Women Who Direct: 10 Brilliant Stars on the Polish Film Scene
default, Women Who Direct: 10 Brilliant Stars on the Polish Film Scene, Małgorzata Szumowska receiving an award at the 68th International Film Festival in Berlin, 2018, photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP / East News, center, szumowska_en.jpg
The firmament of Polish filmmaking brims with a variety of stars: from directing giants to rising stars, comets on rebellious orbits and those who emit a glowing, literary light. Culture.pl presents a constellation map of some of the top female Polish film directors – who continue to shine in all their illustriousness.
Interviewed by Barbara Hollender, the author of Od Wajdy Do Komasy (From Wajda To Komasa), Agnieszka Holland reflected on her journey:
I used to be like Joan of Arc – always fighting with something: communist circles, censorship, various limitations. Now, I can finally disarm my emotions. This is one of the reasons my self-confidence has increased. I haven’t parted, however, with my anger and my temperament.
These two elements, anger and temperament, aren’t the only features that mark Holland’s distinguished place in Polish film. Her directing arsenal also includes an open-mindedness combined with diligence, the ability to enrich her individual film language, and her constant urge to tell new stories.
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In fact, Agnieszka Holland is one of the busiest Polish directors working today. Her schedule for 2018 includes work on a historical film about the Great Hunger, as well as a science-fiction Netflix series, which will take audiences back to the Cold War period. Even though shooting for the former has only just started, Holland is already thinking about new ideas and projects.
Her filmography includes more than 20 feature-length productions and numerous TV series. Notably, Holland has worked on some the most remarkable series of the last decades – ones that have transformed modern pop culture, including The Wire, The Killing, Treme, House of Cards and The Affair. Owing to her talent, diligence and openness to the world, Holland has become a great ambassador for Polish filmmaking worldwide.
Equipped with originality and curiosity, Joanna Kos-Krauze has the courage to swim against the current. Her films are an invitation to explore unknown worlds that have never before been revealed: the life of a self-taught artist in a community of Polish Romani people, a toxic family facing war traumas, and many others. She has no interest in delving into easy topics and obvious stories. Her natural habitat is an undiscovered land of ambivalence and mystery that calls out to be revealed.
Kos-Krauze embarked on her directing journey in collaboration with fellow filmmaker Krzysztof Krauze. The couple met while shooting The Debt and later joined ideas and forces to work on subsequent films: My Nikifor and Saviour Square. When Krzysztof suggested they direct the latter work together, she simply replied: ‘What have you been waiting for?’
Papusza - Krzysztof Krauze, Joanna Kos-Krauze
Joanna Kos-Krauze deeply affected her husband's filmmaking language: not with any vague ‘women’s perspective’, but with her choice of topics. Before meeting his collaborator, Krauze’s filmography appeared to be quite eclectic. She was the motor to crystallise its nature and core ideas.
The duo was persistent in pursuing a through line of topics, such as describing the search for inner freedom and the fight against loneliness and oppression. Their last project, Birds Are Singing in Kigali, tells the story of the genocide in Rwanda. Krzysztof passed away before the film was finished, so Joanna directed it on her own. Audiences can admire this daring, uncompromising work, expressed through Kos-Krauze’s original, unmistakable style.
Urszula Antoniak has been developing her unique style for years. Now an expert in unexpected, experimental production, she stands as the chief erudite among Polish filmmakers today.
Her career began in the Netherlands. This period left a mark on her productions, known for forcing the audience to confront its own life choices. They present encounters with different cultures, alienation and the process of the shaping of human identity. Code Blue poses questions about euthanasia, while Nothing Personal advocates for the place of loneliness and difficulties in human understanding. In Nude Area – which features no dialogue – Antoniak composed a piece about seduction, whereas Beyond Words weaves a complex story of emigration.
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Antoniak does not attempt to please the audience at any cost, however. Her works are intellectually and aesthetically challenging, ultimately producing their own kind of satisfaction. The director engages in dialogue with prominent figures of the film industry, as well as philosophy, including here figures such as Kierkegaard, Barthes or Lacan. Antonik explores all with exceptional class and grace.
Małgorzata Szumowska receiving an award at the 68th International Film Festival in Berlin, 2018, photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP / East News
An expert in difficult topics, Małgorzata Szumowska enjoys cult status in Europe. She admits that she owes her start at the Łódź Film School to her impudence. Combined with her undeniable talent, Szumowska's temperament paved her way into the premier league of European film; currently, the director collaborates with Lars Von Trier's company, Zentropa. For many years, every production her studio has put out has screened (and received awards) at the International Film Festival in Berlin.
Szumowska's works display powerful journalistic undertones. The director herself enjoys challenging the world around her as well. Interviewed by Agnieszka Wiśniewska from Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), she said:
Szumowska Awarded in Brussels
I don't want to go to a 'summer cinema'. Any film can fall into this category when its creators force themselves to make a well-balanced picture that presents both sides of the problem and pleases everyone.
Szumowska never coats difficult topics with a tabloid veneer. In The Name Of depicts the life of a gay priest; Sponsoring tackles prostitution; and her latest film, Mug, paints a satirical portrait of Polish Catholic beliefs, the media and rural life.
Her most touching and acclaimed film so far, 33 Scenes from Life, is quite unusual. An autobiographical story, it charts a life after death for her loved ones: a way of (not) handling the situation of mourning, by fearing and escaping loss. Szumowska was able to let go of the need to shock, trading striking simplifications for psychological truth and authentic emotions.
Dorota Kędzierzawska doesn’t swim in the mainstream of the Polish filmmaking industry. She defies being labeled as a follower of any particular trend or school. For more than 30 years, Kędzierzawska has stuck to her own recipe for a film: supporting the weak and giving the floor to the voiceless.
In an interview with Barbara Hollender, she shared:
I'm not interested in people who have planned everything in their lives and now simply jump from one success to another.
The director used to be extremely shy: first, when she began at the Moscow Film School, and then later, as a student in Łódź. Her fear of new people and situations prevented her from stepping outside of her sphere of familiarity. For this reason, she has focused her work on children and older people, the embodiment of innocence and sensitivity.
I Am - Dorota Kędzierzawska
The following productions were aimed at shedding light on people who are often ignored on-screen. In Jajko (The Egg), Kędzierzawska describes the loneliness of children; Crows tells a story of a crying need for closeness. The Devils narrows in on the topic of social exclusion. Tomorrow Will Be Better focuses on unfulfilled dreams, whereas Time to Die tackles the subject of aging.
Throughout her 30-year journey as a director, Kędzierzawska has created her own world, a unique filmmaking reality. Viewers remain eager to revisit it thanks to their guide ‒ an artist full of compassion and empathy.
Anna Jadowska receiving an award from the Polish Filmmakers Association, 2018, photo: Mateusz Włodarczyk / Forum
In an interview with Adrian Luzar of Interia, Anna Jadowska offered:
In my opinion, the label 'female cinema' is absolutely useless – it's a kind of infantilisation and an attempt to ghettoise female achievements. Fortunately, many female directors are more courageous than men; they always go a step further in implementing their great ideas.
A courageous director, Jadowska and has created one of the most memorable female characters in recent Polish cinematography. Wild Roses is a story of womanhood, maternity and patriarchy. Even as it touches upon controversial topics, the film remains subtle and full of empathy. Jadowska has avoided discussions with journalists and never called for any crusade. Instead, she devoted her work to describe tragedies, loneliness, fear and the vicious circle that encloses people who hurt one another.
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Jadowska's works do not fit into newspaper leads or catchy slogans; neither do they attract great throngs of viewers. In and of themselves, they are an invitation to a serious conversation, with respect for the viewer's sensitivity and intelligence.
Kinga Dębska is an artist who has found the key to the hearts of Polish cinema enthusiasts. She moves and entertains by telling unexpected stories, while dodging banal jokes and sentimentality. Her exceptional approach has convinced festival juries and amateur film audiences alike. These Daughters of Mine won the Journalists' Award at the Gdynia Film Festival and gathered more than 700,000 cinemagoers.
Commenting on her films, Łukasz Maciejewski stated:
[Dębska] has that one exact feature that everyone else lacks. The director of ‘Plan B’ wants to understand her audience, engage in dialogue with it; she wants to touch upon those difficult topics that cause pain or concern.
These Daughters of Mine is partly an autobiographical story about the death of one’s parents and the process of learning how to reconcile with loved ones. In Plan B, her next (if less noteworthy) production, Dębska searches for the antidote to loneliness. The director is not afraid of displaying emotions before the audience. She has found the golden mean in Polish cinematography, a balance between artistic experimentation and a fully fledged commercial product.
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Before enrolling at the Łodź Film School, Maria Sadowska was already a seasoned music maker, with a strong sense of wanderlust. Her activities included: a career in children’s television, graduation from music school, a visit to the US, and two years’ experience recording dance hits in Japanese studios. Although her musical career was thriving, she increasingly gravitated towards filmmaking. Studying in Łódź was a perfect opportunity to meet such acclaimed creators as Wojciech Jerzy Has, Grzegorz Królikiewicz and Wojciech Marczewski.
Her debut film, Women's Day, is free from all traces of inspiration or influence. The audience can listen to Sadowska's distinctive, clear voice describing the life of a supermarket worker who experiences sexual harassment from her boss. They may observe everything that has gone into enforcing this situation: the pact of silence and the social inclinations that allow for such harmful treatment in the workplace.
With her Art of Loving, Sadowska has drafted the portrait of a woman who stands up against oppression. The film paints a picture of Michalina Wisłocka, a revolutionary activist who has radically changed the Polish approach to sexology. At the same time, it presents a woman who fights for her own dreams and the right to speak out in her own words.
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Sadowska strives for the same values in her productions. On the one hand, the director incorporates popular stories, but on the other, she touches upon the topics closest to her heart.
Commenting on the screenplay for Agnieszka Smoczyńska's feature-length debut The Lure, Włodzimierz Niderhaus said:
It will either be a smash or a primitive porno.
Judging by the avalanche of awards and positive reviews that has since been showered on Smoczyńska's production, it appears to be the former. The film has screened around the world, from the United States to Japan.
Created with the screenwriter Robert Bolesto, The Lure is a camp musical about teenage mermaids and their early erotic adventures – all against the background of 1980s Warsaw. The kitsch of the Polish People's Republic mingles with motifs from romantic ballads. The film’s dark comedy works hand-in-hand with its melodrama and the sounds composed by the Wroński sisters, of the band Ballady i Romanse (Ballads and Romances).
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Smoczyńska represents a breath of fresh air for filmmaking in Poland; she has even been dubbed the 'hope of Polish cinematography'. But she isn’t resting on her laurels. Already, she’s begun work on her next project, The Fugue – a psychological drama about a woman who has lost her memory. She is also said to be working on another production: a post-industrial science-fiction musical entitled Deranged, co-created with Robert Bolesto and based on David Bowie's album 1.Outside.
Jagoda Szelc has directed only one feature-length film so far, Tower: A Bright Day. It has already garnered her the Polityka Passport Award in Film, as well as the honours of Best Debut and Best Screenwriter at the Gdynia Film Festival.
Tower: A Bright Day marked Szelc’s entrance on the Polish filmmaking scene. The film is considered one of the strangest and most interesting debuts in recent years. This psychodrama spices up a domestic story of family life with elements of metaphysical horror, blending realistic observations into fantastic visions.
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In a statement about Szelc’s Passport award, Małgorzata Sadowska wrote that the young director:
performs exorcisms on a family and Poland, calls forth ghosts, puts the audience into a trance, awakens the dormant energy closed in people and landscapes, heals traumas. In total, her work is not only about directing – it is a true shamanic rite. Now, Polish cinema has its own witch doctor.
Culture.pl eagerly awaits the ongoing brilliance of these dazzling female Polish directors.
Sources: Krytyka Polityczna; Onet; Interia; Polityka.pl; own materials; Od Wajdy Do Komasy by Barbara Hollender, Warsaw 2014
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Originally written by BS in Polish, Mar 2018; translated by AS, Sep 2018