Back to Those Days is the story of a 13-year-old boy who grew up in a family where his father is an alcoholic. The film, which premiered at the Gdynia Feature Film Festival 2021, is gaining more and more recognition, and from December 10 it will be in theaters. Director Konrad Aksenovich wrote the script based on his childhood experiences within a week. The struggle to produce the film lasted for six years, although Maciej Stuhr and Weronika Książkiewicz agreed to play the main roles.
Does the topic of adult children of alcoholics not interest the cinema?
The problem of alcoholism turned out to be of little interest to investors, who are now doing everything for the tastes of “young people”. There are guys in my movie because the main character is 13 years old, but for a while I felt like I hit a wall. There comes a moment in every director’s life when colleagues ask what a movie is like. If you’ve been avoiding the answer for a year, that’s fine. But when they’ve been asking for three years, “How’s the project going?” And you have nothing new to say, it’s not good. I was sure I wouldn’t make this movie. The fact that it was even created is the first miracle. The fact that there was a closure between one and the other – the other.
Have you gone back to those days to settle your scores with the past?
While writing the script, I thought of my ACA brothers and sisters who don’t know there are more of us. About alcoholics. About those who live with alcoholics. And about women who marry are alcoholics and though they may leave this house and never return, for some reason they don’t. This sense of mission prompted me not to give up. To make it cheaper, I made it in Wroclaw, where it originated. The screen shows my angle, my lane, my lift, and my racket. In one scene, Weronika Książkiewicz throws a sandwich to her son through the window. This is the window of the apartment I grew up in. This movie is my childhood and my life.
Was it difficult to describe them?
I can compare it to bungee jumping. You are tied with a rope, you look ahead and feel the enormity of the space. Your heart and intuition tell you that you shouldn’t jump, and the reason you’ll be fine is because you’re tied with a rope. Fear paralyzes but when you jump you don’t care. When the first slap fell on the set, I said to myself, “I jumped on my head and now I can dive in and pop.” Maybe that’s why I became a director to tell my family’s story. Going back to those days really helped me. I would be glad if it helped others now. Thanks to this, what we have lived will not be lost.
How was life with an alcoholic father?
Imagine you go to an unprepared physics class and know that the teacher can call you for a response at any moment. He passes his finger on the student list every day, and your stomach narrows. Sometimes this is not your last name, the second time it is not your last, so you say: “Phew…”. But a part of you knows he’s going to bump into you one day. However, you don’t learn because when you were a teenager you were thinking about more important things. And when you’re called to the board one day, you say, “I can’t,” you get one, and you don’t care.
Life with an alcoholic is similar. One day your dad comes drunk knowing that the next few months of your life will be filled with drama. All the time we lived knowing dad had that wick and one day he’d start drinking again. For me, the fact that he opened a beer meant that the war was starting in my apartment and would go on for a long time, because the alcohol sequence ended not after a week or a month, but after three months. When my father, after his mother’s divorce, moved to live separately, these dynasties lasted much longer – up to a year. This is because the alcoholic’s family is doing their best to end this war. Not for him – for his own good and peace. On the other hand, the alcoholic, if left alone, does not know moderation.
Have you ever wondered how your father’s addiction affected you?
It definitely left a scratch in me. If he screwed up once, it would be a troublesome accident. But it happened dozens of times: when I was four, when I was 18, and when I was 30. I could not cut the umbilical cord for a long time. I was a father to my father, but also a father to my mother, who needed help. I grew up fast, but I couldn’t believe I could make my family. Since I already had children in the form of my parents, whom I had to take care of, I did not need my parents. It was not an issue of vanity. The reluctance to have children was so ingrained in me that it was stronger than me. At the same time, I was looking for women who would deliver the feelings my father gave me: unstable, unbalanced, and the crazier the better.
Six years ago your daughter Leah was born. Has parenting helped you understand your parents better?
When I found out I was having a baby, I was ready for it and wanted it so much. However, there was great fear and thousands of questions as to whether I would be able to handle the matter. I know today that you can lose yourself in a family because I experienced something like this myself. When Leah was born, I felt that there was absolutely no place for me, that I had lost my identity. All of the LEGO bricks were put into the locker and the DVD was moved downstairs. I couldn’t watch it because “a child shouldn’t watch such movies”. When Leah fell asleep a day later, I just wanted to sleep too. I understand people who are overwhelmed by daily life on Fridays and want to go crazy and recover from drinking.
When did you realize you are an ACA?
I didn’t know for a long time that such a thing as ACA existed. Josiah Halper just told me what was going on and that it was worth going to therapy. I was 30 at the time and the word therapy meant failure to me – to admit that I had failed at something in my life. For a long time I thought the term “ACA” despised me. How is that? I am an adult, so I am old, a child, which means I am immature, and I also have an alcoholic father, which means I am crooked. In short: worse. There is also a second term – ‘dependent person’ which is even worse because it indicates that I also have a problem with alcohol. And I wasn’t addicted. I got stuck in someone else’s drama against my will.
When I decided to go to therapy, my friends were surprised: “You don’t have a problem with alcohol. You are not as crazy as those who need therapy.” At first they didn’t understand why I was doing this, and after a few years they came back to me to get a number for my therapist. Many people today can say: “Conrad gave me that number and thanks to that I have a better life.”
“Back to Those Days” is the beginning of the cure for those who fear it. Because it shows in a very simple way what it’s like to live under one roof with an alcoholic. And that the alcoholic doesn’t always have the face of Andrzej Chyra in “We Are All Christs” or Robert Więckiewicz in “Pod Mocnym Aniołem”. It can be good when it’s sedate. To worry about him, like him and his family.
Have you ever asked your mother why she did not leave her father?
Yeah. She said that in the ’80s and ’90s you couldn’t just rent an apartment. You should have had a report, the system didn’t make it easy for women to start their lives over. Mom had her own world in Wroclaw, the status of an actress, who did not want to return with her small child to the city near Jelenia Gora, where she came. Upon leaving, she had to go back to square one. Or at least that was the version you told me.
Did you not blame her for not fighting for a peaceful life for you and for her?
No, I’m actually very glad she didn’t make any moves, although I think it was a tough decision for her. If I had gone with her, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Due to the fact that she did not leave my father, I had more opportunities to develop. In Wroclaw, I could go to concerts, cinema, film club. I used everything that kids in small towns don’t have. It was easier for me to go to Australia. I spent six years there, wanting to get as far as possible. During this time, I only saw my parents once for two weeks. I got a scholarship to film school, but I felt that Australians would not give me the opportunity to become a director. I got the impression that they were afraid of me, although I kept telling them I’m like the good bacteria in yogurt – you have to eat me in handfuls. To make money, I worked physically in many places. Finally, I decided I didn’t want to spend my life as a newspaper owner at Sydney Union and throw a “farewell party” in a few decades. I returned to Poland.
In Back to Those Days, she asks the question: Is it better to have a drunk dad or not to have a dad? Did you already know the answer to that?
Alcoholism has many faces, so everyone in the ACA will have their own answer. Someone will say – it is better not to have a father at all. I can say that it is better to have a father, even if he is drunk. A father is a father – he teaches you something every day. My work was great and good when he wasn’t drinking. Explain my life, tell me how to pick up girls. I’m glad Maciej Stuhr showed him as a valuable person, but he’s in an addiction, because that’s the truth about him.
Your father was a well-known representative of the Wroclaw community.
He has performed at the Kalambor Theater and Wroclaw Puppet Theatre. He liked to read Charles Bukowski a lot because Bukowski’s life was about women and drinking. Bukowski has time between bad work and drunkenness, and this case cannot be achieved when – like my father – you are the head of the family and you have to take responsibility for it.
Did you talk to him about your movie, and most of all what you lived through?
Yeah. When I gave him the first draft of the script to read, he said, “I wrote it well, but I don’t remember half of it.” I understand it. Once or twice in my life I’ve missed a movie after party. I know what it’s like to have a hole in your mind and I don’t know what happened one night. What does a man who drinks a liter of vodka every day say?
Despite what you’ve been through, you always write about your dad on Facebook with great love. On the other hand, would you say frankly: “When he died, my life changed for the better”?
Yes, because she ended my ordeal by saving him for good. I felt like I had closed my chapter on this story. I finally found myself here and now. I lived for so long as if I was stuck in the 80s and 90s. I listened to music from that time, dressed as I did back then, and rode a BMX. I feel like I’m in 2021 for a year now I’ve sold my BMX, bought an e-scooter, and listened to Tami Impala.
Is there really no remorse or anger in you?
nothing. That’s why I didn’t want to make a Claim movie, I didn’t want to show my dad as a monster and I didn’t want to make this movie just for Poles. After all, in Germany, England or Australia in the 1990s, some kids my age had the same LEGO bricks, and the radio was playing the same song as in our country. And he also had an alcoholic father – just like mine. What I went through was also experienced by others. After the premiere in Gdynia, a man approached me and said: “I had the same set of cubes, my father drank the same and like you, my sister and I hid in the sofa-shelf from him.” “Back in those days” opens people up a lot. In performances, the audience laughs first and then remains silent. People hugged me and told me about their trauma. They are looking for understanding within me.
Can you bear it?
I try, though hard, because everyone wants to break my story. To say it was worse with him. So I have to listen to horror movies for “Good morning”. Since I’ve already done bungee jumping, now I’m just waiting to bounce back and come back.