Words: Mélanie Fazi

(Photo: Michelle Henning)


DO YOU remember that Robert Miles video called 'Fable'? You know, the one with the three swimmers and the eerie choreography? Surely you can't have missed it - MTV used to play it every day. And I am sure you will agree with me when I say it was one of the very few reasons (if not the sole reason) not to turn off the TV when Robert Miles was on. "I'm dead proud of that video!" claims Maria Mochnacz laughingly. And God knows she has a right to be. She found it challenging to make people pay more attention to the images than to the music (if it can be called music at all, but that's another story). Just try to remember what 'Fable' sounded like. You see?

When she left college with a fine arts degree Maria didn't think she had gained any practical skills, but she already knew what she wanted to do. Next thing she did was to take a photography course, though she had never really used a camera before. "There were so many images in the world that I wanted to make sense of what was already there. At the beginning it was very important to me not to do things that had already been done - what's the point of that?" She was also affected by all the images of women she had been watching in college, and did not like the way they were portrayed, something which has had a lot of influence on her (especially the early work with Polly Harvey). She also learnt a lot by working in a club in Bristol that would play MTV all the time. All the videos seemed to follow the same rules, with their frantic rhythm and obsession with speed. "And I thought 'hang on, they're all doing this... If you hold the camera still for a while, it's gonna stand out because no one else is doing that'".


Maria Mochnacz

(PJ Harvey, 1992)

(PJ Harvey, 1992)

'50 Ft Queenie'
(PJ Harvey, 1993)

(PJ Harvey, 1993)

'Down By The Water'
(PJ Harvey, 1994)

'C'Mon Billy'
(PJ Harvey, 1995)

'Send His Love To Me'
(PJ Harvey, 1995)

'Itchycoo Park'
(M People, 1995)

'Is That All There Is?'
(PJ Harvey, 1996)

'That Was My Veil'
(PJ Harvey, 1996)

(Robert Miles, 1996)

'U Love U'
(Subcircus, 1997)

'A Perfect Day Elise'
(PJ Harvey, 1998)

'The Wind'
(PJ Harvey, 1998)

(Sven Väth, 1998)


One of her most striking videos, and one of her favourites too, was for PJ Harvey's 'Man-Size' in 1993: a black-and-white static shot of Polly Harvey sitting on a stool and pulling faces, looking like a teenage girl dancing in front of her mirror. "A really anti-pop video", as Maria describes it. Polly is so obviously enjoying herself that her enthusiasm is contagious to the viewers. "On that day she was a particularly fantastic performer. I knew I couldn't cut anything that was as good, so I let it run as a performance piece. I love the bit when she starts wiggling her tits, I know she's feeling slightly unsure in that she looks around the room at the other people in the crew but she just carries on. It was like a dream, really."

Watching Polly improvising so freely, you get the impression that she must have had complete trust in the person holding the camera. She probably wouldn't appear so relaxed if she had done it with someone she didn't know so well. Polly and Maria have known each other for about ten years now and during that time Maria has directed all of PJ Harvey's twelve videos (two of which will probably never be released) and taken most of her photographs. Polly was 18 when they met and she had not released any records yet, although she was already making music. At the time she was doing the same foundation course Maria had done five years earlier and they shared an interest in artwork. It was Polly who first asked Maria to get involved in a video project in 1992. The song was called 'Dress', it was Polly's first single as well as Maria's first video.

Maria admits she is more satisfied with her early artwork, possibly because she is more distanced from it. She thinks it reflects her original ambition much better (doing what had never been done before). Apart from 'Man-Size', she names '50Ft Queenie', 'Down By The Water' and the Robert Miles video as her other favourite works. '50Ft Queenie' has many common points with 'Man-Size', especially their ironic, playful dimension. 'Rid of Me' (from which these two songs are taken) has often been described as Polly Harvey's most violent and raw-sounding album, and the two videos just happen to be the funniest. '50Ft Queenie' features a radiant Polly wearing a fake leopard-skin coat and plastic sunglasses, as well as band members Rob Ellis and Steve Vaughan. The scenery consists of a white wall on which one single sentence is painted, the song's opening line : "Hey I'm one big queen". Once again, what prevails here is the impression that both Polly and Maria are having a lot of fun.

On 'Down By The Water', Maria enjoyed the opportunity to shoot underwater, which she had never done before. It was also a big step in the sense that there was more money to make the video, as well a bigger crew. Everything was very different from the early videos which were made specifically from the photo sessions involving only Polly and Maria. Although Maria seems quite proud of the result, this video is also linked to some less pleasant memories. She had done a photo session with Polly for the cover of 1995 album 'To Bring You My Love' but the management company decided that none of it was fit for use. As Maria was too busy to make new photos, they simply decided to take stills off the video. "That made me cross in a way because it's my video that I'm making and another photographer comes along and takes their pictures (...) and I wouldn't have done it like that."

Another frustrating experience was the making of a video for 'Is That All There Is?' (taken from the 1996 album Polly Harvey recorded with John Parish, 'Dance Hall At Louse Point'). They never planned to release the song and the video was only meant to promote Julian Schnabel's film Basquiat. The video was shot in an old ballroom outside of London, a perfect setting according to Maria ("I could have lived there", she says). Besides, they were allowed to use clips from the film and ended up with a video featuring David Bowie and Dennis Hopper among others. But for some reason, Julian Schnabel decided that he did not like the result. He phoned MTV in America and threatened to sue them if they ever played the video. As far as we know, 'Is That All There Is?' has never been shown as a whole on TV. Earlier this year, Maria shot a video for PJ Harvey's 'Angelene' that was basically made of stills, but it seems that this one will not be released either.

When she comments on her own work, Maria turns out to be rather critical of what she has done. She admits there are some videos she finds "awful" but will not name them. Some others left her slightly dissatisfied, which is inevitable in a way. "Maybe I can only like the early stuff because I'm so distanced from it, maybe in a few years I'll really like the stuff I've just done. You always look at how you could have done it better." One example is the lovely black and white video she made for 'Send His Love To Me'. This was the first time she had ever done anything on location, in the middle of the desert, and she feels she could have taken advantage of the place a bit more, by shooting from different angles instead of keeping the camera at the same distance from Polly all the time. "The thing is it nearly killed Polly. Just imagine the heat, the crew made sure they were totally covered up and she was out there with her bare head and black hair and the sun beating down on it (...). I just really felt like I nearly killed her." Maria jokingly says Polly must have taken her revenge by playing some kind of voodoo trick, like sticking pins in a waxdoll, as she got ill as well after the end of the shooting.

When you happen to mention Reeling with PJ Harvey, her documentary about the 1993 tour, Maria suddenly sounds a bit uneasy. "I think I kind of totally blew it", she admits. Reeling consists of backstage tour footage mixed with live performances (Maria left the latter to another director as she felt she could not do that herself). Hearing her criticising her own work is weird to anyone who has ever seen and enjoyed Reeling. "I had no plans, I just decided to shoot everything. I don't think I was produced properly, I wasn't given any boundaries (...). There are a few scenes that I'm proud of but I do leave shots running too long." Well, these are the very reasons why Reeling has gained a cult status among PJ Harvey fans. One good thing about Reeling is that it's completely unpredictable: you can never tell what will come next. And just because Maria directs it in such a spontaneous way, she manages to capture life, almost by accident, in the same way as 'Man-Size' did. Reeling is Maria's vision of Polly, the vision of someone who knows her well. It goes against all the (often inaccurate) imagery created by the media: when you see Polly Harvey dressing up or practising her singing, you get the feeling that this is closer to the real Polly than anything you might read in the press. Had Reeling been more structured, it might have failed to reach the same striking effect. Besides, anyone who has seen the cover of the '4-Track Demos' album can't help enjoying the photo session scene in the hotel room.

Apart from the aforementioned Robert Miles, Maria has worked with a number of bands and artists such as Subcircus, M People, Echobelly, Sleeper, Sven Všth and David McAlmont. She also had the opportunity to collaborate with Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb. Maria took pictures which will be used for Giant Sand's next album and says she really enjoyed the experience. Earlier this year, she also worked on a project with long-time friend and collaborator John Parish. Some of Maria's early pictures were of his band Automatic Dlamini, which once involved Polly Harvey and friends such as Rob Ellis and Jeremy Hogg. In 1998, John wrote the soundtrack to a Flemish film called Rosie, by first-time director Patrice Toye, and decided to perform it live with video projections in the background. Which was not that easy to organize, since there was little money. The four shows were to take place in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bruges and Portsmouth.

"John basically got four friends together and said 'I've got no money but can you make me something?'" Maria, Michelle Henning, Rebecca Goddard and Ben Shillabeer chose four pieces each and did their best to make up for the lack of money. Which, in a way, forced them to become more creative. They filmed off a TV and found out that using different TV screens created a different effect. Maria found one particular trick with the shutter on the video camera to obtain a white line moving through the screen, something like a photocopy light. "I was interested in doing something and having all those restrictions, she explains. In some ways it's nice sometimes to do that because when you're given money, you just think 'This is gonna be no good' and you're really worried about it. It's nice to think 'We didn't have any alternative, this is how it had to be'".

The projections consisted of images from the film with English subtitles, repeated again and again, most of them featuring young actress Aranka Coppens as Rosie. They contributed to creating a hypnotic effect that added up to the music. The result was truly puzzling to those who had not seen the film, giving you hints of what it was all about without providing any real clue. At the end of the show, you found yourself desperately wanting to see the film as a whole.

Film-making is another activity that Maria has been interested in for ages, among others. There are a number of areas she would like to move into, things like fashion photography (something she has a real passion for), art pieces, exhibitions. (Talking of exhibitions, she says she always gets excited on seeing people wearing PJ Harvey T-shirts - "It's like having an exhibition on the street, when I see people wearing these T-shirts I always want to run up to them and say 'Hey, that's mine'!). But the one thing she has always dreamt of is to direct a film. It seems that she has already had some offers. She would be interested in doing something visually very strong, but in the same time finds it important not to show off your palette with no particular reason. Maria refers to La Haine (by French director Mathieu Kassovitz) as one of her favourite films ever - a film with a strong visual identity and a very clever way to carry a message, as well as a deeply emotional one. Maria says she was so affected by the death of one of the characters in the final scene that she couldn't talk of it immediately after seeing the film ("It was the first time I'd ever mourned for a character in a film"). But she is aware that directing something longer than three minutes involves aspects she has never had to deal with, such as writing a film script and working with actors - something she would definitely relish, nevertheless. By the way, Maria says she would love to work with people who are interested in writing and would like to have their ideas adapted for the screen (if anyone feels like taking part in such a project, please don't hesitate to contact us and we will let her know - this is a serious offer). Film-making also involves a different kind of pressure. All these things that make the project even more frightening - and possibly more exciting too. Which is basically the best way to move one step forward. Sometimes it's good to push yourself out of the comfort zone.
Endless thanks to Maria for being such a friendly collaborator and for never being cross whenever our phone calls disturbed her - and to Michelle Henning who kindly let us use the picture.


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