Focus on Poland

in 7th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Mariola Wiktor

The Polish cinema abroad is usually known and described in the context of the landmark films made by such masters as the deceased Krzysztof Kieslowski or the still active and internationally successful Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, or recently Jerzy Skolimowski on account of his Essential Killing being awarded in Venice.

More and more frequently, films of young Polish filmmakers like Borys Lankosz, Xawery Zulawski, Katarzyna Rosloniec and others are also shown in festivals abroad. The cinema of the middle-aged Polish directors is comparitively the least popular. The gap has been filled, to a modest extent as far as the number of titles is concerned, by the latest edition of the International Film Festival in Reykjavik. In the Focus on Poland section arranged by the Polish Film Institute, Icelanders and foreign spectators saw four films from the last two years: Operation Dunabe (Operacja Dunaj) by Jacek Glomb, A Wonderful Summer (Cudowne lato) by Ryszard Brylski, Splinters (Drzazgi) by Maciej Pieprzyca and Venice (Wenecja) by Jan Jakub Kolski. It is worth mentioning that two of the aforementioned directors were making their cinema debut; before that Glomb directed theatrical plays while Pieprzyca directed television films.

To have a clear image of the Polish cinema presence in Reykjavik a mention must also go to Andrzej Jakimowski’s Tricks (Sztuczki) which screened in the Youth section at the RIFF, a section which puts an emphasis on films and documentaries featuring children, or suitable for children. In addition the RIFF Open Seas section included Three Seasons in Hell by Tomas Masin, a film featuring Polish actors in the cast; Karolina Gruszka in the female leading role, along with supporting actors Tomasz Tyndyk and Michal Dworczyk.

This mini presentation is not a random selection of films. Each of them, particularly from the Focus on Poland section, differs from the cliché through the prism of which Polish cinema has been perceived for the last few years and, at the same time, depicts the process of searching for one’s own place in the world, transgressing one’s Polish identity and moving towards universality, as well as to new genre and formal solutions.

In Venice Jan Jakub Kolski tells the story of the maturing of an 11-year-old boy who experiences the nightmare of German occupation in a country estate by the River San. The film enchants not only with beautiful and poetical cinematography by Artur Reinhardt, but in the clash of childlike sensitivity with the brutality of the adult world and also the incredibly mature acting by the very young Marcin Walewski in the role of Mark. What delights most are the boy’s dilemmas, his inner struggle with own sensitivity, imagination, dreams, the homeland’s archetype, duty and also a desire to be like his father and older brother; a man-warrior, a patriot. Mark escapes from the reality which frightens him and decisions which are too difficult to make into the imaginary world. Venice is recreated in his house cellar, the land of fairy tales and beauty. His split reality and, at the same time, his rebellion, reflects the fears of what has haunted the Polish mentality for generations; Polish martyrdom and romantic insurrectionary uprisings. The mythology, which the boy rejects, is also something he may never free himself from as an adult.

Another ‘non-Polish’ film is Operation Dunabe. The director, Jacek Glomb, makes fun of the Polish invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nobody before him has had the courage to take up the so far omitted embarrassing historical incident but it is not supposed to desecrate what is held sacred. Although the point of departure is an entirely true event (a Polish tank really went missing during the invasion of Prague and crashed into a Czech inn), a faithful reconstruction of history was not the point. Glomb creates a comedy within the elements of tragedy. He depicts people’s dreams of freedom, and creates a pacifist satire on a Svejk-like war, parodying war films by plunging everything into the atmosphere taken from Hrabal’s novels. It is a superbly made Polish-Czech comedy with the participation of both Polish and Czech actors.

This Czech atmosphere is also present in the two other films. A Wonderful Summer by Ryszard Brylski is the first Polish black romantic comedy. It is a story of a love affair and, though not particularly great or remarkable, it is still unusual as the female-male relations are set against a quite surprising backdrop of a funeral parlour and a cemetery. 18-year-old Kitka gets in touch with the spirit of her dead mother, who visits the daughter to warn her not to miss the real love of her life. Brylski easily balances the comedy of the absurd and small Czech realism with enriched spiritualistic strands. The fairy-tale convention doesn’t exclude a sense of humour, so taboo issues such as death or love are therefore discussed lightly, from a distance and with indulgence. Such an approach is not characteristic of the Polish cinema.

And, finally, Splinters by Maciej Pieprzyca, a film about the experiences and dilemmas of three young people from a Silesian town, is made in the spirit of tragicomedy and, again, is closer to the spirit of Czech cinema, where nobody judges anybody and the characters are treated with understanding, irony and warmth. Here everybody is looking for love and the ideal life. Though this is nothing innovatory it is still unusual in the Silesian setting. This is not a film about Silesian poverty, unemployment and lack of perspectives, but a picture about a universal search for one’s place in life as adulthood begins. It also draws attention to the role of coincidence, the fact that the paths of the characters’ will cross at one point is not so inevitable, just like the awareness that absurd does not mean impossible. The director blends conventions, and in so doing connects a fairy-tale character with hyperrealism, a comedy with drama.

The Christening (Chrzest), the second film by Marcin Wrona, shown in the New Visions (main competition) section (and receiving the Church of Iceland Award special mention), discusses the issue of the initiation into adulthood. This mixture of a gangster film with a Biblical story of Cain and Abel and a Faust motif exceeds the clichés of a crime thriller with its universality. The motif of a mafia vendetta, despite certain stylizations of the criminal world and objectification of a woman, is extensively open to interpretation. Keeping with the suspense, it is skilfully made and arouses emotions. It is the story of the decline of Michal, a former gangster, who knows he will be punished for unpaid debts; and of the maturing of Janek, his friend, to take over the protection of Michal’s wife and child. It makes us face the dilemmas almost everybody is forced to confront one day; a fast career or a family, money or spiritual development, honesty, which does not always pay, or cunning deception, which will not necessarily come out?

The Polish cinema is finally breaking with its obligations, while its creators are speaking on behalf of others in their mission to save the world.