Cinematographer, director of documentary films, photographer. Author of cinematography for Baby Bump and The Erlprince, director of Freestyle Life and House on Its Head.
Palenta is one of the most talented Polish cinematographers, but also a photographer, creator of videoclips and director of documentary films. His path to the world of cinema began with an engagement in photography.
As Palenta reminisced in an interview conducted by Anna Bielak for Dwutygodnik:
I was roughly fourteen when I entered a darkroom for the first time. I perfectly remember the smell and colour of that day even though I completely can’t recall my first photograph. At that time it seemed to me that some amazing process of regaining the past was going on in that darkroom.
Fascinated with the process, Palenta decided to study photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań. At the same time he went to classes in film studies and cultural studies.
I was reading the scripts of Ingmar Bergman’s films. The works of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni engrossed me. I was exploring on my own as none of the my close ones was engaged in art.
In 2001 Palenta graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts and decided to take up studies in cinematography at the University of Silesia in Katowice. Having finished them he pursued further education – this time at Wajda School and the Silesian University in Opava.
When asked about his masters, Palenta lists Tarkovsky, Bergman and Bogdan Dziworski. He met the latter when he was studying in Katowice. As Palenta described Dziworski:
He wouldn’t speak much. He thought in images and communicated in images. During classes he would repeat one thing: ‘Observe!’. … He taught me how to look for one’s path, how to find delight.
Except for filmmakers, Palenta also lists numerous photographers among his most crucial sources of inspiration: Robert Capa, Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus, Edward Weston, Irving Penn. ‘Film and photography are two dialects of the same language’, he said in an interview for PolishDocs.
It was already during his studies that Palenta created films that could serve as a proof of his ability to create works that would explore the emotions of the characters. The 2008 film Popatrz [editor’s translation: Look] could serve as an example: it’s a documentary story about visually impaired children who perceive the world by touch. The film brought Palenta awards granted at numerous festival – in Saint Petersburg, Vilnius, Warsaw and New York.
In his subsequent documentary film Palenta once more took up the theme of disability in a non-obvious way. Freestyle Life, awarded at festivals in Kraków, Barcelona and Milan, is a story about paralympic swimming. The participants competed not mainly with each other but with their own weaknesses and limitations. Palenta talks about them in a vivid manner, nevertheless refraining from literality and looking for a metaphor that would convey the truth of the protagonists instead. Freestyle Life is notable for its form – including voice-over commentary containing clichés and truisms that we say when we face something difficult and incomprehensible. Palenta exposed the reaction to encountering the world of disabled people – automatic compassion.
In 2014 Palenta once more gave proof of his artistic bravery. He made the film House on Its Head, an eighteen-minute-long movie composed of archival materials recorded by Wojciech Zamecznik, the prominent architect, poster artist and set designer, who died in 1967. The materials depicted everyday life of the artist and his close ones – holidays and family meetings. As Palenta commented in an interview for PolishDocs:
It’s a bit like a diary of a stranger that you find in the basement. During the first encounter with the footage handed over to me by Fundacja Archeologia Fotografii I had an impression that I sneaked into somebody else’s life without invitation. I myself don’t know whether I’d like for my own family history, worldview and the time I spend with my close ones to be exposed this way.
House on Its Head was presented during Vision du Reel, one of the most important European events devoted to documentary cinema. During Kraków Film Festival, the film was awarded for editing. It also won the Legalna Kultura award.
Palenta, apart from working as the director of documentary films, is also a cinematographer.
The sort of observation you engage in when making a documentary allows you to be alert when you’re on a set of a fiction film. In documentary you encounter emotions one on one, nobody’s playing anything or pretending. In this context a documentary is a training area whereas a fiction film is a battleground.
It was already at film school that Palenta’s artistic path crossed with that of Kuba Czekaj, one of the most interesting young directors in Poland. They have done nine films together so far. Their co-operation began with shorts they realised as students: Mum and Wyścig [Race] (2005) and Wszystko o mojej rodzinie [Everything about My Family] (2006).
The motif of family, child-like yearning for emotions and the need to understand the world of adults would turn out to be recurrent in their co-operation. Another example of such a work is the short Don't be Afraid of the Dark Room, a story about an eleven-year-old girl who discovers hidden truth about her father. Czekaj’s film, roughly thirty minutes long, was one of the festival hits of Polish cinema in 2010 and was awarded at festivals in Kyoto, Gdynia, Vancouver and Tirana.
Palenta was also the cinematographer of two of Czekaj’s feature films – Baby Bump (2015) and The Erlprince (2016). In the former, nearly all of the themes present in Czekaj’s and Palenta’s shorts were used once again: loneliness, growing up, emotional isolation and the need to transgress one’s own limitations. In Baby Bump these were experienced by Mickey House, a teenage boy going through the hell of adolescence. In Czekaj’s work, growing up is tantamount to hell – emotional uncertainty and physical transformation which the young boy can’t understand.
The story about growing up, which could’ve been the plot of yet another film bildungsroman, turned into a visionary cacophony of effects, images and emotions. Palenta and Czekaj talk about the young character bombarded by various stimuli, at the same time recreating the world of his impressions and emotions on screen. They balanced between the aesthetic of a music video, a crazy fairy-tale and experimental formal exercise. Dubbed one of the bravest debuts of the recent years, Baby Bump confirmed that the duet Czekaj/Palenta may bring a breath of fresh air to Polish cinema.
For some it’s a story about a journey, for some – about an encounter between father and son, growing up, initiation into adulthood. To me the primary theme of the story has always been love.
The Erlprince was exceptional especially thanks to its visual form – excellent cinematography and expressive style. The film was presented during Gdynia Film Festival in 2016 but it still hasn’t premiered in cinemas.
Another film with Palenta’s cinematography – the documentary How to Destroy the Time Machines directed by Jacek Piotr Bławut – is also yet to be released. It’s a story about Jephie Jermanie, an Arizona-based musician, experimenter and a devotee of sounds.
Sources: PolishDocs, Dwutygodnik, Portalfilmowy.pl, Filmpolski, own materials, written by BS, translated by NS, May 2017.