Film director, born in 1973 in Kraków.
Małgorzata Szumowska is the daughter of journalist and writer Dorota Terakowska and journalist and filmmaker Maciej Szumowski, sister of documentary director Wojciech Szumowski. She graduated from the National Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź in 1998. Prior to her film studies, she read art history at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She became a member of the European Film Academy in 2001.
Małgorzata Szumowska has received numerous awards at international and Polish film festivals. Her film etude Cisza / Silence made it onto the list of the 14 best films in the history of the Łódź film school, while Robert Redford's Sundance Institute recognized the script for the feature film Ono / Stranger as one of the three best texts from Europe.
Małgorzata Szumowska is among the most famous female directors of the young generation. With three full-length features to her credit - her debut Szczęśliwy człowiek / Happy Man (2000), followed by Stranger (2004), and 33 sceny z życia / 33 Scenes From Life (2008) she has also made several documentaries and short films. Many of them received a lot of publicity, though the critics were most often divided in their views.
What sets Małgorzata Szumowska's work apart from that of other filmmakers is primarily a private approach to her projects, and a serious tone which lends importance to issues and people that are not headline news for color magazines, that are not reported on the front pages of crime columns nor shown on prime-time television.
This is a conscious choice. She invokes her maestro, Wojciech Has, who worked with her on her first film, remarking that he "hated ... shallow realism. ... He demanded that we set ourselves free of the banality of journalism, not cling to realism like a mother's apron, not be afraid of metaphors, and treat narrative as 'a secondary consideration'" (Tygodnik Powszechny 24/2003).
According to Szumowska, it was not the script, not dialogues were important to her in this film, because she sought "a mood, a facial expression, the light accidentally reflected off the characters' hair".
Iwona Cegiełkówna wrote that Szumowska divided cinema into two categories: "the kind which is a deep experience and leaves a lasting trace in the viewer's mind, and entertainment which provides a thrill but is forgotten as soon as you leave the cinema" (Kino 2/2002). Of course Szumowska favours the former type of cinema. In fact, she has spoken many times of her fascination with Andrei Tarkovsky, and emphasized her admiration for literature which she considers a deeper art than film.
In the earlier-mentioned conversation with Jan Strzałka, she said that in Happy Man, she hadn't been interested in "emotions, psyche, but in the character's state of mind and that unnamed something 'in between' which sometimes appears to us for five seconds". She believes those five seconds can reveal the meaning of life. In an interview for Grzegorz Wójtowicz, she said she was interested in "that something which dreams inside" herself, "spiritual regions almost inaccessible to cinema" (www.stopklatka.pl, 6 February 2003).
Happy Man, set in the gloomy scenery of Kraków's tenement houses, telling the story of an unusual triangle in which each character has been damaged by life, has a reference point in something that concerns every human being - death. This is a theme not very typical for young film directors, but one which is present in many of Małgorzata Szumowska's projects, both those - like Happy Man - made before and those - like Ono / Stranger and A czego tu się bać? / Nothing to be Afraid of (2006) - made after both her parents passed away. She seeks the meaning of death in her films, trying to tame it, inscribe it somehow into the lives of those who are left behind.
Even Stranger, the theme of which is maturing to motherhood, the birth of life, and which many critics accused of superficiality and touching on banality, rises above itself in the scenes related to the death of the heroine's father. Lech Kurpiewski even called Stranger "a poignant story about dying". His view is that the film speaks of death without hysteria and in the most ordinary way possible. "It was meant to be a film about the beauty of life; what we get is a mature film about passing" (Film 10/2004)
The theme of death, the seriousness with which issues such as love, life, feelings are treated, is not the only distinctive feature of Szumowska's work. Talking about her much-publicized documentary debut,Silence, she said: "I don't feel like running at all, I prefer to stop and look at a tree..." (Reżyser 7-8/98).
Whether intentionally or not, it is not clear, but the maker of Silence clearly refers (and this is also true of A czego tu się bać? / Nothing to be Afraid of) to Polish documentaries of the 1960s, to mention the work of Władysław Ślesicki (Płyną tratwy / Boy And Waves, Góra / Mountain, or Rodzina człowiecza / Family of Man", made in 1966 and bearing the greatest similarity to Szumowska's Silence). Her story about the life of a Mazurian family, its everyday activities portrayed in a way that gives them value and importance, is reminiscent of that cinema. Death in Szumowska's latest documentary (Nothing to be Afraid of) becomes an organic element of everyday life and of the unchanging occupations and rhythms of nature.
All this is a little outdated, but constitutes an element of a clear programme. "I always try to see beauty in apparent monotony, ugliness, greyness", Szumowska said in an interview for Magda Lebecka. But, as she added, she herself seeks out "ultimate themes" (Reżyser, 1/2001). Bożena Janicka wrote that
in the person of Małgorzata Szumowska, Polish cinema has gained a filmmaker who can be expected to produce non-commercial films, seeking topics not on life's surface but in the stories of people often unnoticed by cinema today: those who are incapable of fighting for their rights, losers (Kino, 11/2000).
That's all true, but it does not cover all the exploring the maker of Happy Man has done as a director. Her productions also include some very personal films about her father, or rather her own perception of her father (the documentary Mój tata Maciek / My Father, Maciek, 2005, and the short feature film Ojciec / The Father, 2005, in the Solidarność, Solidarność... / Solidarity, Solidarity... series), a film which speaks for her generation but is also very private - Dokument / Documentary (2001) - about the impossibility of showing the truth in a documentary but also about the lack of a truth worth telling, or another generation project, Jeden dzień z życia Tomka Karata / One Day in the Life of Tomek Karat (1997).
It's easy to find fault with Szumowska's feature films and some of her documentaries, and the critics have been merciless sometimes, probably criticizing her debut (Happy Man) too harshly, justly pointing out the shallowness of her second feature (Stranger), but offering excessive praise to the average ethnographic reportage Nothing to be Afraid of.
At Warsaw's Teatr Polonia (a theatre run by Krystyna Janda) in 2006, she produced Katarzyna Figura's monodrama Badania terenowe nad ukraińskim seksem / Field Work In Ukrainian Sex based on the book by Oksana Zabuzhko.
Author: Jan Strękowski, May 2006; filmography updated: 2008