Antoniak's films are based on ambiguity. They do not offer easy diagnoses or simple answers. The questions which the Polish artist raises are not straightforward. Even when Antoniak tackles the hottest current topics like immigration, multi-ethnicity, clashes between religions or races, she avoids the journalistic tone and prefers conciseness and deep metaphors. Her films are not essaystic and theoretical –Antoniak's work could rather be described as poetry of moving pictures, inspirational and arousing emotions.
Beyond Words is not an exception to this rule. Just like in the excellent Nude Area, in her latest film Antoniak also focuses on the multicultural world. As opposed to her previous work, though, Beyond Words is not a story about meeting the foreign, but about how the identity of an individual shapes: to what extent we can create and modify it, and to what degree it is imposed by the culture we live in and the nationality we were born with.
The central character of the story is Michael (Jakub Gierszał), a young lawyer from Berlin. He left Poland years ago and he tries to forget it. With his Aryan appearance and perfect German accent he pretends to be German. The identity dilemmas appear in his well-ordered life when he meets an African poet who is about to be extradited. Michael can defend him and thus save him from the extradition. However, he does not do it because he wants to help him, but because he wants to improve the image of the law office he works for.
The second act of the identity drama begins with the sudden visit of Michael's father (Andrzej Chyra). They have not seen each other for years and in the face of his disease, the father wants to meet his son one more time. This slightly tired 50-year-old in a creased shirt, with a stubbly beard and tousled hair seems to be a complete opposite of his son, who is always neat and elegant. Their meeting starts a series of changes in Michael's life thanks to which the young man will be able to answer the question who he really is.
However, Antoniak's film raises many more questions. Who do we give the right of assimilation to? Who has to fight for it? Does the official machinery and state procedures take away immigrants' dignity (that emigration is supposed to be a struggle for)? There are also questions concerning how language creates and determines our identity.
Each of these questions seems very accurately posed in Beyond Words. It cannot be otherwise if we take into account the director's biography. After finishing the Film School in Katowice Antoniak moved to Amsterdam in order to start another film direction studies and pursue a career in the Netherlands. Maybe because of this the story about meeting other culture and other language that limits you on the one hand, yet is a gate to a new world on the other, does not seem a concocted and life-less tale but a real drama.
Urszula Antoniak talks about denying and losing Polishness, depicting it as phantom reality. Michael's father is the phantom of Polishness. He is footloose, somewhat irresponsible, slovenly and driven by fantasy. He is dishevelled but attractive. Another symbol of Polishness is a young Polish barmaid (the ethereal Justyna Wasilewska), a mysterious girl who fascinates Michael. These two characters represent the Polish roots and the Polish dream and they are a symbol of a diversified Polishness, which is denied but at the same time longed for.
The power of the Beyond Words is not the anecdote but the film form and the cultural context that it evokes. Antoniak, an erudite of the Polish film, holds a dialogue with masters on screen. Among her interlocutors there is Gombrowicz with his theory of masks and struggle with Polishness, and cinema classics, from Visconti to Leni Riefenstahl, whose works are recalled by the beautiful, black and white photographs of Lennert Hillege. The cinematographer was deservedly awarded at the festival in Gdynia.
Antoniak's excellently filmed work with great roles of Jakub Gierszał and Andrzej Chyra is not easy to follow. It requires sensitivity and openness. However, if the audience trust the Polish director, they will get an inspiring story with a great visual power in return.
- Beyond Words, script and direction: Urszula Antoniak. Camerawork: Lennert Hillege. Starring: Jakub Gierszał, Andrzej Chyra, Justyna Wasilewska. Premiere: 16 February 2018.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by MW, February 2018.