"Women's cinema" has not yet emerged as a trend in Poland; what can perhaps be viewed as a trend is more the cinema of women: individual director personalities whose output gives little basis for seeking any shared reference points, whether ideological, generation-related or stylistic.
Barbara Sass, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, Magdalena Lazarkiewicz, Dorota Kedzierzawska, Malgorzata Szumowska, Magdalena Piekorz, Izabella Cywinska (listed chronologically according to the date of their debut) are separate, independent female "points" on the map of Polish cinema that is so densely filled with the names of men. The reasons behind this are many, but two are rather obvious: the lack of a tradition (cinematic, intellectual), and the lack of conditions friendly to female directors that would enable this very difficult area of women's artistic activity, so tough and requiring huge sacrifices, to flourish.
While the fact of gender discrimination, sometimes more and sometimes less acute in various areas of life, is sometimes discussed in Poland, a weak tradition is obvious: in our country, feminist ideas, and even the related gender ideas have never won widespread social acceptance. This has been true both in the post-communist era and earlier, in People's Poland with its hypocritical manifestation of the equality of "women on tractors" (an excellent illustration of this was given in Zmarz-Koczanowicz's humorous documentary Jestem mezczyzna / I Am a Man, 1985, in which the extremely active hero was chairman of the local Women's League Group). Well-known Polish journalists with feminist views: Kinga Dunin, Kazimiera Szczuka, Agnieszka Graf, do not write film scripts; the only exception so far has been the "scandalizing" novelist (because she writes boldly of erotic and carnal matters) Manuela Gretkowska, who wrote the screenplay for Andrzej Zulawski's Szamanka / The Shaman (1996) and Mariusz Trelinski's Egoisci / The Egoists (2000). Instead of adapting the work of Olga Tokarczuk, who had the greatest literary success among female writers in recent years, filmmakers are adapting the object of the greatest commercial success, writer of popular romance novels Katarzyna Grochola.
The few Polish women who stood behind a film camera in past decades - the pre-war avant-garde visual artist Franciszka Themerson, who made amusing experimental miniatures with her husband; the charismatic communist party activist and controversial figure of Polish cinema, Wanda Jakubowska, director of Ostatni etap / The Last Stage (1948, the first feature film about a concentration camp); Ewa Petelska, co-scriptwriter and co-director of the brutal, "hard" films of her husband Czeslaw - though they all created films that were outstanding in many respects, they were part of the male, or certainly "neutral" model of cinema, both in terms of subject matter and the emotional character of the storylines. If original, insightful portraits of women were created in Polish cinema up to the late 1970's, these were the work of men: Felicja in Jak byc kochana / How to Be Loved (1962) by Wojciech Has, the hermaphroditic characters played by Maja Komorowska in the films of Krzysztof Zanussi, the capricious Barbara from Noce i dnie / Nights and Days (1975) by Jerzy Antczak, the heroines of Panny z Wilka / The Maids of Wilko (1979) by Andrzej Wajda.
It was not until the moral "thaw" of the "cinema of moral anxiety" in the 1970's, when family and social relations started being shown on screen with greater harshness and realism, that a gradual breakthrough began. Female directors of the stature of Agnieszka Holland, and later Barbara Sass, could present the Polish "modern woman" with all sharpness: lonely, as stated in the title of the well-known drama by Holland (Kobieta samotna / A Lonely Woman, 1981), resigned and provincial (Aktorzy prowincjonalni / Provincial Actors, 1979), often living "without love" (the title of Sass's famous 1980 debut). In this cinema, women became universal film characters, their dilemmas and sufferings carrying a universal message - and not functioning as the reverse or the object of a male character's actions.
Even in those early films by female Polish directors (made in the gloomy times of the late Gierek era, and then under martial law), the protagonist was - generally speaking - a failure, which became a characteristic feature of films made by women in Poland. There is no note of rebellion there, no ideological persuasion - neither in the form of an angry moral revolt nor in a comedy tone. The heroines, bending under the burden of an unspecified cruel fate, practically never triumph (over their own fate, or men, or adversity); if they are a professional success, it comes at a terrible cost to their personal lives.
With Holland (who left Poland before martial law was imposed in 1981), pessimism was the result of coincidence and the characters' individual qualities, but also a certain "female burden": gentleness, passivity, readiness to live in the background. It was different in the films of Barbara Sass, probably the most charismatic and "angry" maker of films about women in Poland. Sass did not have her debut on the big screen until she was 44, 22 years after she had graduated from film school, a time spent mainly working as assistant to her male colleagues (Wajda, Skolimowski, Has). Bez milosci / Without Love, considered as a closure to the "cinema of moral anxiety" and at the same time the beginning of the director's informal trilogy, told a story of a woman's "aggressive" career that was unprecedented in Polish cinema. These films (also Debiutantka / Debutante, 1981 and Krzyk / Scream, 1982) would not be what they are if it were not for the acting temperament of Dorota Stalinska, who created a convincing on-screen image of an attractive, strong and rapacious woman. Indifferent to the canon of traditional values ascribed to her gender, though sensitive and capable of self-reflection but certainly not noble, the journalist Ewa played by Stalinska was a provocative and fresh contradiction to the everlasting stereotype of a self-sacrificing "Polish mother" devoted to her family. What of it, though, when the women watching these films could feel no kind of "gender satisfaction" - even these heroines, making the classic choice between personal life and professional fulfilment, were doomed to fail because in order to achieve success, they had to pay too high a price.
Sass's greatest asset as a director is her work with actresses. Appearing in her films, Stalinska, Anna Dymna, Magdalena Cielecka regularly received festival awards for their interpretations. Sass returned to her "muse" from the early 1980's, Dorota Stalinska, in her semi-autobiographical film of 1990, ambiguously titled Historia niemoralna / An Immoral Story, which brought the complex, almost intimate relations between actress and director to the screen. The judges at the festival in Gdynia were more appreciative of the subsequent Tylko strach / Only Fear (1993), in which Anna Dymna - previously known for her on-screen portrayals of beautiful, gentle, angelic women - played an alcoholic journalist desperately struggling to overcome her addiction. Choosing a topic practically never shown in Polish cinema before (apart from Has's memorable Petla / The Noose from 1957), Sass presented a very convincing, female variation of an alcoholic drama, proving that loneliness, lack of social acceptance, professional intolerance of addicted women only deepens their tragedy. Yet again, the film's success was largely due to the acting - Dymna showed courage close to exhibitionism playing yet another Sass character living on the edge, for whom the only way out is a tragic one: suicide, prison, giving in to the addiction.
A certain turnaround in Sass's creative output came with the discovery of a new, gentler acting "muse" - the young and delicately beautiful Magdalena Cielecka, her film debut being the role of the nun Anna who falls in love with a priest in Pokuszenie / Temptation (1995). Although this was a script inspired by the true story of the forcible isolation of Primate Wyszynski and his relations with a nun who was forced to inform on the prisoner (Teresa Kotlarczyk would later return to it in her Prymas / The Cardinal), it was far from any historical or political revisitation. Sass created a complicated, heartbreaking study of a love that not only can never find fulfilment but also - in a situation of the heroine's multiple lack of freedom - has no right to any form of expression. The young nun is not only emotionally dependent on the man she loves, but also "imprisoned" in her nun's habit and subordinate to the church hierarchy, and to make matters even worse - subjected to the pressuring of a communist official. Cielecka also played in what is Sass's most recent film, Jak narkotyk / Like a Drug (1999), a biographical drama that got a mixed reception and was inspired, among other things, by the life of the prematurely deceased poet Halina Poswiatowska.
It would be easy to write about Barbara Sass, and indeed about Agnieszka Holland too, that she makes what is in essence "men's" cinema: pessimistic, violent and harsh, not displaying any feminine (?) tendency to poeticise, no excessive tenderness or emotions, and convincingly rooted in social reality. Without going into a discussion on whether such a division is justified, it is worth emphasizing that it would in fact be possible to place some female Polish directors in the group of filmmakers with a "social" temperament, who show dedication in seeking the difficult truth about Poland's complicated contemporary times. Perhaps this will be the direction of the career of Iwona Siekierzynska, who debuted on television a few years ago (Moje pieczone kurczaki / My Roast Chicken, 2002 - the story of a young intelligentsia family's difficult adjustment to the Third Republic upon returning to Poland from Canada), who earlier made Pancia (1995), a prize-winner all over the world and an Oscar nominee in the student film category. Her directing temperament and keen observational powers are reminiscent of Agnieszka Holland's achievements. It is also possible that after the intimate drama Kochankowie z Marony / The Lovers of Marona (2006, based on a short story by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz), boldly moving towards a focused, intense analysis of the characters and the relations between them, Izabella Cywinska may return to more epic forms, like her series based on the novel by Teresa Lubkiewicz-Urbanowicz.
This was Boza podszewka (1997-2005), made by a mature female director with extensive theatre experience and a political episode in her career (in 1989-91 Cywinska was Minister of Culture and Art in the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki), and it was one of the most original television sagas in Poland. At first it had a hard time getting through to viewers already used to "transparent" and bland soap operas, but soon gained a regular and faithful audience. Set in the Vilnius region from the start of the 20th century to the Second World War, it created a slightly magical, unusual world of poor farms and wealthy manors, filled with a colourful array of human peasant and gentry "fauna"; this was a reality dominated by female individualities, its atmosphere slightly reminiscent of Marleen Gorris's famous Dutch saga Antonia's Line.
The output of one of the most prolific Polish female documentary makers, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, can definitely be placed within the cinema of "social sensitivity". She first drew attention to herself in 1983 with the film Kazdy wie, kto za kim stoi / Everyone Knows Who's Behind Who. Even then, touching on one of the most acute problems of Polish everyday life at the time - the necessity to stand in a queue for long hours to get every necessity, from meat to toilet paper - Zmarz-Koczanowicz revealed the talent of an ironic and insightful observer of social life, sensitive to seemingly unimportant details that often add humorous colour to her films. After the success of such productions as Jestem mezczyzna / I Am a Man and Urzad / The Office (1986, about heartless debt collectors), ever since the late 1980's and early 1990's she has consistently recorded the social transformations in Poland, trying to act like a seismograph tracking the impact of great politics on the mood in the street and the fate of ordinary people: Nie wierze politykom / I Don't Believe Politicians (1989); Major albo rewolucja krasnoludkow / The Major, or the Revolt of the Dwarves, 1989 - about the phenomenon of the Orange Alternative movement; Bara-bara, 1996 - on the unique pop-culture phenomenon that is disco-polo music; Zamien mnie w dlugiego weza / Turn Me Into a Long Snake, 1997 - about Romanian children begging in the streets (the latter two with Michal Arabudzki). In her films, she boldly takes on great socio-political syntheses: both in her 1993 feature debut Kraj swiata / The End of the World, commenting the paradoxes of social life in Poland after the 1989 breakthrough, and in her documentaries: Polska ruletka / Polish Roulette (1998, about the parliamentary elections), Pokolenie 89 / Generation 89 (2002, about young opposition activists who became adults ca. 1989), Dzieci rewolucji / Children of the Revolution (2002) and Dziennik.pl (2004), the latter two made in association with Arte television. She has also made many biographical documentaries.
One trend emerging in contemporary Polish film is a tendency to turn away from topics that appear regularly on the front pages of newspapers and move towards intimate cinema - to mention Trzeci (2004) by Jan Hrywniak, Palimpsest (2006) by Konrad Niewolski, the dramas of Anna Jadowska (Dotknij mnie / Touch Me, 2003, with Ewa Stankiewicz, Teraz ja / It's Me Now, 2005) or the previously mentioned Kochankowie z Marony / The Lovers of Marona by Cywinska. There is often an ostentation in this escape from contemporary times and immediacy: young artists seem to be openly declaring their aversion to matters that their film "fathers" and "grandfathers" considered to be priorities. Just like the whole of Polish cinema after the 1989 breakthrough still has few films offering an accurate diagnosis of the spiritual and moral condition of "free" Poles as they move through the transformation machine, so does it lack a new, revised portrait of Polish women of the 21st century - unemployed or working in two jobs (the office and home), less and less able to rely on a strong man, semi-liberated in moral terms, and not quite able to take advantage of the privileges of (socially not fully sanctioned) equal rights.
Often though, an attitude to cinema devoid of any social ambitions expresses the genuine director's temperament of an artist who finds her creative freedom in "introvert" films focusing on psychological or emotional analysis. Among these, the director who has created the most distinctive and recognizable style is Dorota Kedzierzawska, who debuted in 1988 with the television film Koniec swiata / The End of the World. Though this intriguing comedy drama illustrated the relations of two bitter old people who dislike each other, shutting themselves off in their own home with an invisible wall, the director is really in her element, in her artistic "territory", with child characters. The identifying mark of Kedzierzawska's work is unsentimental observation of the sometimes extremely brutal circumstances in which her young heroes live - combined with a meticulous visual style, co-created by the great cameraman and the director's husband, Artur Reinhard. Emphasizing the cruel incompatibility of external reality and the feelings, needs and dreams of her characters, the director of Diably, diably / The Devils, the Devils (1991), Wrony / Crows (1994), Jestem / I Am (2005) presents children with commendable psychological realism, without any idealized features - a rare talent for observation and sensitivity allows her not only to convincingly show children's reactions and behaviours in her screenplays, but also to extract them from her child (or even infant) actors who, starting with Kasia Szczepanik who was just a few years old ("the baby" in Crows), have won many acting awards.
The most controversial film by Kedzierzawska is the drama Nic / Nothing (1998) inspired by true events, the story of the murder of a newborn baby by a desperate young woman hounded by her husband, told shockingly in an aesthetised, poetic form. Though it touches on the issue of abortion, the subject of sharp public debate for several years now in Poland, the film consistently stops short of judging the main character (played by a non-professional actress, dancer Anita Borkowska-Kuskowska) in any way. Nic / Nothing does not go beyond a focused and visually ceremonious creation of the heroine's world, thus expressing her abnormal perception of the world, disturbed by her pathological love for her husband. The way in which Kedzierzawska shows this wife and mother of three children, for whom the sphere of emotions and direct sensation dominated over a moral evaluation of the situation, is similar to her film portraits of children - she portrays Hela not as an adult, but a frail and delicate creature poorly adapted to living in society and taking care of her own children.
If a female director did appear in Polish cinema of the past two decades whom we could call a maker of "women's cinema" with conviction, it is Magdalena Lazarkiewicz, sister of Agnieszka Holland and wife of director Piotr Lazarkiewicz. Her interests centre on topics that are usually perceived as women's issues: love, eroticism, complicated relations between women (e.g. mother and daughter). She made her debut back in the 1980's, as a graduation project under the artistic supervision of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Przez dotyk / By Touch (1985) shocked viewers with its unusual juxtaposition of tenderness and blunt realism, or even naturalism, which seemed to perfectly express the complexity of the relations between Teresa, raped by her father, ill with cancer, unloved, and the beautiful dancer Anna, a happy wife and mother. In the stormy year 1989, Lazarkiewicz completed Ostatni dzwonek / The Last School Bell, which partly expressed the social mood of the time; the story of a youthful rebellion of secondary-school students also became a commercial success for the director, some comparing it to Peter Weir's famous Dead Poets Society. It had no impact on the frequency of her subsequent cinematic output (she is also active as a theatre and television director). Biale malzenstwo / White Marriage, inspired by Tadeusz Rozewicz's play, was made in 1993 - the film, ostentatiously turning away from the present, was a pastiche portrait of two girls going through the erotic anxiety of puberty and initiation, set in the era of decadence among the colourful, "stifling" decorations of a nobleman's manor. The intimate drama Odjazd / Departure, made with her husband Piotr a year later, showed the relations between a mother and her daughter - two lonely Mazurian women with Polish-German roots who spend their lonely years in a pensioners' home, dreaming of the departure for Germany that never happened.
Much greater interest was generated by Na koniec swiata / To the End of the World (1999), with screenplay by actress Joanna Zolkowska and featuring popular singer Justyna Steczkowska. The film, inspired by Emile Zola's Therese Raquin, presented the rather exotic story of an affair between a young and beautiful married woman and a Russian painter, set at the turn of the 20th century in faraway Manchuria. The film aroused certain audience interest and a rather sharp reaction from the critics who unanimously said it was pretentious. Looking back today, one can assess Na koniec swiata / To the End of the World as an expression of longing for an image of passionate love stronger than anything; "romantic" not in the everyday meaning of the word but in the historical and literary sense - something that was lacking in Polish cinema, both "male" and "female", probably even in the sentimental and melodrama-dominated inter-war years.
The female director of the young generation who enjoys the greatest international interest today is Malgorzata Szumowska, daughter of highly regarded documentary maker Maciej Szumowski and writer Dorota Terakowska, member of the European Film Academy, who made it onto Variety's 2001 list of the most promising young filmmakers. Like Kedzierzawska, Lazarkiewicz or Magdalena Piekorz, Szumowska started from successes in documentary filmmaking, gradually finding her language in feature films. Szczesliwy czlowiek / Happy Man, made after the international successes of her documentaries such as Cisza / Silence (1997, school etude) and Wniebowstapienie / Ascension (2000), brought sharp and intense criticism of male egoism and idleness. The title of this grey, depressing film was an ironic comment on the situation of a 30-year-old unemployed man who sponges off the women around him without offering them any material or emotional support in return.
"Politics is characterized by temporariness, so are urgent social problems, and that is probably why I will not make politically engaged films. It's a good thing we live in times when an artist does not have to deal with politics. My parents' generation had no such option", the director confesses.
In her documentary miniature Ojciec / The Father (part of Solidarnosc, Solidarnosc / Solidarity, Solidarity, 2005, a film made up of 13 shorts) she focused on a personal tone, showing a dissident - her own father - from the viewpoint of the little girl she had been at the time. An actual manifesto of this kind of artistic stance however, can be found in the well-known drama Ono / Stranger (2004), co-produced by Germany's Pandora Film; the screenplay made it to the final of the Sundance International Filmmakers Award competition. Original in form, disinterestedly devoted to a "poetic" theme (the relations between a young mother - model and actress Malgosia Bela - and her unborn child), Ono / Stranger distinctly dissociates itself from any aesthetic or social "correctness". Szumowska does not avoid bold, sometimes obsessive rhetoric and artistic overacting; she does not avoid scenes that can easily be accused of being pretentious (for example when Ewa speaks to the foetus) - bringing a refreshing breath of extravagance to the sometimes over-blunt, shallow realism of Polish cinema.
Among the female directors of recent years whose output deserves mention, there is also Joanna Kos-Krauze, wife of highly regarded filmmaker Krzysztof Krauze - together they made the well-known family drama Plac Zbawiciela / Saviour Square (2006); Katarzyna Maciejko-Kowalczyk, valued editor of documentaries and director of Benek Blues (1999), an award-winning documentary; Teresa Kotlarczyk, who debuted with Zaklad / The Bet (1990; set in a correction centre), who went on to make Odwiedz mnie we snie (1996, a poetic tale about the need for interpersonal ties) and Prymas. Trzy lata z tysiaca / The Cardinal. Three Years Out of a Thousand (2000) mentioned earlier. The filmmaker who uses realism as a method and at the same time tries to infuse it with intensity and depth, is Magdalena Piekorz, director of the most publicised Polish debut of recent years: Pregi / The Welts (Golden Lions in Gdansk) based on the prose of Wojciech Kuczok. This is a convincing image of family relations, with multiple accurate psychological and social observations (though some critics said it was uneven), or more precisely of a traumatic relationship between father and son that leaves "welts" on the rest of their lives. Symptomatically, the maker of this debut that won numerous awards has still not managed to persuade producers to get involved in any of her subsequent projects.