CONTROL: The First Viral Polish LGBTQ Web Series

When making a 2-minute film for her class assignment, Natasza Parzymies never expected that after posting it on YouTube, it would not only hit over 13 million views and become a worldwide phenomenon, but also turn into a full web series. Now, even though she is still a student, Parzymies is known as a director of an incredibly popular online show and the first person in Poland to tell a lesbian love story in this format. Since 2015, when the populist conservative party Law and Justice took power in Poland, virtues such as sexual freedom and women’s rights have been under attack. In the summer of 2019, a nationwide movement campaigning for a ban of sexual education was also promoting the view that LGBT groups supported paedophilia. This resulted in the creation of “LGBT-free zones”. In July 2019, entire cities and provinces started to be labelled as “LGBT-free zones” by local authorities, with stickers available at newsstands via conservative newspaper Gazeta Polska. Currently, a third of Poles live in areas that are recognised as “LGBT-free zones”.  

Natasza Parzymies
Photo Credit: Emilia Oksentowicz

As the Polish government discusses the introduction of the ban of sexual education and a complete ban of abortion, FRONTRUNNER speaks to Parzymies on what her success means to her and Polish society.

How did your work on Control start?

We actually have Control’s second anniversary this month, because exactly two years ago in April, I had to complete an assignment which was to make a 2-minute-long film focusing on eroticism. It was one of the five exams that everyone had to pass during the first year. So, the first episode of Control was one of the school assignments that I did with Filip Pasternak as director of photography. I put it on YouTube without having any high hopes – I did it because everyone always puts their assignments on YouTube, in case students that were absent during the presentation want to see it. I added subtitles, because I wanted some of my foreign friends to be able to watch it, as well. I posted it, and the amount of views just started increasing exponentially. I recently found a really funny post that I wrote on a group for the Control crew where I was saying that we have 100,000 views and if we ever hit 1 million, we are going to get wasted! Control had 100,000 views at that point, while the videos of other students had around 200? So, in the context of how big Control eventually got, it’s just really funny. It just blew up suddenly, out of nowhere!

How did your school react to this unexpected success?

Ewelina Pankowska (L) as ‘Majka’ and Ada Chlebicka (R) as ‘Natalia’ in
CONTROL (2018)
Dir. Natasza Parzymies
Photo Credit: Filip Pasternak

Well, they were very happy and supportive of course. The school became a patron of the project, which was a nice gesture. Also, the success of Control caused quite a stir around the school, people started talking about it more. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Łodz Film School and Krzysztof Kieślowski Film School in Katowice that was in the spotlight, but also the Warsaw Film School.

What about other students, how did they respond?

Mainly positively. After the extensive media boom about Control, some people were making questionable jokes about it being everywhere on Facebook etc. Something along the lines of, “Can’t even open the fridge without Control jumping out of there!” But the truth is they would be doing the exact same thing promotion-wise. When there was an equipment shortage at school, people were immediately assuming that Control’s crew took it to shoot – which was just ridiculous, because we were not using the school’s equipment in the first place. So, everyone was really hyped about it, but there were some minor tensions.

Do you recall any particular moment when you realised that Control had become much more than just a school assignment?

It was the moment when the views just started increasing organically and people from around the world started messaging me. We started getting fans from places like Brazil, and I started getting emails from people thanking me for creating this film – which was slightly surreal considering it was just a 2-minute-long short. I think after a month or a month and a half, I just realised that something really big was happening.

Firstly, I didn’t even want to create any continuation to the story, I thought that it just didn’t make sense. I was so pleased that I managed to create this very short film that told a complex, yet complete story which concluded with a definite ending. But people were pushing and after around half a year, I yielded under pressure and wrote the second episode. Then the plan was to make just three episodes, total. So when we started raising money, we had to get enough for two episodes in case the second episode would turn out to be a dud and no one would be willing to support us financially, afterwards. But then, I just decided to go with it and do a whole web series at once, so we had to raise money for eight episodes.

Did any sponsors contact you first?

Oh, no. My production managers Ola Rudzka and Magda Knapczyńska, whom I also met at the Warsaw Film School, were trying to get enough funds for around half a year. The process was quite weird and very hard – we started off with internet crowdfunding where we got enough money from fans to at least start working on the first episodes. It wasn’t until we got a sponsorship from Equality Parade that it truly took off, because we also knew that someone actually believed in the project and could help us out a bit. The rest was mainly based on barter transactions such as being able to use locations for free. We got the equipment for free from Panavision, because we won their competition for student film projects that were made outside of school. The production managers and I have used our savings, as well, so it was definitely difficult financially. We are still paying our debts and it will probably take us a long time to pay them off completely, but it was definitely worth it.

The first episode of Control made me think of the first scene of the film Nina (by Olga Chajdas), which is definitely one of the most pivotal lesbian romances in history of Polish cinematography. Was it a form of intentional tribute?

Olga Chajdas was actually one of our lecturers. During one of our classes, while she was explaining how hard it is to find good film locations, she mentioned that they had to shoot one of the scenes from Nina in Radom airport. She showed us two frames from this scene. When I saw Eliza Rycembel in a security guard uniform, I was immediately like, “Nice!” So, this airport location really got stuck in my head. At first, I had many different story ideas. In the beginning, it was supposed to be a teenager being almost molested by an older guard while going through the security check, but I dropped that idea really quickly because it seemed fairly poor. Then, I wanted to focus the story on a nun, who is being touched for a first time in ages during the security check. But in the end, I just decided that it doesn’t make sense to focus on these intrinsically imaginary storylines.

I was just going through a really emotional and tough breakup and decided to create something more personal that focuses on a matter of a broken heart. So that’s how Control started. It wasn’t until about half a year later when I went to see Nina in the cinema and it just hit me: “Fuck, this is actually quite similar”. But Nina is such a great film and in the end, I’m really glad that people sometimes ask me whether this is where I got my initial inspiration from.

Control is now officially an inherent part of pop culture. How does it make you feel that you’ve created something that has a personal meaning to so many people all over the world?

That’s a very good question. I honestly still don’t fully comprehend the scale of it all. I’m still working every day on the continuation, we are releasing the behind the scenes footage today and I’ve spent the last two days editing it, so I haven’t processed even everything that has happened properly. But definitely having created something that really resonates with people, people from everywhere, people with miscellaneous views, people with different sexual orientations, just a full spectrum of various people is truly special.

Ada Chlebicka (L) as ‘Natalia’ and Ewelina Pankowska (R) as ‘Majka’ in
CONTROL (2018)
Dir. Natasza Parzymies
Photo Credit: Filip Pasternak

When I get emails saying that Control changed someone’s life, that someone felt empowered by it to an extent to hold their partner’s hand on the street for the first time, that’s just really cool. I’ve got a lot of feedback saying that this is actually the first commercial Polish series made entirely with young people in mind. I haven’t noticed that before, but it’s true – there is a complete lack of series for an audience aged 15-30 on the market. So, I’m also very glad that there is a breath of fresh air and youth in the industry and I’m even more glad that it’s because of me.

Have you watched this Norwegian web series called SKAM?

No, but I’ve heard about it.

It’s a coming-of-age web series that was one of the first international productions for teenagers that went viral, mainly by word of mouth. It has a very similar format to Control: very relatable and the episodes are short, easily accessible online all over the world. Do you feel like this niche form of web series creates a more committed fan base?

I definitely think that when something is widely available especially on YouTube, this kind of fan community emerges quite quickly. People find themselves in the comment sections or on fan pages. Some fans from Poland, who have been helping out as extras since episode 3 and befriended each other while filming have become such a committed fan group. There definitely is a community, which is really cool. Also, we were dropping the episodes just once a month due to our financial situation, so people had to occupy themselves somehow while we were raising money for another episode and filming. They were meeting up with each other, did their fan videos, edits, everything. The only thing I’m still waiting for is the ‘Control’ fan fiction. After that, I will be a truly fulfilled and satisfied creator. But it really makes me happy that there are people excited by this project, awaiting the next episode – because I used to be into fandoms. To be honest, I still am, I just don’t admit it publicly.

Imagine dropping Control a couple of years ago in the golden Tumblr era. That would be something.

I actually saw some GIFs from Control on Tumblr and I was like, “Okay, I made it.”

Now a more serious question. We are talking on a day when the Polish government is trying to adopt two laws that will limit our freedom and significantly hinder the lives of sexual minorities. Do you think that projects such as Control help young people in Poland feel safer while shaping their identity?

I think so. The main assumption of Control was to create a cool series telling a compelling love story, however we knew that telling a LGBT story carries a lot of responsibility in Poland. Commercially-wise, this was the first series in the country focusing on this subject matter. So, I really hope that it can make even a little change considering that there is so much change needed in Poland. There are people who are against LGBT [rights], but they watch Control and leave comments such as, “I don’t stand for this, but I love Control and I want to see how this story develops,” or, “This is how LGBT should be presented”. So Control is also an alternative source of perceiving the LGBT community in a neutral way, not the way it is presented by the government-controlled media.

Ada Chlebicka as ‘Natalia’ in
CONTROL (2018)
Dir. Natasza Parzymies
Photo Credit: Bartek Cebula

We just wanted to make this an intimate, non-political story about human emotions. We are not even touching upon a subject of coming out, because LGBT relationships have more to them than these rather hackneyed issues. We show LGBT, as they are, normal people with normal problems. For me and many people this is absolutely obvious, but it makes ‘Control’ something that connects people, not divides them.

Have you experienced any hate?

Well, maybe once in three weeks someone will leave an anti-LGBT comment, but then I simply delete them. I believe that on YouTube I’m creating this sort of community and if some idiot is trying to disrupt it, I’m just like, “Bye!”

Are you working on Season 2 now?

Yeah, I’m currently writing a screenplay for the second season, but I can’t really talk about it yet. Obviously, the process kind of paused due to the pandemic, but we are slowly preparing for season 2 and I’m also working on other upcoming projects. It will probably take some time for us to finish the second season, because I want it to be of high quality, but I’m trying to make it happen as soon as possible.

Can you tell me something about these projects?

I can’t say much, but the projects are kind of in the style of Control. Another attempt to fill in the gap in the creative content for the teenagers and young adults in the Polish film industry. When the pandemic ends, a lot of things will be coming out. These projects are really something I have dreamed about. Now, I’m working with people who have been my huge authorities and inspirations, people I have learned about at film school. So, it’s really a huge reward for me after a year and a half of hard work to have not only the media but also these incredible people reaching out to me with these opportunities.

You can watch the first episode of Control here.

Related Articles

Unbound: Abel Azcona

FRONTRUNNER spoke to Spanish artist Abel Azcona (Madrid, 1988) to talk – without inhibitory brakes or moral laws – about his life, his art, and his forthcoming projects. Azcona is a performer and uses the story of his intimate personal life to free himself from chains of the past that have marked him to this day.