Director and screenwriter. Maker of the films Beyond Words, Code Blue, Nude Area. Born in 1968 in Częstochowa.
Urszula Antoniak is a master of allusions and film experiments, a star of Polish arthouse and the most erudite among Polish filmmakers. Her films were screened at the most important European film festivals: in Locarno, San Sebastian and Cannes. She started and pursued her career in the Netherlands and that is why in her films she tackles the topics of encounters with foreignness, of multiculturalism, otherness and the process of identity shaping. Watching her films poses an intellectual and aesthetic challenge, but gives a lot of satisfaction. That is because on screen she holds a dialogue not only with the masters of the cinematography but also with great thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Barthes and Lacan.
She graduated from the Krzysztof Kieślowski Faculty of Radio and Television at the University of Silesia and the Nederlandse Film en Televisie Academie (NFTA) in Amsterdam. In 1988 she moved to the Netherlands. She did not know Dutch, but she decided to study at the Netherlands Film Academy.
After graduation, she carried out her first artistic projects in television. She made TV films and documentaries. She also wrote scripts to films directed by others (she invented the story for the film Planet Single and created the family film Het leven volgens Nino). In 2004 she filmed the romantic comedy Bijlmer Odyssee for Dutch television. It narrated a story of two young lovers living on the outskirts of Amsterdam. In 2009 she made the short film Dutch for Beginners in which she shared her observations on identity of an immigrant who feels rooted in native culture of the homeland and struggles with alienation in the new place of life.
Her full-length feature debut, Nothing Personal, was one of the most interesting European films of 2009. Antoniak told a story of a young woman (Lotte Verbeek) who left her life behind so as to go on a journey around Ireland on her own. Her path intersects with the one of a lonely elderly man (Stephen Rea).
Nothing Personal turned out to be a big festival hit. During the festival in Locarno it was awarded with six prizes, such as the Silver Leopard for the actress Lotte Verbeek, the FIPRESCI award and the Ecumenical Jury's award. The film also received four Dutch film prizes and became one of the most widely presented Dutch films of the year (it was acquired for distribution in 16 countries).
In 2011 Antoniak created another film, Code Blue, in which she showed a story of a nurse taking care of dying patients and collecting some of their belongings as mementoes.
Antoniak referred to her personal experience. In 2004 her husband Jacek Lenartowicz died of brain cancer. In the interview carried out by Anna Kilian she said:
In the Netherlands the society is divided between healthy people and the patients. The ill are excluded. When my friend (Jacek Lenartowicz, the co-founder of the band Tilt) was dying for half a year from brain cancer, I noticed how uneasy the Dutch feel about death and ill people. They don't know how to react. Doctors and nurses do not get emotionally involved and this can be partly understood: they couldn't work effectively to if they did. Death as a taboo is also metaphorically reflected in the film title: 'code blue' is a medical term indicating a life threat.
In 2011 her film qualified for the Cannes Festival where it was presented in the prestigious section Quenzaine. It received a very warm welcome from the critics. Paweł T. Felis wrote about it in 'Gazeta Wyborcza':
From the formal point of view it is a film created with surgical precision. It makes a masterful use of silence and editing and the camerawork by Jasper Wolf is hypnotising. It is clear that among the artists who are important for Antoniak there is not only Haneke but also Ulrich Seidl and Carlos Reydagas. However, the link between this cold and overwhelming film and Nothing Personal is stronger than it seems. In both works the most important topic is the death sentence and longing for a meeting which could help to accept the foreign reality.
Code Blue was made unpleasant on purpose and the director admitted in interviews that her aim was to make a film which would leave the audience with a feeling of almost physical pain.
Also in 2011, Antoniak wrote the script for Bram Schouw's Nina Satana. It was a TV film about a 15-year-old goth girl who fell in love with her peer, an immigrant from Morocco. It was another time when Antoniak returned to the topic of racial differences and the motif of the foreign so as to comment on how identity is formed.
She returned to the topic of racial differences and passion between people from different cultures and worlds in 2014 in the great film Nude Area. In this film completely devoid of dialogues she told a story of two young girls: a middle class Dutch and her Arabian peer brought up in a traditional family.
In the interview given for 'Dziennik. Gazeta Prawna' she told:
I wanted Nude Area to be a detective story in which the role of a crime would be played by seduction.
By referring to Kierkegaard's The Diary of a Seducer and Barthes' theory (in the film she quotes A Lover's Discourse: Fragments), the artist told a story of the loneliness which accompanies love and of seduction as a play of passion and unfulfillment. Antoniak's film, beautifully filmed by Piotr Sobociński Junior, was a fascinating essay about eroticism told only through the images.
In her next film, Beyond Words, Antoniak opted for an expressive film form. She presented a story of a young Pole who had moved to Berlin years ago and tried to fit in the new society as well as possible. Hovewer, achieving that is hindered by his past, which comes back to him together with his father whom he did not see for a long time. Their meeting became a starting point for a debate about how people's identity shapes, about possibilities of assimilation and the degree to which we can get liberated from our past.
The director again debates with masters on screen. Among them there are Gombrowicz, Visconti and Leni Riefenstahl whose works are evoked by beautiful black and white photographs of Lennert Hillege. In 2017 during the 42th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia her film received awards for the best camerawork and the best sound and at the Warsaw Film Festival it was awarded with the Ecumenical Jury's award.
Sources: Dziennik. Gazeta Prawna, Gazeta Wyborcza, Audiowizualni.pl, own materials.
Originally written in Polish by BS. Translated by MW, March 2018.
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