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The 30th Festival of Polish Feature Films
Gdynia, September 2005

by Renata Murawska

For over 30 years the Festival of Polish Feature Films in Gdynia has been an accurate barometer of Polish film culture. It has reflected changes in Polish film industry, farewelled the old communist system and welcomed the new one. It has mirrored fears and concerns of the Polish society, especially in times of most significant unrests and transitions, which in Polish case meant the 70s, then the 80s and then also the 90s. At times, it enraged and disappointed its observers. At other times, it breathed the air of hope into those for whom the fate of Polish film industry matters.

When it started in 1974, there were 30 feature films in its program, including two by filmmakers whose films were screened at the recent 2005 Festival, that is Feliks Falk and Janusz Zaorski. Due to Martial Law introduced in Poland in December 1981, the Festivals of 1982 and 1983 were cancelled, which made the number of films at the 1984 Festival swell to 88. In 1987, the Festival moved to the Music Theatre of Gdynia, which remains its headquarters in 2005, and which hosts the “competition screenings” for the festival jury and the opening and closing gala events.

In the early 1990s one of the greatest attractions of the Festival were open debates of the Festival jury, which attracted audience comparable to that of the most marketable films of that time. The openness of these debates parallelled the shock of the freedom brought in by the first free elections since WW2. Their content reflected chaos and despair of the first years after the collapse of communism to the point that in 1997 the jury decided not to award Grand Prix because no film achieved the standard that would justify it. Only after 1997 and towards the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21 st century Polish films screened in the Festival again started to inspire optimism in their commentators.

In 1999 Grand Prix went to Debt [Dlug] directed by Krzysztof Krauze, a film that in a sizeable survey conducted in 2004 was nominated as one which most altered Poles’ opinion on a significant social issue. The film is a dramatisation of a fall of two young entrepreneurs unable to withstand the pressures of the crime world in Poland, in which that world is a law upon itself. The two protagonists eventually murder their perpetrator thus becoming part the latter’s world. The film worked to gain support for the pardon plea by two men on whose story the film is based.

After the success of the veteran of Polish film, Krzysztof Zanussi, with his Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease [Zycie jako smiertelna choroba prznoszona droga plciowa], 2001 belonged to Robert Glinski and his Hi Tereska [Czesc Tereska], a coming-of-age tale of a girl whose hopes are slowly and inevitably crashed by her mental and social condition. The black-and-white film adopts a para-documentary style of filmmaking, complete with non-professional young actors and actresses recruited from the pathologising socio-demographic stratum that it aims to represent.

In 2002, for the first time in the history of the Festival it was a comedy, which traditionally had been considered by Polish film commentators an inferior type of filmmaking, that won the highest prize. Marek Koterski’s Day of a Wacko [Dzien swira] managed to achieve that by virtual slaughtering of the Polish national tradition steeped in Polish Romanticism and its literature, and ridiculing an intelligentsia man, for long considered a pillar of Polish society and culture.

The next two years saw two cinema release debuts recognised as the most significant filmic events of their respective year. In 2003, Dariusz Gajewski’s lyrical commentary on what Polish capital has to offer to newcomers, titled Warsaw [Warszawa], and in 2004 a psychological portrait of an adult survivor of child abuse, The Welts [Pregi] by Magdalena Piekorz, marked a rejuvenation phase of Polish post-communist cinema. Coincidentally, Piekorz is also the second woman director in the history of the Festival to receive its Grand Prix. The first was Agnieszka Holland in 1981 for her Fever [Goraczka].

The Debt Collector , which is the Grand Prix winner of the 2005 Festival, combines the Polish filmic achievements of the last 16 years with the directing experience of Feliks Falk, whose Overnight Accommodation [Nocleg] was screened in the first Festival in 1974. The Debt Collector is a commentary on the cruelty of capitalist expediency personified in the figure of a debt collector played by Andrzej Chyra, who is also the perpetrator and the trigger of the young entrepreneurs’ downfall in Krauze’s Debt already mentioned here. When the protagonist understands the error of his ways and attempts to expiate his guilt after one of his victims commits suicide, his newly found generosity is ineffectual.

The most interesting, and recognised as such by the Festival jury presided by Andrzej Wajda, debut of 2005 is It’s Me Now [Teraz ja] by Anna Jadowska. An unresolved road movie, it tells a story of a young female who without any obvious reason leaves her seemingly happy relationship and home to embark on a hitchhiking journey across Poland. The film’s subtle cinematographic shifts complement the mesmerising performance by Agnieszka Warchulska as Hanka, which is intertwined with mostly silent appearances of her perplexed boyfriend, Pawel (Maciej Marczewski).

Two other films noted by the Jury are Ode to Joy [Oda do radosci], a triptych by Anna Kazejak-Dawid, Jan Komasa and Maciej Migas, and Persona Non Grata [Persona non grata] by a veteran of Polish cinema, Krzysztof Zanussi. Zanussi’s effortlessly portrays the old-world grace personified by an elderly Polish ambassador to Uruguay (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz). Ode to Joy’s title contradicts the bleak tenor of the three stories contained in the film. Each describes a young person’s inability to adjust to the Polish social condition which results in their decision to leave Poland in hope of a better life elsewhere.

In stark contrast to Ode to Joy is Przemyslaw Wojcieszek’s One Perfect Afternoon [Doskonale Popoludnie], which is unashamedly optimistic in its representation of the contemporary social condition. It is a story of a young couple, Mikolaj (Michal Czarnecki) and Anna (Magdalena Poplawska) and their – so far, but not for long – failed publishing company, and Mikolaj’s parents (Malgorzata Dobrowolska and Jerzy Stuhr) who amend their failed love life by rekindling their love for each other after several years of being absent from each other’s lives. Wojcieszek’s rawness and playfulness as well as the authorial cinematographic style consistent with his previous two films, Louder than Bombs [Glosniej od bomb] (2001) and Down a Colourful Hill [W dol kolorowym wzgorzem], earned him a prize of the President of Warsaw and one from the organisers of Polish film festivals abroad.

Dorota Kedzierzawska, a highly regarded authoress of astounding films that focus on children, made her mark on the Festival with I am [Jestem ], her first film after a seven-year break. Beautifully shot by Arthur Reinhart and with a music score by Michael Nyman, the film focuses on Kundel (Piotr Jagielski), an 11 year old boy abandoned by his promiscuous and irresponsible mother, and in search of affection and his own place in life.

The story told by the amalgamation of filmic texts and topics of conversations during the 30 th Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdynia is that of a film industry that has consolidated its shape after the shaky new beginnings in the post-communist state. It allows for a plurality of voices that come from the well-established as well as younger and debuting filmmakers. While the traditionally fatalistic if not pessimistic tone remains realised in some films by older as well as younger and debuting filmmakers, Polish film has also opened its doors to more optimistic and at times comical social self-reflection.

Renata is a lecturer in film, media and Public Relations the Media Department at Macquarie University. Her main research focuses on small(er) national cinemas, especially Eastern European and South American. She also has a special interest in emigre filmmaking.