A Fascinating (Pre-)History

in 26th Warsaw Film Festival

by Aleksander Kwiatkowski

Not many international film festivals are situated in the capitals of various countries. At least so was the case in the beginning of the festival era, in the 1930s. The first festivals were established in towns like Venezia and Cannes, attractive sea harbours or spas, as later were Karlovy Vary and San Sebastian as well. When the Berlin festival  started in 1951, this city (West Berlin) was not a capital of any country. The first major exception to the rule was the festival in Moscow since 1959 (although there was some festival in this town already from 1935).

Warsaw, the capital of Poland since 1596, was not planned to be  a place for a film festival either. The first internationally known Polish international film festival (of shorts) was established in Krakow (former Polish capital until 1596) in the early 1960s.

The pre-history of the Warsaw International Film festival, which this year was organized for the 26th time, is rather complicated, and in some of its parts not very coherent.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s a kind of festival was organized in the city – it was called Festiwal Festiwali Filmowych (FFF) and gathered samples of the most important films of the year which participated and, in most cases, were awarded the prizes of the important film festivals – Cannes, West Berlin, Venice, Karlovy Vary (or Moscow as these two festivals alternated), Locarno, occasionally some others. A similar kind of festival was at the same time established in Acapulco (Mexíco) and a little later in London and Toronto. There were of course no prizes, just screenings, attractive enough for the local audience and even for film critics, as not all of them had the opportunity to visit festivals abroad and the films would come to the Polish cinemas several years later, if at all. So attractive was the program that audiences sometimes ventured to see three feature films during one night, as shown in the Skarpa Cinema in Warsaw.

FFF flourished for some years and later changed its name to Konfrontacje (Confrontations). It was ruled by the monopolistic State Distribution Company (CWF, later PDF with more names in between). The aim and role was to show several internationally renowned and awarded movies, whose chances for normal distribution in the country were small or nil. Later the output was limited to films already planned for distribution, but shown within Konfrontacje considerably earlier, for its specialized audience. The screenings were consequently brought to some other Polish towns and were finally screened all-over the country, until around 1990. In the 1970s it was rather compatible with a policy of the new regime of Edward Gierek, who since 1971 tried to establish consumer-Poland, mostly with the help of foreign loans.

We all know how it ended. But during the Marshal Law and its aftermath in the middle 1980’s another initiative (with no link to Konfrontacje whatsoever) was brought to life – mostly independently from the Communist authorities. It came from student activists and also from Polish film clubs. Among the latter, who in the mid-1950s established a federation, was a Hybrydy Club, whose activist Roman Gutek (later to develop a succesful film distribution company  for ambitious films, and to establish some more festivals in Poland,  in Cieszyn, Wroclaw and Kazimierz on Vistula) founded a Warsaw Film Week in 1985 and became its first director.

In 1991 Stefan Laudyn tooki over and renamed it Warsaw Film Festival. In 2000 the festival got accreditation from FIAPF and changed its name again, into Warsaw International Film Festival. In 2009 FIAPF added Warsaw Festival to a group of international contest festivals (other members are Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Locarno, San Sebastian, Mar del Plata, Karlovy Vary, Montreal, Cairo, Moscow, Tokyo and Shanghai). Only 5 capitals altogether!

One prize of the festival was awarded almost from the outset: The Audience Award. Among its recipients we can list several popular films, in chronological order: Birdy (1984; winner in 1987), Dead Poets Society (1989; winner in 1990), The Double Life of Veronique (La double vie de Véronique, 1991), Prospero’s Books (1992), Coffee and Cigarettes (1993; original short version), Before the Rain (1994; winner in 1995), Trainspotting (1996), The Full Monty (1997), Life is Beautiful (La vita e bella, 1997; winner in 1998), Elling (2001; winner in 2002), Waltz with Bashir (2008) and – this year – Sound of Noise from Sweden, a feature film debut of well known directors of shorts – Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson. This prize, the result of votes from screenings of all participating movies, has a long tradition not only in Warsaw but also with similar events in, for instance, Gothenburg and other festivals which for a long time avoided profesional juries. Not so in Warsaw which now includes several sections with separate juries in almost all of them, of which the Fipresci-jury is just one.

Edited by Steven Yates