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Empresses of Light: Polish Women Behind the Camera

Bartosz Staszczyszyn
Kadr z filmu "Obce niebo" w reżyserii Dariusza Gajewskiego. Na zdjęciu: Agnieszka Grochowska, Bartłomiej Topa, Barbara Kubiak, fot. Next Film
Agnieszka Grochowska, Bartłomiej Topa and Barbara Kubiak, still from Strange Heaven by Dariusz Gajewski, photo: Next Film

They make movies in Hollywood, Europe, Africa and Asia, produce box-office hits, win the most prestigious film awards. They are smashing the glass ceiling and proving that women’s voices have an important place in the film industry.

Just a few decades ago, a woman cinematographer was a rare species indeed. This was primarily because it took a ‘strong’, ‘manly’ man to deal with the old and heavy machinery. But also because for the longest time, the cinema was a playing field solely for male competitors.

Luckily, much has changed in the past twenty years. Not only is a woman behind the camera no longer a cause for surprise, it's looking more and more like women are the future of cinematography. Here are the Polish women cinematographers who are currently revolutionising Polish and foreign cinema.

Magdalena Górka Bonacorso

Magdalena Górka Bonacorso, photo: courtesy of the camerawoman
Magdalena Górka Bonacorso, photo: courtesy of the camerawoman

In an interview for Polityka magazine, she said:

I wanted to be a cinematographer because I like to be in the shadows, rather than the centre of attention. Directing involves constantly talking to people. You have to be a rock band frontman and I’m the bass player.

She graduated from the National Film School in Łódź and began her career thanks to Paweł Edelman and Władysław Pasikowski. Shortly after graduating, she became the second camerawoman in Paweł Edelman’s crew. She was the cinematographer for Władysław Pasikowski’s movie Reich and television show Glina. Many years later they joined forces for the movie Jack Strong, where she was the first camerawoman.

Earlier, Górka left Poland for the United States, where she started her career in Hollywood – she made commercials for Mercedes Benz, Amazon, Audi and Ford, as well as the music videos for Elton John’s Home Again and Katy Perry’s Unconditionally.

Górka also made her most well-known films in the USA: I’m Still Here, a mockumentary about the alleged nervous breakdown of Joaquin Phoenix, and later, thanks to its success, she was hired to work on Paranormal Activity 3, one of the biggest thriller blockbusters of the past few years.

The year 2016 marked the premiere of her next horror movie Viral. Currently, several others are in the works – An Ordinary Man by Brad Silberling starring Ben Kingsley, among others.

Weronika Bilska

Weronika Bilska on the set of Waves by Grzegorz Zariczny, 2014, photo: Jacek Bednarczyk/PAP
Weronika Bilska on the set of Waves by Grzegorz Zariczny, 2014, photo: Jacek Bednarczyk/PAP

Grzegorz Zariczny, who worked with Weronika Bilska on The Whistle and Waves, talked about her in PolishDocs:

With her, all my fear of myself evaporates. I know that if I do something wrong, she won’t hesitate to tell me. Weronika doesn’t allow me to work below my potential. She won’t turn the camera on if she doesn’t feel I’m giving the film my full attention.

Bilska is one of the busiest cinematographers in Poland. Since graduating from the Katowice Film School in 2011, she has been working on documentaries and feature films. She stood behind the camera for the experimental How to Disappear Completely by Przemysław Wojcieszek and, two years earlier,  for The Whistle by Grzegorz Zariczny, a film awarded at the Sundance Film Festival.

The year 2016 was the best year of her career so far – three of her movies hit the big screen: Waves by Grzegorz Zariczny, Close Ties, a documentary by Zofia Kowalewska, and Kamper by Łukasz Grzegorzek – talked about as one of the most accurate film portraits of the generation.

Karina Kleszczewska

Karina Kleszczewska, photo: Łukasz Dejnarowicz / Forum
Karina Kleszczewska, photo: Łukasz Dejnarowicz / Forum

Karina Kleszczewska is one of the most distinctive Polish camerawomen. Besides feature films, she has also done productions for television theatre – Bankruptcy of Little Jack by Agnieszka Glińska in 2000 and Anaerobes by Ingmar Villqist directed by Łukasz Barczyk.

And it was with Barczyk (who happens to be her husband), that Kleszczewska produced her most interesting work. In 2003, she worked on Changes, a history of a mysterious man and four lonely women, and in 2008, she worked on the Unmoved Mover. Together with her husband, she worked on a few consecutive projects: the experimental Italiani in 2011, and Influence, a 2015 blockbuster that has been the most spectacular film in her career so far.

Monika Lenczewska

Monika Lenczewska, photo: James Wall
Monika Lenczewska, photo: James Wall

Variety magazine editors justified placing Monika Lenczewska among the ten rising stars of cinematography like this:

A mystic relation with light drew Lenczewska out of Poland and led her to travel the world.

Lenczewska, a graduate of the Katowice Film School and the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, has been building her position in Poland and abroad with great consistency. In 2014, during the 30th Sundance Film Festival, two motion pictures that she worked on, were premiered: Imperial Dreams by Malik Vitthal and Difret by Zeresnay Mehari. The latter received an award for Best Drama in the foreign film competition as well as the audience award at the Berlinale in 2014. It was also an Ethiopian Academy Award candidate.

Lenczewska, based in Los Angeles, works on several continents. In Africa, apart from Difret, she also shot B for Boy by Chika Anadu in 2013, about the discrimination of women in Nigeria, and in 2016 she finished shooting Message from the King by Belgian director Fabrice du Welz. In the USA, she made Imperial Dreams by Malik Vitthal. In Europe she worked on the Greek Park by Sofia Exarhou, the Icelandic Undir trénu by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, and the Polish Strange Heaven by Dariusz Gajewski.

The year 2017 will mark the release of Labyrinth by Brad Furman with Johnny Depp, where Lenczewska is head of cinematography.

Jolanta Dylewska

Jolanta Dylewska, photo: Tomasz Wiech / Agencja Gazeta
Jolanta Dylewska, photo: Tomasz Wiech / Agencja Gazeta

'The cinematography doesn’t have to be beautiful, it has to be wise' – this is the artistic motto of Jolanta Dylewska, a prominent cinematographer, pedagogue and documentary filmmaker.

Just a mere glimpse of her work is enough to tell that she always lives up to her motto. Each film she works on, tells its story in an entirely different way, using a language that best encapsulates the protagonists’ world and helps the viewer understand their circumstances.

Dylewska has won some the most prestigious film awards for her work. In 2002 at the Slamdance Film Festival, she won a prize for the Best Cinematography for Louder Than Bombs by Przemysław Wojcieszek. In 2009, she was awarded the Asian Film Award for cinematography for the outstanding Tulpan by Sergei Dvortsevoy. She also won an award at the Gdynia Film Festival and a Golden Frog from the Camerimage Festival for In Darkness.

Furthermore, Dylewska has proven that cinematography can be both beautiful and wise through her work on Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik’s Spoor, which left the public and jury in awe at the 67th Berlinale.

Ita Zbroniec-Zajt

Ita Zbroniec-Zajt, photo: press materials
Ita Zbroniec-Zajt, photo: press materials

Documentary filmmaker Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz said of Zbroniec-Zajt in an interview for Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza:

She is a rising star of Polish cinematography, she is very versatile, has a great sensitivity. She possesses perhaps the most important ability in the field: she always adjusts the style of the camerawork to the film’s subject.

Ita Zbroniec-Zajt, born in 1983, began her adventure with cinematography as a teenager. She had been into photography since the age of 13 and, after graduating high school, she studied at the Warsaw Film School for a while before attending the world-renowned National Film School in Łódź. She is the director of photography for many etudes and short films as well as documentaries and feature films.

She works in Sweden and in Poland. In Poland, she worked on Little Crushes by Aleksandra Gowin and Ireneusz Grzyb, as well as on Losing Sonia by Radka Franczak.

In 2017, she was the first woman in history to be awarded the Guldbaggen Swedish Film Award for Best Cinematography. This prestigious distinguishment was for her work on Yarden by Mans Mansson.

Małgorzata Szyłak

Although she has been present in Polish cinema for a while, now seems to be a peak time in her career. Within just the past few months, several films that she has been working on hit the big screens. And in every case, they were extraordinary. It’s enough to mention The End of the World by Monika Pawluczuk, a mosaic documentary depicting a night in the lives of a group of friends, which transforms into a story about loneliness, fear and the need for closeness. Communion by Anna Zamecka is one of the most outstanding documentaries of the past year, telling the story of a 14-year-old girl going through an accelerated and painful puberty.

The newest movie Szyłak worked on will soon premiere in cinemas. Wild Roses by Anna Jadowska is a story of a woman who decides to give her third child up for adoption and tries to hide it from her husband who works in Norway.

Sources: Polityka,, PolishDocs, own information; originally written in Polish, 2 Mar 2017; translated by WF, 7 Mar 2017

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