Addressing Polish history and contemporary problems, the country's cinema has daringly entered the minefields of issues that spur debate in the media. But what grabs our attention is what is happening on the margins.
Marcel and Paweł Łozińscy, photo: Danuta Węgiel / FOTONOVA / Forum
Out on a search for a new cinematic language to describe the world, Polish cinema creators are no longer reverting to tired old structures. In an attempt to break conventions and open topics that so far no one wanted to touch with a ten-foot pole, young directors audaciously play around with the language of the cinema and provocatively find ways to communicate with the contemporary viewer. Małgośka Szumowska, Wojtek Smarzowski and Tomasz Wasilewski, speak the language of their counterparts from Paris, London, Athens and New York.
In their search for a new form of Polish cinema, they are closer to traditions than they realise. Like Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski and other directorial celebrities, who in the 50ties and 60ties refused to bury the hatchet and move on with their lives after the war, this generation measures up to be another "conscience of a nation". The post-war filmmakers were succeeded by the likes of Krzysztof Zanussi and Krzysztof Kieślowski, who produced the "cinema of moral anxiety" publicly shaming the dishonesty and lies spread by the communist propaganda machine.
In a plea to be heard, contemporary artists take stance on the most important issues concerning the country, its past, its identity and the challenges it faces. They have taken to commenting reality, debating, festering and provoking. Avoiding sensationalism and managing to escape journalistic interventionism, they shrewdly open old wounds and ask uncomfortable questions about matters that are relevant to contemporary Poland.
Over the past couple of months, their creations have been at the source of heated debates in the media. Andrzej Wajda's Wałęsa. Man of Hope opened a discussion about the heritage of communism. Ida, a hit on the festival circuit (shortly coming to cinemas in France), like Pasikowski's Aftermath reminded about Polish faults towards the Jews, touched the history of postwar Poland and dealt with the Stalinist regime of the 50ties.
Recent cinematic works also laid down commentaries about ongoing social problems. Wojtek Smarzowski, in Traffic Department touched the issue of corruption among the police and Ryszard Bugajski, whose Interrogation was a monumental anti-communist work, shed light on corruption in politics and business in Closed Circuit. Tomasz Wasilewski's Floating Skyscrapers on the other hand, a Tribeca Film Festival zinger, took a bold step in talking about homophobia in Poland. Not to mention Małgośka Szumowska's In the Name Of, a fillip in the discussion about the Church and homosexuality. Just when you thought that was all...Andrzej Wajda's Wałęsa turned out to be the best film the eminent director's best film in two decades.
In 2013 the film industry can gloat over its exuberant and juicy repertoire from its better-known contributors but it also made the cut with intriguing newcomers: Anita Kwiatkowska-Naqvi's visually stunning Ab Ovo and the critically acclaimed festival regular Ziegenort by Tomasz Popakula. Their successes makes a good name for Polish animation again and bods well for the future. When it comes to feature film novices, Mateusz Głowacki cooked up an eye catcher: Killing Auntie based on Andrzej Bursa's unfinished novel, and Julia Kolberger confronted traditional with evolving value in one of the most "professional debuts" of recent years - the comical Easter Crumble.
Documentaries proved to be another fruitful category. Mundial. The Highest Stakes by Michał Bielawski brings to life the 1982 football World Cup in Spain and Marcin Bortkiewicz's Left Side of the Face relates the story of Leszek Krutulski, a photographer who traveled the country and captured “half-portraits” of people and plans on shooting the right side ten year later, in 2020.
Narrowing the list of Best Films in 2013 to a mere 10 was a task for a skilled and cold-blooded surgeon with steady hands.
1. Father and Son - Paweł Łoziński, Father and Son on a Journey - Marcel Łoziński
The best Polish films of 2013. Seemingly identical but in truth very different. After years of capturing other people's experiences on camera, Paweł and Marcel Łozińscy, two remarkable documentary filmmakers, decided to swap positions. From behind the camera to its front, they filmed their father son trip to Paris on board their "psychobus". Their deep and sometimes painful conversations about the past, a divorce and traumas make for not one, but two juicy universal documentaries about families.
Paweł Łoziński's Father and Son is the basis of Marcel Łoziński's Father and Son On a Journey, a film from the point of view of the father. "Something shortened here, something added there, something censored. I have the impression, that in his version, my father put a sock in my mouth, and decided to make himself look a bit more beautiful" Paweł confessed in an interview for Culture.pl, "I don't know what made it impossible for him to sign his name under Father and Son. Maybe he felt a strong need to compete, and this was his way to say: "I'm also going to make a film, and it will be just mine". In any case - there are two films.
Still on the waiting list for widespread movie theatre or TV distribution, the Łoziński's films are making their way on the film festival circuit, with awards claimed in Krakow, Moscow, Minsk.
Who do you think made a more truthful film? Read a review of Father and Son and Father and Son on a Journey.
2. Papusza - Krzysztof Krauze, Joanna Kos-Krauze
A journey in time through the second decade of the XXth century, World War II to the People's Republic of Poland, the film tells the story of the Polish-Romani poet and singer Papusza. Doing away with the classical biographical approach, Joanna Kos Krauza and Krzysztof Krauze created a white poem film, one that is pure poetry: clear, terse, meticulous. No shot in the film is random, no effect meaningless.
The directors present the pre-war Gypsy society, life in the caravans and small pre-war Jewish cities. They look upon these worlds with care and sensitivity. Another overpowering aspect are the cinematographic painterly compositions of Krzysztof Ptak and Wojciech Staron, and the organically amalgamated music of Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz. Elżbieta Towarnicka's vibrating soprano in Papusza's Song gives the goosebumps.
Is Papusza to the Roma culture what Jerzy Kawalerowicz's The Austeria (1982) is to Jewish villages?
3. Love - Filip Dzierżawski
"I wanted to play alongside Tymon because he was a moron, a complete whack job", Mikołaj Trzaska, a saxophonist and a defiant jazzman who favours improvisation over scores reminisces about legendary band Love. A documentary tribute to music and the "suicidal energy" created by the fusion of strong personalities in the 1990s, Filip Dzierżawski created a film about people who are full of contradictions, conscious about their self-worth, courageous enough to look at their reflection in the mirror. The band Love, Tymon Tymański, Mikołaj Trzaska, Leszek Możdżer and Maciej Sikała revolutionised Polish jazz. Dzierżawski documented a music legend and portrayed a generation born and maturing, not only musically, in the beginnings of free Poland.
Intrigued by Love?
4. Imagine - Andrzej Jakimowski
Andrzej Jakimowski has been avoiding the mainstream for years, instead communicating with audiences through independent productions. His films are an open invitation to a secluded and private world, an exquisitely framed intimate conversation. His debut film Squint Your Eyes was created for his daughter, in order to bring her closer to understanding the concept of time. Imagine, is dedicated to his wife and, as he says in an interview, is was made "to remind her and himself that closeness to the other person consists in discovering and making a common understanding of the world".
The story of Ian (Edward Hogg), a blind patient at a Lisbon institute for the visually impaired where the young man raises hell by teaching others to walk without a cane, is one of the season's most spectacular melodramas. Talking about the world of the visually impaired, Jakimowski puts the viewer in their shoes - narrowed shots, focus on figures, heightened sounds.
Ready for a walk on the dark side?
5. Ida - Paweł Pawlikowski
Ida - zwiastun from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
The cream of the crop in breaking taboos, making headlines and causing heated debates. With the story of the journey of a young nun with Jewish origins and her aunt, a Stalinist prosecutor nicknamed "bloody Wanda", Pawlikowski provoked discussions about Polish antisemitism, stereotypes regarding communism and about how pop-culture shapes ideas about history.
The enigmatic and mystical Ida by Pawlikowski deals with an important lesson about identity and pictures the challenges of making life decisions. Pawlikowski doesn't point fingers, he doesn't reopen old wounds, he doesn’t play around with symbols, Ida is a road movie composed of magical black and white shots made with perfection by Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski and a film that posits fundamental questions while seeking their answers prudently.
Do you believe the speculations that Ida was a response to Władysław Pasikowski’s recent, controversial Aftermath?
6. Life Feels Good - Maciej Pieprzyca
A breakthrough for Polish cinematography, Pieprzyca's film is the first Polish feature to deal with disability. The film is inspired by the true story of Mateusz who was diagnosed in his early childhood with cerebral palsy, considered retarded and kept isolated for many years. 25 years later it was discovered that he was a perfectly normal and intelligent person. Presented at the Montreal Film Festival, juries stood in awe, granting it the event's three most important awards. The film stirs emotions with Dawid Ogrodnik's dedicated performance as the handicapped boy, bringing Sławomir Idziak to say that "if Pieprzyca’s film was American, Ogrodnik would be a sure candidate for the Oscar for Best Actor".
Is the film anything like Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?
7. Diary of a Journey - Piotr Stasik
A film about a man who lives to tell his story, Piotr Stasik's documentary is about Tadeusz Rolke, one of Poland's best photographers, a man who photographed Warsaw during the war. His photographic archive constitutes 60 years of Polish and European history, he captured the creative activities of Tadeusz Kantor, Roman Polański, Artur Rubinstein, Alina Szapocznikow and Nikifor. Now Stasik captures him.
But Diary of Journey is no simple biopic, it's the road album of an 82-year-old veteran master and his apprentice: a 15-year-old student. "When I saw their faces, I thought that everyone yearns to have masters that they can look up to", Stasik said in an interview, "and that's how I came up with the idea for the film". In a camper van equipped with a darkroom, they travelled thousands of kilometres, photographing people in small towns and villages. Stasik came along with them and through his film, he tells the story of the journey.
The voyage takes on a philosophical dimension when Rolke ponders on his childhood. "When I was a boy, I was very shy". He describes the camera as his way of coping with reality, one thanks to which he could approach people, a medium of communication which brings out the beauty and distinguishes the fake from the natural. A warm and humorous motion picture, A Diary ... shows Rolke's bittersweet life, and attempts to answer what makes a photograph ravishing and moving.
Did Rolke turn out to be a good teacher?
The film can be watched online on Ninateka.
8. The Whistle - Grzegorz Zariczny
A documentary about "someone normal". "It seems to be the norm that there are movies about doctors, lawyers, very educated people, and so few about normal people" director Grzegorz Zariczny said in an interview. An unassuming psychological portrayal with a sociological diagnosis of the young generation, the film's protagonist is thirtysomething Marcin who despite his mother's influence is trying to make it as a football referee instead of "finding a stable job and a wife". The Whistle is no small deal, the documentary won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival 2013 and several awards at smaller scale festivals around Europe.
Is 16 minutes enough to find out what happens when Marcin meets a dark-haired girl from the flower shop?
9. Venus in Fur - Roman Polański
An enclosed space, two actors and one and a half hours. Typical prerequisites for a good Roman Polański film. At Cannes, Polański raised controversy. Critics praised the director's formal mastery whilst asking where to draw the line between autobiography and irony. Adapted from David Ives' play, the film is advertised as an erotic comedy, Variety magazine calling it a ''playful and literate rumination on the fine line between passion and perversity, pleasure and pain, life and art''. The plot revolves around a playwright-director frustrated in his search for the right actress for his play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 book Venus in Furs. Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) complains about the untalented candidates he has auditioned - none seems right for the role of a woman making a deal with a man to be her slave. The tirelessly controversial Polański is playing a game with the viewer: laying out clues that he will reveal some of his secrets and at the same time ridiculing the viewer for buying in to such exhibitionism. The mastery of the film relies on Polański’s successful spell-casting; everything is predictable, yet nothing is trite.
Is Polański having a good laugh at the media’s expense, parodying his and his wife’s reputations?
10. Girl From the Closet - Bodo Kox
A soaring transition from independent films to the mainstream, Girl From the Closet marks the professional debut of Poland's most interesting, original independent filmmaker Bodo Kox. Keeping his signature spiraling craziness and mixed with deep sensitivity and empathy, Girl from the Closet blatantly showcases three cases of deep-seeded insecurity: Jacek, Tomek and Magda. The three protagonists, alienated and deeply lonely end up embroiling their lives with one another. Kox makes a solid case at convincing the viewer that their is a weirdo afraid of human proximity in each one of us. The young director calls his films "not Polish" and whichever way he means that, his film is undoubtedly a unique project on the country's scene.
Opening Pandora's box of loneliness?
Author: Batrosz Staszczyszyn, translated and edited by Mai Jones 06.12.2013