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Matej Bobrik. “The problems that every family deals with are experienced by immigrants much more intensely”From the film Distances


Matej Bobrik. “The problems that every family deals with are experienced by immigrants much more intensely”

20. 3. 2024 / AUTHOR: Timon Láska

The film Distances, about the family of a Nepali economic migrant living in Poland, won the award for the best film from Central and Eastern Europe at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival. Now this distinctive documentary by Slovak director Matej Bobrik will be presented as part of the festival’s echoes in Bucharest, Romania. In our interview, Bobrik describes the departure from the film’s original concept, his rapprochement with the central trio, and what life is like for the semi-fractured family now that the filming is over.

Your film is an observational portrait of the life of an immigrant family from Nepal. You yourself are a foreigner – you come from the Czech Republic, you are Slovak, and you live in Poland. Did your background and life have any influence on the creation of Distances?

It definitely did, but it wasn’t primary; it came later. I started thinking about the film when I suddenly started noticing a lot of people from India and Nepal in Poland, working in factories in small towns or in Warsaw as drivers for Uber or delivery services.

I wanted to make a film about the immigrant experience of someone from Nepal. But after a few months, I discovered that most of them are lonely guys who work all day and spend their evenings on the phone talking to their families who have stayed in Nepal. I didn’t find that very compelling as the subject for a film.

Then I found Shiv, who had come to Poland with his family. His story intrigued me: they were planning to build a house in Warsaw. And this is what Distances was originally supposed to be about – capturing this journey. But when I got to know them better, I discovered that all was not nearly as well as it seemed in his family. They have a son who already feels more Polish than Nepali and perceives the world in a completely different way than his parents. I see this in my own children as well; even though I have been here for 15 years, my children have a different relationship to the local landscape than I do. So, I looked at it a bit through my own way of life, though you can’t really compare them. Nevertheless, I am connected to Shiv’s family through the issue of the search for identity, which is tied to the place where I come from. And above all, it connects my children with one of the protagonists of the film – the son Nikesh.

What is the situation of Indian and Nepali immigrants in Poland in general?

It’s not the best. Nepalis and Indians are a pretty closed community. They work a lot, which makes them accepted by majority society, and even the politicians of the previous Polish governments, despite being strongly anti-immigrant, recognised their importance and the value of their labour. They needed them.

Many people are unaware that the Indian-Nepali community in Poland is quite large. Or rather, people know that they are here, but they have no idea what they are doing here and why. There is not as much pressure on them as there was, for example, on the refugees who came across the Polish–Belarusian border. It was much worse there, with fingers being pointed at them as the “bad migrants” to be wary of. The government never talked much about economic migrants, and suddenly we have a strong community that hardly anyone even registers. However, the “you live next door but you don’t live here with us” approach is not quite right either.

From the film <b><i>Distances</i></b>

Could this be due to the closed nature of the community that you mentioned?

Yes, and it’s also due to the fact that the “first generation” of these immigrants has the major say in things here. Nikesh, the son of the protagonist of Distances, now wants to change that. He doesn’t want to live solely in the Nepali community; he feels more like a Pole, and he doesn’t agree with his parents’ isolation. It is hard to say which way the Nepali community will go.

How did you meet Shiv’s family?

It was quite a paradox. Shiv was one of the first people from the Nepali community that I ever met. I then spent a year looking for possible protagonists all over Poland, only to eventually come back to him. In the beginning, I was looking for some kind of entry into the community, so I contacted an agent who makes a living trying to get Nepalis into Poland. He has contacts all over Poland for the various people he has brought here. Shiv was this man’s driver, and he also delivered food at night. It was only much later that I found out that Shiv’s family was also here. I went to their place for coffee, and that’s how it all started.

Did you meet any other Nepali families over the course of filming?

A few families, yes, but this one seemed the most interesting and open to working with me. Others were a little afraid. These families on the whole don’t communicate with each other at all. Women have a very difficult position in Nepali families. The man earns money, meets with his friends, and goes out for beers. The woman is the one who has to sit at home. Shiv’s wife had no contact with anyone in Poland, nor any opportunity to make contact. She can’t read or write, so she spent all her time online on the phone with her family in Nepal. That was all she could do, because her husband also wouldn’t permit her to go out and meet people – he didn’t think it was appropriate.

“I was horrified to discover the conditions migrants live in – it’s like modern-day slavery.”

One can see how difficult it is to apply hierarchical Nepali family structures in the context of European society. Shiv is overworked, and his constant apathy is clearly destroying his wife, leading to unbearable homesickness. At the same time, this all has an impact on the upbringing of their son…

When I first started meeting with them, they were always nice and seemed very content, and outwardly they were only concerned with whether they could manage to build a house. I didn’t have much faith that they would succeed, but I tried to base the film on this. Then we had a two-month break in the middle of the shoot, during which I didn’t go to visit them. The next time I went back to Shiv’s place and rang the doorbell, he didn’t invite me up and instead told me to wait downstairs. We went to a park, and he blurted out that he and his wife were separating. His son was about to be thrown out of school, his wife wanted to go back to Nepal… Suddenly I was making a completely different film. That’s when Distances as you see it began.

You witnessed the breakup of a family with different cultural capital playing out in front of your eyes. What was that like for you?

It wasn’t easy, but on the other hand, I was with them every day. They live five tram stops from me, and I always tried to stop by at least for a little while and spend some time with them. I would also help them with various things, which isn’t in the film. As they don’t speak much Polish, I was basically their only contact with Poland. The son Nikesh has some Polish friends, but not his parents. We were filming during Covid, so in addition to various matters with government offices, I helped them sort out things like vaccinations.

The fact that they let me film their arguments was a bit of an issue of culture. At the same time, I knew about things that Shiv’s wife didn’t see, such as his love affair. He forbade me to film that, and I didn’t argue at all, just like when the wife asked me to switch off the camera at one point. When we finished the film, we showed it to them first, and I was afraid they would say they didn’t like it and that this was not what their life was like. But they reacted positively, and this was also the first time that I really connected with their son.

You revealed to Variety that you and Nikesh had a somewhat contentious relationship during the shoot…

Because I’m his father’s age, he thought of me as an enemy – an adult who doesn’t understand young people. He yelled at me the same way he yelled at his parents. At the same time, I wasn’t in a position to lecture him; I was making a film. But it was difficult. When he saw Distances, he realised that he had treated his parents badly. He was right about some things, as were his parents, but the way he communicated was not good. He felt bad and wanted to change it.

From the film <b><i>Distances</i></b>

Given his defiant, assertive nature, this is a rather surprising outcome.

Of course, whether or not he’s actually changed remains to be seen… I still run into them occasionally. When they saw themselves during that first screening, they realised they had been horrible to each other. But the movie didn’t solve their problem. It’s still bad between them, but they’ve realised they don’t want to treat each other like that anymore. I think this is most important with Nikesh; he’s still young, and he’s got his life ahead of him. The situation that has arisen is mostly not his fault – he’s the biggest victim in all of this.

At the same time, Nikesh is not only rebelling against his family – he is also defying the routine of school and work. Does this defiance stem solely from his upbringing and his parents’ behaviour, or is it something else?

Nikesh has no authority figures. His father isn’t home very often and doesn’t spend time with him. He saw that his parents were fighting and didn’t want to integrate… It destroyed any inhibitions he had, and at the same time he felt stronger than his parents and therefore stronger than anyone else. This is also a critical age for him – he’s fourteen years old. People may say that his behaviour is terrible, but I think it’s still within the norm.

Which brings me to the fact that Distances also showed us the failure of the Polish education system. Nikesh’s teachers may have been aware of the family’s dire situation, but they did nothing to resolve it beyond a few phone calls. So, the school may also be one of the reasons why Nikesh ended up in a juvenile detention centre for several months…

In Polish schools there is a definite lack of staff to help foreign children with integration, or generally to help those who have family problems. We had long conversations with the school psychologist, which always ended with the words: “We’ve tried everything we can, and there is nothing more we can do.” But whether they actually did everything they could… It’s not a question of one person’s failure, of course, but rather of the way the system is set up. But it’s certainly not doing everything that can be done.

Distances ends with a powerful epilogue which takes the audience to a point five years back in time, when it could have seemed that all was well with Shiv’s family. Why did you opt for this type of retrospective epilogue?

I wanted to show that this family is not only toxic. They behave this way because they have reasons to. Sure, they had some kind of predisposition to toxicity, but in the epilogue they are portrayed as I knew them in the beginning: full of dreams that are not always entirely easy or possible to achieve. As a society, we should consider whether we can help immigrants to integrate. Let us realise that the same problems that every family deals with are experienced by immigrants much more intensely. We mustn’t view them merely as people who have come here for work.

Is the integration of economic and labour migrants in Poland more stable now than in recent years?

It hasn’t changed much. The agents promise them big money, a new life, and a job, and they come to Europe and go into debt. They take out loans, pawn their possessions… When they arrive in Poland, they find that they won’t be earning 4000 euros a month but rather złoty, which is a significant difference. They work for years to pay off their debts, and then maybe they go back. There are also a lot of migrants who come here because they want to continue to the West. They are lured by the fact that after a few months they can move from Poland to Germany or France. In reality, however, Polish companies are taking workers’ documents to prevent them from leaving the country. It seems like a modern-day form of slavery. Before the filming, I was horrified to discover the conditions migrants live in and how much they earn. Their situation is grim: they don’t integrate, nobody cares about them. The only thing people care about is whether or not someone is Muslim, and as long as they aren’t and they have a job, no one pays them any further mind. No one cares if someone is exploited in the workplace. And immigrants often have a mentality where they just keep smiling and never say that something is bothering them…

And how are your protagonists doing nowadays?

Nothing much has changed. On the positive side, Nikesh has finished primary school and is now in secondary school and doing relatively well. He is very intelligent; I think he will go far. His parents have reached a dead end. They were back together for a while, but now they’re splitting up again. I think the only solution is for them to leave the country. The mother wants to go back to Nepal, but she also wants to stay here for her son. I imagine it will be exactly the same a few years down the road.