Beyond Good and Evil: Piotr Dumala's Crime and Punishment
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"Occasionally he would stop in front of a summer house decked out in greenery, look through the fence, and see dressed-up women far away, on balconies and terraces, and children running in the garden. He took special interest in the flowers; he looked longer at them than at anything else."

An Affinity
Dumala worked for 3 years on Crime and Punishment, but he was introduced to the book in secondary school. "I was very moved when I read this story about a 20-year-old good guy who wanted to kill someone without any reason." The idea of a young man struggling to find his limitations appealed to Dumala, who in typical teenage fashion, was drinking too much, causing trouble and fighting with his parents. Beyond the juvenile attraction, there was something much deeper in the book that embraced the young Pole. The atmosphere in Crime and Punishment is one of dirt and scum. Everyone is dirty. They live in dirty houses with dirty children and have dirty thoughts. We see criminals, prostitutes, low lifes; the dark side of society. This was a world very familiar to Dumala. He grew up in a poor district of Warsaw with "lots of criminals living in the court." The courtyard was built in 1938 but was destroyed during WW II. "Many people were killed in this area. My childhood was among these surroundings. It was dark poetry. People were living in ruins. A single mother with two kids lived in the basement, while another family occupied the top part. Criminals were fighting everyday. There was blood everywhere. Prostitutes lay in the stairway shitting on the stairs." At the same time, Dumala, in love with a school girl, had his Sonia within this landscape of darkness. In Crime and Punishment, Dumala "found a book about my life."

At 15, Dumala was not mature enough to make a film of Crime and Punishment. Ten years later, Dumala had started making comics consisting of about 300 drawings. "It was the best drawings I'd ever made in my life, so after I thought about a film. My professor said, 'You should do Crime and Punishment,' but it was too early for me." It would take Dumala another 17 years, making hundreds of films before he was ready to make the film of his life.

The Technique
Dumala is, of course, already a well-known artist on the international animation circuit and his work is acclaimed for its philosophical themes but especially for his innovative plaster technique. His technique involves the use of slabs of plaster covered with normal glue (with hot water to make the surface stronger and smooth). Once dry Dumala scratches on the plaster with sandpaper and paints it with oil paint. "It goes very fast. I put the paint on the surface and it's absorbed very quickly. I scratch on it with a sharp tool and can achieve very nice effects from dark tones to white plaster. The animation goes onto one piece so I make one drawing and change it on the same plaster and re-paint it."

Dumala invented the technique in 1983. "I had a piece of wood covered with a special preparation -- I kept it as a lesson of technology from art school -- and I covered the wood with brown oil paint as background -- I always liked Dutch painting and I knew they covered their paintings with black -- I really liked this and scratched it with a needle. It was an illumination. It was possible to scratch and make a drawing. I could continue this and make a film." After one year at the Academy of Fine Arts, Dumala made two films [The Black Riding Hood (The Black Hood) and Lycantrophy] using a traditional drawing style, before using the new technique on his next film, Flying Hair. "It was a fantastic technique. Everything was influenced by this technique. It was smooth and poetic and black." While the first two films were done on a white background, Flying Hair was made on a black background. "This started my series of black films. So all films take place at night or between night and day. It's not possible to explain the time of day. Is it real light or dark sun?"

The process is time consuming and Dumala never quite achieves the most desired effect. "There are no line tests. Everything is done the first and last time." With the life of a new image, comes the death of the old one. "It's really destroying my mind. It's like killing your own children. Only what I get is the effect on the screen. The movement. I'm very much linked to my drawings. Sometimes you still have some of the past drawing and parts of the next one. It's something really interesting, but you can't keep it. I work slowly to keep it as long as possible. So I'll go to the bar and eat something and then it's time to destroy it. It's a punishment."

If there is a crime to go with this punishment, it comes courtesy of the film's soundtrack. Faced with deadlines, Dumala had only days to complete the soundtrack. "There were technical problems and I couldn't start earlier. When I finally went to the studio I had two nights. I couldn't see the result until Ottawa [where the film premiered in September 2000]."

Fortunately, the completion of Crime and Punishment was mildly therapeutic for Dumala. "When I was finished I felt like after the crime. I knew that something was passed. I am free of an idea that I was keeping for twenty years. It is done. It's over. I felt free to make something else." Old women the world over are rejoicing.

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.


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