Live to Remain is a simple story but a deeply affecting one. A young girl finds out that she has lost her job to an immigrant and inspired by far-right rhetoric in the wake of the Brexit result, goes to a petrol station in order to enact senseless revenge upon an older Polish worker. Moving in an unorthodox way, Live to Remain explores the legacy of hate speech in the UK, the value of kindness, and whether such hatred can be overcome. We spoke to Director Bartek Sozanski about the film and a late change he made to its structure which flipped the tone from dark to light.
Did the inspiration for Live to Remain stem from your personal experience at all?
I came to the UK in 2017 to study a master’s degree in Film Direction. Live to Remain was my first portfolio film. I’m Polish-born. I started to read the stories about Brexit and Polish people being bullied after the result. I was quite shocked because I never really experienced racism, even though I lived in France, Ukraine, Switzerland and the UK. It was a very strange thing for me to know that people can be racist towards Polish people. After reading this story I started to think about what it might mean for a teenager to hear these Brexit stories and this propaganda, and how it can shape somebody who is young and searching for herself. Originally, it was a boy who would be influenced by this right-wing propaganda and decides to assault a stranger.
Working on the story I came up with this idea that it could be a woman, two women actually. A young one and the person at the petrol station. I thought it would be interesting to see this evolution from a person being very angry and thinking the stranger is the problem to realising at the end that the woman working in the petrol station is actually searching for the same thing. This was the main idea that brought me to the story.
When you see people in power use this kind of speech, it gives permission to people who think that immigrants are the problem.
The film is ultimately quite an optimistic one, as it shows that hate can be trumped by kindness. Why did you want to end it in such a way?
Actually, it’s quite funny because I shot the film the other way around. In my script, walking away is a fantasy and she’s actually doing it at the end. I edited the first version of the film and showed it to my tutors and fellow students. We had this discussion and one of my tutors told me to try and swap the endings. I didn’t want to do it because I thought it was gonna be cheesy. But I made the change and the story came together better so I decided to keep it like this.
Poland is a deeply Catholic country. Petrol shop owner Gosia mentions her own faith in the film while you can see a poster of Pope John Paul II on the cover of the tobacco stall. Did you purposefully want to weave any Catholic themes, such as forgiveness and turning the other cheek, into the film?
For me, it was more like a folkloric thing. Polish people are 98% Catholic. Faith is really important. Especially when you are abroad, it can bring people together. I’m not religious myself but I know these people that put holy images around them. At first it was to situate the character, but there is also that fact that she gives her kindness. The girl can only reply with kindness. There is something underlying all this. Maybe it’s about forgiveness, maybe you are right, but it was not originally thought like this.
On this film I’m the writer, director and editor, which in a way is a good thing, but it means I can only follow what I’ve written, shot and edited. So I think there are a lot of things that aren’t conscious choices. But then I look at the film from a distance and think, OK, actually, these themes are of somebody struggling, overcoming problems, and people being kind to each other. That’s something I can find in all my films that aren’t a conscious choice from the beginning.
One conscious choice is the use of anti-immigration speeches throughout the film. How much do you think the types of Tommy Robinson, Nigel Farage or even Boris Johnson and their rhetoric are responsible for the rise in these kind of hate crimes?
I think there’s a connection. I’m not a researcher so I didn’t really do any proper research. I think when you see people in power use this kind of speech, it gives permission to people who think that immigrants are the problem. It’s because we are surrounded by hate speech everywhere now, whether it’s Hungary, Italy, the UK, Poland or the USA. Now there’s this sense that you know you’re not going to be punished. This is the origin of my story actually: that maybe propaganda can bend the way of thinking and can influence people.
It does seem like a story that could be ripped from the headlines. And talking about reality, is there a reason why you shot the fantasy crime scene from outside the petrol as if its an outsider looking in?
It’s violent because it takes time. But we don’t actually see what’s happening as I didn’t want to make it bloody. Instead I was thinking if I wanted to assault somebody, how do you actually do it? The film is about the potential for violence that we all have. Most of us will never go to the act, but maybe because of the propaganda, some will.
The film is about the potential for violence that we all have.
The inner conflict is handled very well by actress Phoebe Sherman. How did you find her and Katherina Naumow for the two main roles?
I was really lucky actually. It was very difficult at the time because I didn’t really have access to professional actors so I searched for somebody from school. I was working with a producer, Mariana Torii, on my MA Course. She sent me a picture of a girl and told me to meet her. I wasn’t sure at first, but actually I was very surprised, as when I talked to her she said she was from a region of the UK that was really touched by these hate crimes so she knew the background. I found the second actress on Mandy. She’s Polish and had a career in Poland. She was perfect for the role because she was an immigrant herself. She came to the UK to search for a better life, so it’s like the character in my story. I was really lucky as I didn’t have to do a lot on set.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m back in Switzerland. I’ve made seven short films since I started. I started quite late in 2013, but since then I made seven short films, and I’m re-editing my graduation film which hopefully I’m going to send to film festivals in two months. I’m also working on my first feature, trying to adapt a story from a book. I’m writing the treatment now.