Last Updated: March 24, 2023By Tags: ,

The Sundance documentary “Pianoforte” follows some of the world’s best young pianists as they compete at the renowned International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Among them are Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mitsuko Uchida, Krystian Zimerman and Kevin Kenner. They are teenagers, in that netherworld between youth and adulthood, and finding their way while simultaneously giving expression to their amazing talents.

Screen Comment spoke with director Jakub Piątek via video link from Park City, Utah, to talk about this intriguing documentary, which traces the ambitions, hopes, disappointments, dreams and nightmares of some of the greatest young pianists in the world. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

How did you get these young musicians to trust you as a filmmaker?

There was a preliminary a couple months [earlier]. There were like 160 young artists competing in the first stage, so I asked all of them to record [a] home video with answers for a couple of questions. That’s how I could meet them all, in a way. Then I conducted 40 or 50 one-hour conversations with them.

So before the competition we already knew our protagonists, going with our gut feeling, not judging them by their music, just as human beings. When they finally came for the competitions [in] Warsaw, we were close to them already because we ate lunch together, we met their parents and relatives and boyfriends and girlfriends.

That’s how they allowed us to be nearby during stressful moments and also with all sorts of emotions that you have in the competitions.

What were the reactions of the cast members  to the documentary?

Of course reactions are different. For some of them it was like [a] reenactment of the competitions with all those emotions, [which] can be tough. They prepared for two years, maybe three years for it. But two of them came to celebrate the [Sundance] premiere with us and answer questions from the audience. It was touching and really nice.

Since you had to go as far away as China to film your subjects, how did you arrange all of your travel and such?

It looks like [we had a large] budget, but we were doing it guerrilla-style. Three people in the crew: me, director of photography and sound. And because of covid we couldn’t go to some of the places, like China because of a quarantine of 21 days. But because I started in Łódź Film School, and half of my [class] were foreigners, we have a really nice network. So I could call my friends in China and ask for help.

What other challenges did you have to overcome?

From a production point of view, what was special in this film was there were people who put the money in, and they trusted us to start the journey with the protagonists. And you don’t know who will win. After a couple of days it could turn out that we have no one in the competition. But it turned out pretty differently.

Are you a musician yourself?

No, I’m completely not. I’m just a simple filmmaker and I never learned any instrument. But I was just fascinated by this world. I really wanted to witness the effort behind these couple of minutes on stage.

And I strongly believe that you can perceive this classical music on a really emotional level, like any kind of music. Of course a musical education can help you, but it’s a language that is universal for everyone, no matter where you are. Those emotions, through the music, aim for your heart.

The player we see in the film who dropped out of the competition because he wasn’t feeling mentally ready for the competition, how is he doing?

Martin [Garcia Garcia] is doing great. He’s working to establish a private music school and teaching. He’s doing concerts and everything. I think he’s good.

What else do you hope people take away from “Pianoforte”?

I’ve got this small dream that after watching the film, maybe you have your favorite protagonist–one or two of the six of them. And maybe you will Google them and find that all of the performances are for free online on YouTube. And you will listen to this beautiful music from these young artists.

That would be really special as an outcome.

The 2023 Sundance Festival takes place January 19-29.

Jakub Piątek