In Their Own Voices: The Young Avant-Garde in Polish Cinema
small, Własnym głosem – jak młoda awangarda przejmuje polskie kino, Kadr z filmu "Córki Dancingu" w reżyserii Agnieszki Smoczyńskiej, fot. Kino Świat, corki-dancingu-4.jpg
They’re young and talented. They’re trailblazers, searching for a new language and crossing the boundaries of genre. Amongst these rising stars, who will ultimately set the tone for Polish cinema?
The explosion of talent we’re seeing now has been absent from Poland for the past few decades. Young auteurs are winning awards at prestigious film festivals, and their work is being distributed in France, Germany, Japan and the US. Czekaj, Skonieczny, Marczak, Wasilewski and Smoczyńska are names well recognised by art-house critics, but they’re poorly known in their own country. What causes this phenomenon? Why is Poland’s new avant-garde better received around the world than in their own backyard?
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Young Polish cinema shies away from compromise. It is no longer interested in realism and slice-of-life stories, instead searching for larger, more universal ideas. The new generation of directors doesn’t bother with moralising or educating the public. Filmmakers no longer want to be responsible for their nation, trotting out its traumas and cataloguing past troubles. Their desires gear toward creating narratives, whisking the viewer away in a whirlwind of storytelling.
Watching these new films gives the impression that, instead of being guided by Zanussi and Wajda, these new filmmakers model themselves after Polański and Dziworski – intuitive artists who believe in the singular power of film and its unrestrained energy.
Amongst the new offerings proving the strength of original Polish storytelling are the films of Smoczyńska, Czekaj, Marczak and Wasilewski. Also in their ranks are Krzystof Skonieczny’s Hardkor Disko, Aleksandra Terpińska’s short films (America and The Best Fireworks Ever) or Bartosz M. Kowalski’s controversial Playground.
Thanks to this originality, they’re conquering international film festivals. No longer guests who drop in for a while, they’ve become a part of the international filmic landscape. Since the times of Wajda, Skolimowski, Polański and Zanussi, Polish filmmakers haven’t been such a regular feature of the world’s most important parties.
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The best example can be found in Małgorzata Szumowska – who, over the past decade, has become a star of the Berlinale, premiering most of her new works there. She’s hardly alone in her ambassadorship of Polish film, however.
Tomasz Wasilewski earned a Silver Bear for United States of Love in 2016 at the same festival. Meanwhile, Kuba Czekaj created his debut film Baby Bump thanks to the Biennale College-Cinema program, and Michał Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights delighted audiences at Sundance. As of late, Polish creators have entered the European elite as equals whose work is worth watching out for.
These full-blooded rebels are growing ever bolder in following their intuition, even when it seems it will end in a broken neck or worse – the end of their career. Take, for example, Agnieszka Smoczyńska and her debut film The Lure (originally: Córki Dancingu). In the current landscape, the project seemed impossible. A musical about murderous mermaids set in the world of Polish dance halls? Playing in Polish theatres? On a Polish budget?
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It’s hard to imagine how many producers rejected the young director and how many times she heard their bitter warnings. It’s almost certain there were many. Yet, she made her film and went on to conquer Sundance.
To properly gauge the American reaction to The Lure, consider that the prestigious distribution company Criterion has added it to their collection. Smoczyńska has now joined the ranks of Wajda, Polański and Kieślowski, previously the only Polish directors in the collection. Pretty good company, right?
In their own words
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What can we learn from Smoczyńska and others’ success? Only that to make it in world cinema, you must speak with your own voice. The previously mentioned filmmakers have their own distinctive styles. Wasilewski brings the camera close to his characters, crawling under their skin to show their pain, sadness and loneliness. In Hardkor Disko, Skonieczny emulates music videos to show the build-up of a riot. Marczak blends documentary and fiction in well-crafted tableaus that reveal the deep-hidden truths of his characters, and Czekaj creates visual bombs with an unrivalled strength.
What else links all these films? Truthfully, they’re not perfect. Years ago, Janusz Morgenstern made the claim that film cannot be too perfect. ‘There must be a scratch’ was his motto. Only films with this ‘scratch’ stay in the memories of its viewers. Watching the creations of Poland’s new auteurs brings to mind the idea that they also believe in imperfection – and that it’s better to risk making a mistake than to continue on a well-worn path.
None of the above-mentioned films are fully realised. The Lure lacks dramatic discipline, which weakens its final sequence. After its incredible opening sequence, Playground descends into cheap psychological tricks. Czekaj’s The Erlprince (originally: Królewicz Olch) maintains an intellectual shallowness, while All These Sleepless Nights might seem like pretentious drivel to some viewers.
It’s possible to take down every film listed in this way. This would not be to show that avant-garde Polish cinema isn’t really as good as it seems, but in fact the opposite – to show that the people creating it are aware of the films they want to make and the clarity of their own voices.
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But are they speaking only with their own voices? Their wide palette of inspirations is visible in every film. Skonieczny’s work is linked to Pasolini and Haneke, while Marczak speaks of Kiarostami in interviews and is compared to Jarmusch or Gaspar Noé by critics. Kuba Czekaj’s films share a style with Harmony Korine, and one of the biggest young stars of Polish comedy, Grzegorz Jaroszuk, nods to Roy Andersson in his work. Polish film is in constant conversation with the old masters and stars of art-house cinema – and, as such, has become part of its lifeblood.
This continuing avant-garde revolution will surely shore up more names in the coming months. A few films are already creating some buzz on the international circuit. There’s Łukasz Ronduda’s Heart of Love, about the search for language in a never-silent world, or Piotr Domaleski’s Silent Night, premiering at the Gdynia Film Festival. Also worth noting are Paweł Maślona’s Panic Attack and Jagoda Szelc’s Tower: A Bright Day, which Łukasz Maciejewski has already written about:
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With the strength of a film by Yorgos Lanthimos (who definitely inspired the director), this young graduate of the Łódź Film School touches upon metaphysics through the lens of perversion and demonology.
For sale: good cinema
The state of Polish cinema has given the new auteurs pretty good conditions for entering into the trade. The Polish Film Institute has been funding film debuts for years, creating plenty of new voices. Proof enough is the fact that out of the 25 films fighting for awards at the Gdynia Film Festival, 11 of them are debuts and four are second films.
Yet, the conditions of auteur cinema are not as good as one might imagine. The overarching issue facing many young artists is distribution – or, rather, its lack.
Arthouse cinema sells in Poland in small amounts and with difficulty. It’s difficult to explain away this problem just by pointing out that these ambitious productions are less popular than Hollywood blockbusters. That reasoning alone is not enough to explain why Czekaj’s wonderful Baby Bump only screened to 958 people in its first weekend, or how Intruder pulled in only 18,000 viewers. All These Sleepless Nights attracted just 9,000 more, while The Lure sold a little under 70,000 (which, for an indie film, is a solid success).
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An economics lesson
The Polish distribution market lacks knowledge of how to sell these new talents. The biggest players in the market distribute a few dozen films per season, while the smaller firms, only a few films per year. The first group has the money, but not the desire to fight for indie films (they are most often released quietly, while money is invested in more commercial fare). The second might have the desire, but not the money. It’s a vicious cycle.
But there is some hope. The Polish Film Institute offers a program which funds arthouse distribution. Thanks to this initiative, a distribution company interested in more ‘difficult films’ can count on financial help – although the no-strings money might not always yield positive results. It’s easy to get the impression that distributors takes the support, but then decide they no longer need to promote the film in order to break even.
On top of this, there are also the occasional less-than-accidental mistakes. An example is the premiere of Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love, a film that won a Silver Bear at Berlinale in February and landed in theatres on 29th July, right in the middle of a summer lull. The result – less than 48,000 viewers. Not too bad? Sure, but this is a film which received accolades at one of the world’s most important film festivals and, weeks later, won five awards at the Gdynia Film Festival.
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all these sleepless nights
The Polish film industry, despite its lack of economic possibilities, is unafraid of challenges. It must learn to properly promote its rising talents, however, or else their contributions will dwindle to nothing. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, because for years, Poland has not seen such clear and obvious talents as those of Czekaj, Wasilewski, Jaroszuka and Smoczyńska – whose work is necessary to creating the future of Polish cinema.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn; translated by AZ, Aug 2019