I love most. In such surroundings, playing my favourite instrument, the accordion, I have the chance to discover and find myself. I like to reveal myself, my emotions and feelings in my pictures... through the visual language, I hope to touch the viewers and stimulate their imagination.
Where do you find your motifs?
Do you mean my inspiration? I observe people and places, paying attention to little details, but most of all I am inspired by the music... music was ever-present in our family home. As a child, my father would play various songs each evening and always ask, “What do you see? Let your imagination run wild!” If I wasn’t in a position to do that, he helped me to visualise pictures and use my imagination. That in turn helped me later to visualise music and set it to pictures. This ability gave me substance in times when I was feeling down and I developed compassion for the people who live without this fantastic music, who often lose themselves to materialism, which is satisfying only momentarily and in the end doesn’t really make you happy anyway.
What was the craziest situation you ever faced on a video set?
I think that all the videos I made with Donatan were truly challenging experiences (laughs). In my opinion, the most original was “The Storm” (Sztorm) by Cleo and Donatan. Practically the entire video was shot on the water in a boat containing all the film crew and heavy equipment on a lake. Seeking shelter from wind and rain... that was really very difficult, although the result turned out to be pretty unique (laughs).
Out of all the video clips you have made up to now, do you have a favourite one?
Wow, it’s almost impossible to answer that question. It’s as if someone asked you which of your children do you love most! What I can say is that I like the works I have done where I was able to break through commercial barriers: Alter’s “Dawn”, the previously mentioned video with Donatan and Cleo “Sztorm”, Asia Ash “Jestem jak skała”, Taraf de Haidouks’ “Clejani Love Song”, Bubliczki “Abo mnie zabiją” and Miuosh with Onar “Nie zamykaj dzisiaj drzwi”.
What kind of music do you listen to privately?
Balkan music, old tango and old jazz. I don’t particularly like consumer lifestyle or mainstream music. Thanks to my preferences, I’m able to maintain my balance and pursue the essential (laughs).
What are your plans for the future?
In addition to the projects in Poland, I hope to be able to do even more things with artists and bands from abroad. Then, of course, to continue polishing my artistic style and reveal my innermost feelings to the world.
Thank you for the interview, Piotr, and all the best!
I thank you!


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