Focusing on a closely knit team of young Polish equestrian vaulters, Monika Kotecka and Karolina Poryzała’s The Herd explores the ups and down on the path to success and the importance of teamwork. We talked to the two directors at the 2021 Warsaw Film Festival about their growth as filmmakers and how they achieved intimacy in a documentary.

How did you first hear about the vaulting club?

Monika: We met the girls from Volteo when trying to shoot a music video. We had found a picture of a middle-aged man doing acrobatics on a barrel, so we became interested in vaulting. First came the music video, then came a short film, Wolta, and then, because the girls were so charismatic, we knew that there was potential for a full-length documentary about femininity, sisterhood and growing up. Overall, I think this kind of step-by-step production allowed us to mature as filmmakers, as well. In total, within 5 years we spent about 40 days living together.

Was it difficult for you to create this level of intimacy, to get them used to the camera - which was essentially there from the moment they woke up?

Monika: What was interesting is that it was easier for us to get to the younger ones rather than the older ones. It felt very organic with the younger girls. I think in that way kids usually behave more instinctually – they’re not so concerned if they look good to the camera or not. During the championships it was as if we were living their lives - we ate with them, laughed, cried, listened to their stories.

Karolina: We were also very naïve and enthusiastic, and they appreciated that. Eventually they started trusting us, we were their friends with the camera. With the trainer we obviously had a different relationship.  There was more material about her private life that we chose not to use. We didn’t need it for the story, but we also wanted to respect her privacy.

Because you said you were sharing experiences, there is one specific scene we are curious about, in which Bill the horse steps on Ola’s foot.  We imagine it must have been difficult for you.

Monika: I was behind the camera at that time and I wasn’t able to get the right focus because I was crying. It was also especially difficult to film when there were conflicts among the team. We had a lot of scenes where they would be saying they hate each other. It was very difficult for them to share those emotions with us, and we decided those are things we shouldn’t use. You have to be careful about what you do with what you get from your protagonist.

How did you approach the film stylistically? You seem to have opted for a form close to direct cinema.

Monika: In a film like The Herd, it was not always possible to have everything look ‘beautiful’. What we decided was that we wanted to observe the girls and go where they lead us. It was also important to keep a balance between observing them and observing the horses – we saw vaulting in a political way, because it is also difficult for the horse. Nature was always very important for us.

Karolina: I for one really admire documentary filmmaking, but not when it veers into reportage. We wanted to show the true nature of these girls, so we just sat and waited, with patience of respect. It was like a study. I think that is the best thing about making a documentary film – you never know what you are going to get when you start, that’s the mystery of it. You let your subject show you something that you don’t expect or that you perhaps don’t even know.