Other People: the audacious hip-hop musical capturing modern Poland

20 December 2021

Told almost entirely in verse, Other People stretches the boundaries of the musical form. Directed by Aleksandra Terpińska, the hip-hop musical is an audacious portrait of contemporary Poland, imbued with mundane beauty, intense brutality, and a keen sense of the prosaic: think a live-action version of The Streets’ narrative hip-hop album A Grand Don’t Come for Free, crossed with the gritty vibes of Danny Boyle’s heroin-infused Scottish drama Trainspotting.

The title credits themselves are superimposed over an endless collection of brutalist, smog-grey tower blocks, setting the scene for ordinary stories, extraordinarily told. If Annette, Leos Carax’s dramatic 2021 musical, had critics lauding it as “bonkers but beautiful” after Adam Driver was depicted singing while giving oral sex, Other People raises the bar, with its characters laying bars in the midst of sexual intercourse.

The film, which celebrated its international premiere in the First Feature Competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, was adapted from the eponymous 2018 novel by Dorota Masłowska. Masłowska burst onto the Polish literary scene “when she was 18 and was a huge success. It was something completely different than what we had before in literature,” says director Aleksandra Terpińska. Masłowska wrote her novel in verse, like Alexander Pushkin or Derek Walcott. But in many ways, it was closer to a rap novel, taking the rhythms of Warsaw dialect and transplanting them to the page.

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Today, Masłowska stands as the face of the modern literary scene; dynamic and brash, turning from internal problems and looking towards more universal themes. One of those is the horrors of consumerism — something that Poland is only just starting to get to grips with three decades on from the fall of socialism. Terpińska had the difficult task of adapting the book’s satirical vision of Polish capitalism to the big screen, saying that: “I think [Polish people] are more concentrated on buying things as we couldn’t buy them for so long. Maybe it’s in our DNA that we want more and more as a young capitalist country.” But at the same time, “I think it’s kind of universal — the urge to fill any void with things. But our empty hearts need other human beings instead of stuff.”

The tension between love and consumerism is aptly represented by the film’s wannabe rapper Kamil (Jacek Beler), who is almost caught stealing by shop attendant Aneta (Magdalena Kolśsnik). “A few beers is enough to suck him off” and he half-heartedly wonders if he is in love. He’s later caught in a love-triangle of sorts when he takes a gig as a plumber (“a gig for Ukrainians, not for Poles”) and hooks up with the middle-aged Iwona (Sonia Bohosiewicz) — a woman unloved by her husband, popping pills like candy, shopping constantly to combat stress, and looking to recover her youth through sleeping with younger men.

The film moves between their perspectives (and others) with widescreen ease, painting a cynical picture of modern society as a place where people post-airbrushed lives on social media, buy endless clothes to make themselves feel better, and dream of travelling to locations with “no Poles.” Kamil, with no money on his phone and no beats for his raps, is our Mike Skinner-like everyman: desiring both sexual oblivion and a return to childhood, new Adidas shoes and journeys into space.

A still from Other People (2021) by Aleksandra Terpińska. Image Anna Włoch

A still from Other People (2021) by Aleksandra Terpińska. Image Anna Włoch

Adapting these narrative shifts was a difficult technical challenge. “Dorota came to me and offered me this book. I had to discover a language to tell this book, but sometimes the story gives you a language,” says Terpińska. Actor and rapper Sebastian Fabijański is employed as a Jesus-type figure to anchor the story, significantly bumped up from the couple of lines his character has in the novel. Wearing thorns over a hoody and baseball cap, he acts as both a Greek chorus and a Shakespearian jester; contextualising the story and allowing it to move freely between characters, points-of-view and jumps in time.

Terpińska also used the same approach that director Tom Hooper brought in for his 2012 rendition of Les Misérables. His idea of capturing actors singing live on set was used as a template for telling a more direct and raw type of musical: “We learned they had a musician playing piano in a special booth on set so they could perform in real time. Our cast had small earplugs where they could hear the beat. It gave them the freedom to act. They had to be super concentrated to do this, but it pays off because you can have real emotions and real acting.” When choosing takes, Terpińska took care to prioritise emotional presence over technical skill, knowing that any delivery issues could be fixed later.

Other People raises the bar, with its characters laying bars in the midst of sexual intercourse

Hip-hop, which arrived in Poland along with the rampant consumerism of the early 90s, feels like the perfect correlative to the film’s piercing insight into everyday life. Recently, Polish rappers such as Taco Hemingway and Mata have pushed political debates in the country — from abortion rights to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation — becoming symbols of a new culture war. Other People doesn’t touch Poland’s testy political situation, but is well aware of the ways that hip-hop can be used broach tough issues.

Other People touches dark material, opening with a trigger warning for violence, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia, internet hate, fatphobia, bullying and anorexia. When I ask Terpińska why she chose to touch on such themes, she answers with a slight smile: “I hope you saw some humorous parts.” Other People is in fact lighter than Terpińska’s previous short work, The Best Fireworks Ever, which featured both civil war and a mass suicide sequence.

A still from Other People (2021) by Aleksandra Terpińska. Image Anna Włoch

A still from Other People (2021) by Aleksandra Terpińska. Image Anna Włoch

Still, in a shocking, openly provocative moment, the question of consent is seemingly brushed aside when Kamil sees a girl passed out at a party and rhymes: “Drunk chick on the floor/equals easy score.” While he doesn’t end up assaulting her, his friends rapping “#metoo is bullshit,/Nothing more!” provides a deeply upsetting moment. Terpińska appears to see this question coming: “It is a little bit provocative,” she says. And it should be shocking. I wanted to show that we don’t want to acknowledge things that are changing. I always see the greyest parts of life. Maybe it’s because they’re the parts of life we should talk and think about. It may be naive to think that films can change somebody’s life. But it least it can start a discussion about something.”

Winning best debut at Gdynia Polish Film Festival and the FIPRESCI Prize at Tallinn, Other People is making waves across Poland and Eastern Europe. It bears all the hallmarks of a debut film — passionate, involved, probing, every raw scene bearing the scars of its creation. “Making movies takes so much time, effort, and energy. You try to tell your story, something that’s important for you to scream to the world,” says Terpińska. “You want to say: ‘Hey people, watch out, it’s going in the wrong direction!’”

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