It does not happen often that a feature debut divides the public as sharply as Playground (2016), a conspicuous drama about dreadful violence of children. The discussions among devoted fans and resolute opponents during Gdynia Film Festival continued into the night at parties. Rumours were spread about 100 viewers (out of a total of 1300), who left the festival screening at the San Sebastian Film Festival – but, as one of film crew member put it accurately, it meant 1200 stayed. Therefore it is not surprising that at the Warsaw Film Festival FIPRESCI jury meeting more time was devoted to a fierce discussion about this particular movie than to any other contender.
The reason Playground provoked such a vehement discussion is because it tells a brutal and really hard-boiled story not about seasoned criminals, but about youngsters. There is nothing really in this move to love, but it could be appreciated since it offers the rare opportunity to see such a self-conscious and self-disciplined narration, produced by the talented 32-years old first time director Bartosz M. Kowalski — a filmmaker to watch in the future. His work is made in near- perfect tune with director of photography Mateusz Skalski (for whom Playground is also a first feature as a DoP). The story is aptly divided into chapters, with the first three taking place over a dozen of hours, and built around the three main protagonist of the story. The chapter narratives overlap, thus building an almost unbearable tension, and a feeling of being trapped. We realize that by the end of the day something horrible would happen to resolve this pressure, and it does happen.
Kowalski, who is also the scriptwriter together with Stanislaw Warwas, has planted in the evolving story foreboding signs of misfortune and disaster. When however the audience takes at least one of those signs at face value, it leads to a general misinterpretation of the film as a whole, and affects negatively the movie reception. Such a facile approach finds the explanation of extreme juvenile violence either in economically underprivileged family background, where domestic brutality is rampant, or in a generally unchecked immersion in virtual reality, and more specifically, in long hours spent on computer games. The point is that Kowalski sees things differently. And although his characters’ background story does contain elements of similar forms of deprivation, he presents these coldly, as worn-out tropes of social determinism, and certainly not as the only reasons for the problem at hand. And concentrates on the inexplicable irrationality of violence of children against other children, which is still a taboo of sorts.
Moreover, he manages to twist the story in a surprising way, redirecting our attention from the possible victim and the anticipated act of cruelty, towards an even more shocking event.
The most controversial 8-minutes final long take represents a significant mise-en-scène achievement. If we perceive filmmaking as a craft of making choices, the decisions of the young film crew here are stunning. Understandably, they have avoided close-ups, which would have been extremely shocking in this scene, but have not resorted to filming trees or sky either, leaving it all to our imagination, vexed only by sounds. And have come up with a perfectly balanced resolution for the finale of this otherwise quite unbalanced and highly controversial movie. Thus Playground leaves us with the impression of a cool, distanced, brainy movie, and of the advent of a new talent in the field.
© FIPRESCI 2016
Edited by Christina Stojanova