Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Experiencing synergy: An Interview with Ewa Podgórska about Diagnosis

 Ewa Podgórska

Nurtured and developed at some of the most prestigious film schools in Europe, documentary filmmaking in Poland remains a strong and ever-evolving component of the country's cinematic production. A unique city symphony, both intimate and monumental, in which the metropolis and the human psyche become indivisible, Ewa Podgórska's new film Diagnosis takes a distinctively stylised approach to the documentary form. A haunting sound design, slow zooms and some stunning overhead shots create a hypnotic, multifaceted portrait of Poland's prime cinema centre, former industrial hub and revitalisation success story, Łódź, one that might be described as an investigation into the city's subconscious.

As the title indicates, Diagnosis fuses elements of psychoanalysis with urban studies, as questions such as "If the city had parents, what would they be like?" and "If the city was a colour what would it be?" yield answers at once poetic and direct from a range of diverse interviewees, Łódź inhabitants whose insights create a deeper, more impressionistic vision of the city than one made possible by a focus on demonstrable facts. By turns moving, funny, surprising and disturbing, Diagnosis unfolds stories of caring and compromise, loss, disappointment and resilience, and clearly speaks to audiences outside of Poland, given its successful presentations at festivals in the UK, Egypt, the Netherlands, Singapore, Russia, and elsewhere. Here Podgórska discusses the approach of the film, the use of urban psychoanalysis theory, her collaboration with the crew and the protagonists, and her views on the current condition of Polish cinema. 

Alex Ramon: What was the inspiration for Diagnosis and why did you want to make a film about Łódź?

Ewa Podgórska: The idea of making Diagnosis came from my producer Małgorzata Wabińska. She wanted to do a film about the city.  During her research she found the 'urban psychoanalysis' theory. Knowing that I have a strong love/hate connection with my hometown she invited me to work on this project.

Why was it important to incorporate psychoanalysis into the film? 

The energy of a city has enormous influence on its citizens and at the same time its citizens have a great impact on the city itself. Urban psychoanalysis theory was a great starting point to explore this connection and to making the film. It was a useful tool because it allowed me to show something subtle that is difficult to translate into film language.

On the other hand, I've always wanted to explore what people experience when they "fall into themselves," for example during a tram ride. Why they are sometimes not aware of their surroundings. Why they don’t speak about it. To find the answers I had to expand the original 'urban psychoanalysis' to include my own ideas. 

You've written about documentary-makers. Did you have any particular models or inspirations in mind, in terms of other films, when making Diagnosis?

I like documentary films and I’ve seen a lot! So subconsciously I must have had some kind of inspiration, but consciously I didn’t. Although I encouraged the Director Of Photography, Marek Kozakieiwcz, to watch Atlas by Antoine d’Agata and The Sound of Insects – Record of a Mummy by Peter Liechti.

In both films, the narration is based on interior experience which is very difficult, some say even impossible, to show in documentary film. For me this makes these two outstanding films.

How did you find the people to appear in the film? What was the process like?

It was a long and hard process. I was looking for protagonists in different places like nightclubs, markets, streets, churches, etc. Members of the crew contacted me with their friends and family. We even made an announcement in the local newspaper. I spoke intimately with several hundred people - I am not exaggerating! Of course only a small group agreed to take part in the movie. Often people would withdraw just before the shooting began. It takes enormous courage to lie down on a couch in front of the camera and talk about feelings that have often never been shared with anybody beforehand. 

Yes, the participants reveal some very personal and sometimes painful things about their lives. How was the process of working with them in this very intimate and exposing way?

During the couch sessions I just listened to them. Without judgment, interruption, and, most importantly, I think, without any expectations. They knew that they could talk about everything, and that they could also be silent. I spent a lot of time with most of them before filming took place, so the actual shoot was just another meeting but with a camera present. There was just one protagonist that came to the set without knowing me. Of course, all "opening questions” like "If the city were an animal, which animal would it be?” were very useful. 

After shooting scenes on the couch, the protagonists would sometimes want to continue talking. We would speak on the phone days, sometimes weeks later and they would want to finish the stories they had begun.

What was your collaboration with the sound designer, composer, cinematographer and editors like?

I loved them and they loved me. I am deeply grateful that I could meet all these beautiful people and that we could experience this adventure together. During the process of making Diagnosis we experienced synergy. This film is something that happened between us, particular members of the crew, the protagonists and me. The DOP, editors, sound designer and composer are all are very talented, my role was to stimulate them and then stream their creativity. I am especially grateful to Marek Kozakiewicz, who helped me in many different ways. 

What has the reaction to the film been like so far, and how was it to screen the film for a Łódź audience at Transatlantyk Festival in July? 

I'm very happy because Diagnosis is communicating with foreign audiences. I remember one screening in Amsterdam, during which the audience was so focused and glued to the screen that nobody even coughed. It was amazing!

To make Diagnosis more universal we decided not to translate Łódź - the name of the city - in the subtitles. It’s just 'The City'. And what makes me happy is that nobody is interested which city is it. Viewers treat it as a symbol of the mental state of contemporary townspeople.

Of course screening at Transatlantyk Festival was special. It was the Łódź film premiere. I was very stressed about how citizens would react. But it was good. It is not an objective film about the city and they understood that. Much of the so-called "lodzermensch” identified with Diagnosis. That’s our success.

How was your experience of studying at Łódź Film School? What were the most important aspects of the training there for you?

Schools are very important. The Film School in Łódź is excellent. But my main teacher is life. I learned my craft mostly on film sets after school. 

Following a rather controversial edition of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, do you think that now is a good moment for Polish cinema? Are there some new directors whose work you particularly admire?

Polish cinema has never been in such a good position historically. It's hard to find an important international film festival without Polish films. It is a wonderful time for new directors with a fresh approach to the cinema. I hope that the people who are responsible for Polish culture understand this. There are a lot of new Polish directors, which I admire: Agnieszka Smoczyńska, Paweł Ziemilski, Jagoda Szelc and many more. 

What is your next project? Would you be interested in making a similar documentary about another city, or was Diagnosis a "one off" project of this kind for you? 

Diagnosis is a universal project and I don't need to do another film like that in a different city. However, if there was an interesting proposition for a town situated, for example, near the ocean…

I am already working on my next film. I hope it will be a surprise. 

Diagnosis screens this month at the Człowiek w Zagrożeniu (19-23 November) and Cinergia: European Cinema Forum (22-30 November) festivals in Łódź, and at HumanDOC festival in Warsaw (22-24 November). 

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Theatre Review: The Antipodes (National Theatre, Dorfman)

The National Theatre's Dorfman has become the de facto British home to Annie Baker's plays over the last couple of years. Co-directed by the author with designer Chloe Lamford, The Antipodes becomes the third of Baker's works to premiere there following Sam Gold's production of the Pulitzer-awarded The Flick in 2016 and James MacDonald's staging of John last year. I missed John but quite admired The Flick, which, across a generous (for some, much too generous) three hour running time, highlights changing patterns of cinema presentation and consumption via the interactions of three employees in a small Massachusetts movie-house, as they mop floors, chat about films, and make ill-advised passes at one another. 

The Antipodes continues The Flick's concern with workplace dynamics - up to a point. The play presents a group of characters involved in a series of vaguely defined creative brainstorming sessions overseen by the slippery Sandy (Conleth Hill) in a corporate room that Lamford's design renders in all its swirly carpeted hideousness. Among the participants (who are played as an Anglo American crew here) are Arthur Darvill's Dave and Matt Bardock's Danny, for whom this project isn't their first rodeo with Sandy, and newbies Eleanor (Sinead Matthews), Adam (Fisayo Akinade), Josh (Hadley Fraser) and another (very different) Danny (Stuart McQuarrie) - plus note-taker Brian (Bill Milner)  and Sandy's endlessly sunshiney secretary Sarah (Imogen Doel).

Sandy's "method" is to get the group to tell personal stories, on topics ranging from loss of virginity to their biggest regret. As such, the dynamics of the group are again the focus - watch out for Darvill's Dave sidling up to Matthews's Eleanor to gleefully point out a phone-related faux pas she's just made - and suggestions of exploitation and inequality percolate within the interactions; witness the unceremonious removal of a participant who dares to raise questions about the whole premise of the endeavour by articulating the ways that personal "revelation" can mislead. 

But Baker twists the play into stranger, more surreal territory this time around. This is a piece concerned not just with storytelling and communication but with time, which gets not only discussed in the dialogue but dramatically distorted, for protagonists and audience alike. As always in Lamford's clever designs, details such as a circular light fixture and that swirly carpet function as expressions of the themes, and the thrust-staged production makes us complicit as observers around the conference table, as the tone shifts from relatable, awkward-funny revelation to a night-time sequence that digs into mythic and ritualistic aspects of story-telling. ("This is a sacred space," Sandy tells the group at the beginning, with his suspicious earnestness.)

The weirdness here, like Baker's mumblecore-influenced naturalism itself, can feel self-concious and calculated. But at their best her plays achieve effects that other writers don't get near. Though much shorter than The Flick, The Antipodes challenges and, with its increasingly apocalyptic undertone, unsettles at times. Yet watching the production I felt drawn into a state of relaxed, quite benign immersion that's somehow different from my experience at any other drama: a combined, overlapping sensation of boredom and rapture. 

This has to do with the particular mood that Baker creates, the absence of conventional dramatic tension, and, here, with the qualities that the actors bring "to the table." The company is much more assured than the cast of The Flick was, filling out the somewhat sketchy characters with details that, along with a marvellous late flourish which literally alters our perspective on them, variously complement or contradict their story-telling.

As Dave, Darvill pops his mustard coloured socks up on the table in a way that encapsulates male confidence and entitlement. Burly Matt Bardock pipes up with an excruciatingly graphic, finally moralising STD story, while Hadley Fraser plays Josh as buzzing and animated when he gets philosophical and touchingly apologetic when asking why, umm, he hasn't been paid for three months. 

Fisayo Akinade delivers the most challenging speech - a bizarre, elaborate creation myth for stories - beautifully, while Stuart McQuarrie makes a reminiscence involving a chicken a centrepiece of the show. Conleth Hill suggests a ruthless streak under Sandy's geniality, and Sinead Matthews, always a glory, delights as Eleanor recounts her first sexual experience, curls up on a pile of boxes to sleep, and takes to knitting - a detail that provides a supreme punchline. As the assistants, Bill Milner moves from unassuming note-taker to disturbing participant while Imogen Doel's Sarah loses not an ounce of her perkiness as she recounts a childhood experience that's apparently straight out of a Gothic fairytale. A primary pleasure of the evening is watching these actors interact.

Some bits of physical business don't feel fluid enough yet and Baker's writing has a random air at times, the relay of narratives sometimes smacking of research that feels half-digested. But the conclusion - which juxtaposes one character's loss of faith with another's reconnection with their first foray into creativity - blindsides you with its understated beauty, delivering a memorable, humane ending to this enigmatic exploration of the multiple stories we tell.

The Antipodes is booking at the National Theatre until 23 November.

Photos: Manuel Harlan. 

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Film Review: Us Among the Stones (dir. Hood, 2019)

From the superb (Tom Browne's sensitive, profound Radiator [2014]) to the dire (Ben Wheatley's entirely bogus Dogme derivative Happy New Year, Colin Burstead [2018]), the rural family film has started to become a staple of independent British cinema in recent years. Director D.R Hood already made a contribution in 2011 with Wreckers, a Kent-set tale of brotherly tension and marital secrets starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and she returns to the form with Us Among the Stones, her complementarily themed, but formally more radical, second feature. 

The premise may be perfectly conventional: the clan of a dying matriarch (Anna Calder-Marshall), including sons (Laurence Fox, Jethro Skinner), spouse (Oliver Cotton), his two brothers (Greg Hicks, Bill Thomas), partners and assorted grandchildren - gather for a celebration that unearths family resentments and deceptions. But the telling isn't. Hood mobilises a range of different formats in Us Among the Stones, combining pinhole camera, 35mm stills camera and iPhone footage, expertly edited by Claire Pringle, to give an exciting visual dissonance to the piece.

Nature shots combine with intense close-ups, placing place and protagonists in dialogue. The ramshackle Dartmoor farmhouse itself becomes a character, full of the history and personality of its inhabitants. Most evocative of all is the use of photographs - a device employed to dazzling effect in a single sequence of Christophe Honoré's great Making Plans for Lena (2009) - but one that here forms a consistent, integral part of the film's fabric. As pictures of the past are presented - and the present-day scenes are occasionally freeze-framed, becoming memories in the making - a sense of the family's history is made tangible, while also prompting the viewer's own reminiscences.

What's pleasing, too, is that, while the film explores the generational divide between a Bohemian 60s group - ones too stoned to make a family visit to Stonehenge a smooth trip - and their fractious offspring, that conflict avoids the obviousness that accusatory Boomer-baiting plays like Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love and Alexi Kaye Campbell's Apologia succumbed to. Hood's characters are too idiosyncratic to be mere representatives of their era, and the actors' inventiveness further ensures that this pitfall is avoided. 

The younger cast members come up with less that's fresh (though Sinead Matthews, who featured in Wreckers, brings her customary vibrancy to her scenes as a disparaged step-mum, brandishing a doll for a baby). But Hicks, Cotton and Thomas vividly inhabit brother characters as different as real-life brothers can be. Best of all is Calder-Marshall as the mother. Always a magical stage actress, Calder-Marshall hasn't necessarily had film roles to do her talent justice. But with her mesmerising vocal rhythms, plaintive looks and sudden, surprising humour, she seizes on all the opportunities offered here.

I'd be hard-pressed to say why her first scene with Hicks - it involves him quoting Tennyson and she responding with a rasped "They've locked me up! Save me!"  - gives me such pleasure, but it has something to do with the theatrical gusto that both actors bring to the moment. The party scene, which finds Calder-Marshall singing the prime piece of bawdy "Blow the Candles Out," achieves a similar effect: a deep English eccentricity that draws on our literary, folk and theatre heritage. (In a lovely touch, the film concludes with a shanty as the credits roll.) It's a shame that, as in Wreckers, Hood sees fit to take the proceedings in a somewhat shrill, melodramatic direction towards the close, with a spot of fisticuffs that doesn't add much. Still, ultimately it's not the soapy revelations but rather the fine performances, experimental elements and distinctive texture that make this family portrait resonate. 

Us Among the Stones premiered at the 2019 London Film Festival. Further information here

Monday, 14 October 2019

Interview with François Ozon

My interview with François Ozon about By the Grace of God is up at Film International. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Theatre Review: Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

Bravo, bravo, bravissimo! If I had to choose one theatre production, of those that I've seen so far this year in the UK and Poland, to watch again now, today, tonight, my choice, without a shadow of a doubt, would be Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki (Fever), Mariusz Grzegorzek's exhilarating extravaganza which was the first of the Diploma Shows to feature the 2018/19 contingent of Łódź Film School graduating actors. Leaping from gaiety to the grotesque, gleeful reality TV parody ("Nabrzmiałe probleeemy!") to haunting folk ballad expressionism, the show offered a rollercoaster ride through contemporary culture (and Polish history) that essentially provided all the shows you could require in one gorgeously baggy, unruly and inclusive package - one held together by the talent, commitment and energy of the young performers and by Grzegorzek's visionary genius. 

The first of this year's three Diploma shows starring the 2019/20 graduating group, Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! (Don't Eat That, It's For Christmas!) continues the precedent set by Mebelki. Constructed without a text, through improvisation, research and an exchange of ideas with the actors, and including some of the same creative team - Tomasz Armada (costumes), Iza Połońska (vocal coaching) and Leszek Kołodziejski (music supervision) - Grzegorzek's latest provocation again mobilises a collage structure that mixes diverse dramatic scenes, song and dance interludes, the silly and the (very) serious.

The show is audience-inclusive from its opening moments, in which dynamic Dominik Mironiuk ushers us into the auditorium, where he serves as a magical combination of MC, cabaret artiste, preacher and hypnotist, first introducing us to his colleagues: Sylwia Gajdemska, Irmina Liszkowska (who also serves as the show's assistant director), Janek Napieralski, Wiktor Piechowski, Dorota Ptaszek, Aleksander Rudziński, Julia Szczepańska, Dominika Walo, and Michał Włodarczyk. As was the case in Mebelki, this 10-strong collective switch up and share roles throughout the performance, with identities helpfully indicated by velcro labels attached to Armada's marvellous white costumes, which variously suggest hazmat or space suit, straight jacket or hospital uniform.

If a distinctive feature of the previous show was its Polishness, with Czesław Niemen songs rubbing up against Disco Polo parody, then Nie jedz tego! - though somewhat more distilled - casts its net wider for its main reference point. Sure, Polish songs are sung and Prez Duda get namechecked (in a hilariously mournful dirge delivered by Włodarczyk) but the principal inspiration here comes from Skye Borgman's 2017 documentary Kidnapped in Plain Sight, about the abduction of Idaho 12-year-old Jan Broberg in the 1970s. 

Grzegorzek and company use this text as a jumping-off point for an exploration of family dynamics (look how easily those "Matka" and "Ojciec" labels can be peeled off, after all) and social breakdown through the experiences of the kidnapped girl (Suzi, here), her siblings and manipulatable parents and the perpetrator (one Brajan - seldom a name to be trusted). Described as "too strange to seem real," the most sensational aspects of the Broberg case - from the culprit's Theorem-ish seduction of both of his victim's parents, to his convincing Jan that they were meant to marry and have a child who was prophesied to be the saviour of an alien planet - are preserved; indeed, a principal fascination of the show is the way it transforms real-life, documentary-derived material into theatrical phantasmagoria, mixing up genres from sci-fi to detective story under the wryly-deployed "Documentary Film" banner. 

Grzegorzek is the kind of director who can get a mood to shift lightening fast, and here abrupt lighting changes and surprising musical cues whisk us from the playful to the deeply disturbing. Bringing different facets to the character, the actresses convey Suzi's confusion, trauma and fortitude; from Szczepańska's confrontation with alien apparitions pitched somewhere between Dr. Who and the Ku Klux Klan to a touching, simply staged moment in which Gajdemska beautifully performs YouTube "bathtub ukulele singer-songwriter" Abbey Glover's "Please Don't Go". 

Around this through-line, the show throws several other elements into the mix, whether developing its concern with the mediatisation of crime through a very funny parody of a "Traffic Cops" TV series ("National Roads") or offering a memorable moment for Piechowski with his wonderfully rude accordion rendition of "Cipuleńka." Meanwhile, Daria Szymańska's distinctive choreography is at its most amazing in a powerful atomic interlude. 

The actors modulate brilliantly, whether offering heightened physical clowning - dig Janek Napieralski's epic drunk display! - or achieving subtle, sensitive effects. If the end result is not so all encompassingly great, nor as galvanising in its transitions, as Mebelki, there are still more perverse pleasures and terrors here than can be taken in on one viewing. As the actors gather close to the audience for a cathartic and bewitchingly sung finale, you may find yourself reflecting that, while winter holidays come but once a year, Grzegorzek and company have produced a show that's for life, not just for Christmas. 

The next performances of Nie jedz tego! To jest na Święta! take place from the 3rd to 17th October. Further information here

Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska. 

Related reading:

Reviews of Polish theatre:
The Nether (Jaracz Theatre), 
Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki), 
Slippery Words (Teatr Studyjny)

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Theatre Review: For Services Rendered (Jermyn Street Theatre)

(Photo: Robert Workman)

A tea service set out on the table of a garden terrace decked with climbing roses... With a fine set by Louie Whitemore, Tom Littler's production of W. Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered exudes Autumnal Englishness even before a word is spoken. When Diane Fletcher, elegantly grey-haired and clearly carrying an emotional burden or two, enters the scene and takes a seat, the picture is complete.

As in many Maugham plays, though, biting insights and tough ideas belie the cozy, decorous surface of the drama. Written in 1932, when Maugham was at the peak of his power and popularity as a writer, For Services Rendered follows such works as The Breadwinner (which firmly defended a parent's right to leave their family) and The Sacred Flame (which endorsed euthanasia - a theme that returns here) by offering a perspective on WWI that makes clear the damage that continued to be done to former soldiers (and their loved ones) after their return home.

Maugham accomplishes this through a situation that owes a self-conscious debt to Chekhov. Three sisters, Eva, Lois and Ethel, and a brother, Sydney, are the children of Leonard and Charlotte Ardsley. Sydney has returned from the war blind and cynical, and Ewa, who lost her fiance in the conflict, has - increasingly begrudgingly - become his carer. Ethel is unhappily married to a tenant-farmer and the younger Lois has attracted the attention of a an older, married family friend.

Littler's production plays up the Chekhovian echoes, creating a buzz of overlapping funny/sad activity that gives the play's portrait of generational divides and the wider societal damage wrought by war believable human contours. The characters are drawn with Maugham's customary intelligence, and, if this production isn't ideally cast across the board, several of the actors come through with memorable performances.

(Photo: Robert Workman) 

Sally Cheng, Rachel Pickup, Leah Whitaker and Richard Keightley compel as the contrasting siblings and Jotham Annan underplays effectively as a cash-strapped naval hero struggling to make it as a businessman. Fresh from the success of the Orange Tree's Rattigan revival While the Sun Shines, Michael Lumsden brings ardency and pathos to undercut the absurdity of a character who is not adverse to offering a girl money to elope with him, while Viss Elliott Safavi moves beyond comic caricature to convey the desperation of a wife who realises she's about to be ditched.

And the velvet-voiced Fletcher is exceptional as the matriarch, bringing a lifetime of technique to create a performance of great naturalness, one that's restrained and economical but full of feeling. The astute Charlotte, whose reaction to a terminal diagnosis is not the expected one, suggests a relative of the equally surprising Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame: an older female character whose conventional demeanour masks unorthodox views. The same goes for the play itself. Littler's production occasionally looks a bit cluttered on the small Jermyn Street stage, but it succeeds in capturing both the sensitivity and sharp subversiveness that defines Maugham's writing at its best.

For Services Rendered runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 October.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Interpersonal Situations: on Retroperspektywy Theatre Festival, Łódź, 2019

The ill-informed might scoff at the notion, but Łódź's boast of hosting "more festivals than Rio" often feels entirely accurate. No sooner has one arts event finished in the so-called "Manchester of Poland" - Transatlantyk's film, food and music extravaganza in July, say - than another one is starting up. Occurring just prior to the Four Cultures event, last week saw the latest edition of the experimental international theatre festival Retroperspektywy. This festival brings together CHOREA Theatre, a company based at the city's Art_Inkubator venue, with a range of practitioners and companies from across the world for eight days of shows. 

Presenting work from Greece, Ukraine, Sweden, Russia and the US as well as Poland this year, the programme - and indeed the whole atmosphere of the festival - is inclusive. Plays, dance performances, concerts, kids shows, and Q&As make full use of the flexible spaces of Art_Inkubator - and also spill out a little into the city beyond. In addition, the festival had further occasion to mark this as a special year - the celebration of CHOREA's 15th birthday. 

ja, bóg  (Photo: Rami Shaya)

As diverse as the programme is, most of the shows presented, bear, to some extent, the influence of Jerzy Grotowski's Poor Theatre, mobilising what the director/theorist called "the principle of reduction, to find the essence of theatre: actors and audience, fundamentally an interpersonal situation". That influence was emphasised not only in the form but also in the subject matter of the opening show "ja bóg", an investigation into the metaphysical questions underpinning Grotowski's texts, created by and starring CHOREA director Tomasz Rodowicz and Joanna Chimelecka.

After the Birds (Po Ptakach) (Photo: Rami Shaya)

I wasn't able to attend the opening performances, which sadly meant missing the acclaimed likes of Tragedia Jana  (John's Tragedy) and Akty (Acts). The first show I did see proved a vibrant and compelling introduction to the festival, though. After the Birds (Po Ptakach) is a collaboration between CHOREA and the Welsh dance company Earthfall, which was first presented in 2005, and retains the same company of perfomers today. Following Grotowski's tendency to base work on classical narratives - the better to tap into mythic resonances and evoke a collective, internal response in viewers - the show, co-directed by Rodowicz, Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis, takes off from The Birds, using Aristophanes's comedy as the inspiration for a distinctive piece of physical theatre that dynamically combines the ancient and the contemporary.  

Opening in playful, clowning mode - three men and a ladder greet the audience and soon have us participating in a Mexican wave - the show ultimately runs the emotional and stylistic gamut. The performers flock together, form duos, or break apart via choreography that is breathtaking in its range and expressiveness. Live music and folk song, as well as bespoke compositions by Maciej Rychły - including a deeply moving growled Tom Waits-esque number - add to the intensity of the event. The show inspired a rapturous standing ovation, indicating that this is a piece that audiences would like to see return very soon. 

Othello/ Ukraine / Facebook (Photo: Rami Shaya)

Shifts between the absurdist and the serious also characterised Othello / Ukraine / Facebook, a piece for seven actors from Kyiv Academic Theatre "Golden Gate" directed by Stas Żyrkov, which uses elements of Shakespeare's text and the context of the current "fake news" climate to investigate Ukraine's present, past and possible future. The show is physical - with the cast variously donning fat suits or stripped to their pants - but also verbose, and, presented without English subtitles (something that the festival might consider adding in future years), some contextual elements inevitably remained obscure.

Other moments communicated powerfully, though, not least a homoerotic interlude in which shouted slurs give way to embraces, and a haunting sequence about the Holodomor - the famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in the early 1930s which is the subject of Agnieszka Holland's fine new film Gareth Jones. The show renders as expressionist nightmare what Holland's film presents in an observant, straightforward, classical-filmmaking style. The absence of any female presence feels like a lack,  but Othello / Ukraine / Facebook remains a powerful and subversive piece at its best. 

(The End, The Beginning - SOMA)
(Photo: Tomek Ogrodowczyk)
Male and female energies combined to exciting effect in Koniec, początek - SOMA (The End, the Beginning - SOMA) which introduces its five brilliant performers moving insect-like in separate relays across the floor, before Marta Bury's choreography brings them together explosively for a series of by turns playful and dramatic encounters. Video projections and the dynamism of bodies in motion also distinguished the outdoor performance of Właśnie tu. Właśnie teraz (Right Here. Right Now), created by CHOREA and Laboratorium Kreatywnego Działania. Presented in the social space between the buildings of the former factory, this piece addressed young people's hopes, struggles and dreams through movement and words, also inviting audience members to take to the mic. 

Pygmalion (Photo: Tomek Ogrodowczyk)

Meanwhile, Wojtek Ziemilski's Pygmalion soon subverted any notion that the performance would have anything to do with a certain George Bernard Shaw text. Instead, the piece found the personable Rozalia Mierzicka genially asking for the assistance of a volunteer from the audience to join her - in order, as it turned out, to help her move and manipulate a large piece of cardboard around the stage. Said cardboard is gradually revealed to be a container into which performer and volunteer disappear, moving it from the inside.

Stated themes of socialisation, education and training - of performer or child - gradually emerge and the show retains interest as a kind of minimalist spectacle, especially when its cardboard "creature" is making its way across the space, suggestive at times of fortress and tank, prison or playpen. 

Miasto (Photo: Rami Shaya)

With exciting, challenging concerts by the Kukła Żywa Collective and Magos Makriyannis ("Pythagoras Meets Euclid") closing the event, another surprise highlight of the last day of performances was the morning show Miasto (The City), a delightful piece devised and developed by CHOREA's kids theatre group. The show presents a day in the life of the city, taking us through various spaces - park, airport, museum, cinema - which are all creatively embodied by the young performers. As the group take their seats at the movies (hand-drawn posters for Frozen 2 and Moana to the fore!), the film they watch turns out - wonderfully - to be a document of the research that inspired the show itself.

The scene served as a synecdoche of sorts for the festival as a whole, uniting not only actors and audience but also the theatre with the world outside which it draws on, evokes and transforms. In our divisive, harshly judgemental times, and with Brexit looming, the vibrant "interpersonal situations" experienced at Retroperspektywy offered a timely reminder of the power of performance to unite and connect us across borders of language, culture and nation. 

Retroperspektywy Festival 2019 ran at Art_Inkubator between 23 August - 1 September. 

Related reading:

Reviews of Polish theatre:

The Nether (Jaracz Theatre), 
Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki), 
Angels in America
Slippery Words (Teatr Studyjny)

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Film Review: Nic Nie Ginie (Nothing is Lost) (dir. Kalina Alabrudzińska, 2019)

It's only 5 years since Łódź Film School inaugurated the "Diploma Film," a final project for the year's contingent of graduating students. But in that short time the initiative has firmly established itself as an important and anticipated tradition for the School.

Last year, with Monument, Jagoda Szelc produced the best of the Diploma films yet: a hypnotic and unsettling mood piece that finally revealed its hand as a shrewd meta-reflection on the experience of studying at the school itself. The confidence of Szelc's vision was stunning and was probably made possible by the fact that she had already completed and released a first feature, the distinctive Tower. A Bright Day (2017). 

An assistant director on Tower was Kalina Alabrudzińska, who now steps into the director's chair herself with this year's Diploma film Nothing is Lost (Nic Nie Ginie). A much more accessible offering than Monument, Alabrudzińska's film, which she describes as "a sad comedy," doesn't attempt to replicate its predecessor's oddity or intensity, instead treating serious subject matter in a much lighter way. Screened at Koszalin's 38th Youth & Film festival, where it won the prize for Best Directing, the result is an attractive ensemble drama that will likely have far wider general audience appeal than Monument's trippier vision.

That said, Nothing is Lost actually starts out as "meta" as Monument ended up - with a cheeky reflection on "group therapy" scenes in cinema. Such a session is getting underway as the film commences, and finds the characters wondering: "Are we gonna sit in a circle like this? There are scenes like that in movies. Usually the most boring scenes..." This self-reflexive opening establishes the humourous tone of the film, which never becomes a mere mope-fest. Doubtless mindful to incorporate as many of the graduating actors as possible, Alabrudzińska uses the context of the therapy meetings to bring together a group of diverse characters - and then to branch out into snapshots of their lives and relationships outside the sessions.

As  the "lost" or searching protagonists start to open up and "find" something in the therapy, the set-up sometimes gives off Breakfast Club vibes. But, working from her own script, Alabrudzińska prevents the film from degenerating into a series of predictable emotional showdowns. Bonding scenes and so-called "breakthrough moments" tend to be underplayed, and not everything resolves in the way you anticipate (or at all). 

As such, the film avoids obviousness, allowing its characters to retain a bit of mystery. The storytelling is helped by the contribution of cinematographer Nils Croné, who gives the images a clear, warm, burnished look that's very inviting, and by the crisp editing of Piasek & Wójcik (following their work on Ewa Podgorska's brilliant Diagnosis), which moves us fluidly between the therapy sessions and the characters' individual lives.

Still, while the technical side is more than proficient, Nothing is Lost's main asset is its performers, and those who've been lucky enough to see these actors' often amazing stage work over the past year (in new extravaganzas like Fever, devised pieces such as Slippery Words, or contemporary classics like Angels in America) will be particularly delighted to find them taking to the camera with equal assurance.

Alabrudzińska's writing allows the actors to develop characters who are relatable but who go beyond conventional "types." Michał Surosz is lovely as a guy so dedicated to saving a particular endangered species of turtle that all his other relationships are neglected. Wiktoria Filus charms as a single mum trying out Tinder, and Jan Hrynkiewicz delivers delectably mean put-downs with aplomb as the group's most caustic participant. Zuzanna Puławska is funny and touching as a mother-dominated people-pleaser, and charismatic Piotr Pacek shines as an actor with interpersonal issues - so much so that he feels rejected by nature itself. (The film makes nature a motif, in fact: plants, trees and the aforementioned turtles all feature in the protogonists' attempts to connect.)

And in case it seems that the focus is entirely on personal concerns, Nothing is Lost doesn't shy away from the wider context of darker elements of contemporary Polish political reality, either. The most ambitious sequence here is a night-time nationalist gathering attended by Hrynkiewicz's character and featuring Elżbieta Zajko as a firebrand delivering hate speech, with Kamil Rodek and Mateusz Grodecki on hand as colleagues, the latter playing guitar and singing that "The day of mighty Poland is coming."

Some of the smaller roles need further development; one senses a few of the actors' eagerness to go further into the characters than their fleeting appearances allow. But Robert Ratuszny and Faustyna Kazimierska - memorably opening a beer bottle with her teeth! - maximise their brief screen time, while, in one of the best sequences, Karol Franek Nowiński flashes his great grin - surely one of the best smiles the Polish screen has seen - as a pharmacist who pleases Pacek's character by revealing himself to be a fan - before their exchange is given a great comic twist. And Ksenia Tchórzko gets a lovely appearance as a dog-sitting neighbour, when the film belatedly digresses to focus on the therapist, Remek (excellent Dobromir Dymecki), himself.

Such moments cut to the heart of the concern with human interaction which is the main preoccupation of Nothing is Lost. In the introduction to Powidoki / Afterimages, a poetic book of visual essays about Łódź Film School, (di)rector Mariusz Grzegorzek describes the School as "a special place" where "there flows a source of energy that connects people." In its wise and wry portrait of the challenges and possibilities of making contact, Alabrudzińska's likeable film taps into that source.

Nic Nie Ginie / Nothing is Lost  will screen in the Panorama section of the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (16 - 21 September). 

NIC NIE GINIE /////// teaser ////// scenariusz i reżyseria Kalina Alabrudzińska from LODZ FILM SCHOOL on Vimeo.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Theatre Review: Directors' Festival 2019 (Orange Tree)

The Mikvah Project (Photo: Robert Day)

This is the third year that the Orange Tree has run its Directors' Festival, which presents the work of graduates from St. Mary's University's MA Theatre Directing course over a week of performances. As Paul Miller has previously noted, "director training is part of the OT's DNA," and the initiative has its roots in the long-running Directors' Showcase seasons of Sam Walters' tenure, when the theatre's trainees staged such seldom-seen plays as Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke and Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, which featured future Hamlet Paapa Essiedu in a galvanising turn. 

This year, the four plays presented are, once again, all contemporary works, ones that, via a series of excellent designs by the enterprising team of Cory Shipp, Chris McDonnell (lighting) and Lex Kosanke (sound), transport the audience from the Portuguese capital to the mindscapes of a love-seeking man and woman, from mountain tops to a Mikvah bath. 

The latter is the location for Josh Azouz's The Mikvah Project, which, with a surprising amount of humour, unfolds a love story between two very different Jewish men who meet every Friday to take part in the religious ritual of water submersion. Avi is a married thirtysomething trying for a child with his wife, while Eitan is an Arsenal-loving 17-year-old. As the men talk and bond, mutual attraction surfaces, which Eitan is keen to act on. 

As a portrait of gay desire struggling with culture, The Mikvah Project suggests a Jewish Brokeback Mountain or, more aptly, a companion to the excellent 2009 Israeli film Eyes Wide Open. Shipp's set opens a pool in the OT floor which the actors slip into and out of. At such moments, Georgia Green's audience-inclusive production creates a palpable erotic tension, while also indulging some broad comedy, especially in a manic and very funny Alicante-set interlude. Grace notes are found in the well-judged performances, with Dylan Mason capturing Eitan's ardency and Robert Neumark Jones touchingly conveying Avi's conflicts. 

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Photo: Robert Day) 

A more caustic take on modern relationships is offered in Declan Greene's Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, which presents a hook-up between a nurse and an IT worker - each with their own problems. (He's a miserably married porn addict, and she a debt-ridden shopaholic.) It's more "meet desperate" than "meet cute," and the fantastic opening scene captures the relentlessness and absurdity of needy online interactions with wince-inducing perceptiveness. 

The bluntness of the title carries over into much of the dialogue, which Cate Hamer and Matthew Douglas deliver with aplomb, getting a great rhythm going. Nothing revelatory is said about the way in which technology feeds on and frustrates the human need for intimacy. But, with crackling bursts of static and illumination, Gianluca Lello's sharp and intelligent production makes wonderfully dynamic a play which, like The Mikvah Project, tends to (over-)rely on to-audience narration rather than the creation of dramatic scenes. 

Pilgrims (Photo: Robert Day)

The other two plays in the festival are engaging three-handers. Elinor Cook's Pilgrims offers a feminist take on (male) wanderlust and folk song, with Nicholas Armfield and Luke MacGregor as two dedicated climbers and Adeyinka Akinrinade as the PhD student who, in conventional parlance, "comes between them." Armfield and MacGregor convey an affectionate, but also tense and competitive, bond and Akinrinade moves compellingly from sparkiness to disappointment as the girl who gives up her own dream for theirs. 

Mythological and archetypal resonances are incorporated with a slightly heavy hand, but Ellie Goodall's production is fluid and sensitive, negotiating temporal and location shifts with elegant economy (plus some lovely a capella folk singing by the cast), and giving the production a mystical undertone. Signposted from the outset, the outcome seems predictable, but the play twists in an unexpected direction in the subversive and exceptionally well-played final scene. 

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes (Photo: Robert Day)  

The most obviously dazzling and surprising of the four productions is Wiebke Green's take on Tiago Rodrigues' Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes. The premise of this play - the imaginative odyssey of a 9-year-old across Lisbon, accompanied by her teddy bear (named Judy Garland) - sounds like the height of preciousness. But, belying its overt playful qualities, Rodrigues' writing (presented here in a fine poetic/profane translation by Mark O'Thomas) turns out to have plenty of bite, and succeeds in confounding the viewer at every turn. "Judy Garland" (a hilarious, bear-suited Nathan Welsh), for one, has suicidal tendencies, a Ted-ish vocabulary and attitude to spare, while the play itself has decidedly complex things to say about loss and the relationship of language to experience. 

Green keeps the proceedings fleet, funny and physical throughout, with the great Gyuri Sarossy multi-tasking superbly as "The Man Who Is My Father" and all the other blokes encountered on the journey. (Including Chekhov!) But ultimately the evening belongs to Eve Ponsonby who gives a sublime and exhilarating performance as the smarty pants, dictionary-devouring heroine who has more to learn about life and language than she realises. A brilliant and barmy trip, Green's hugely enjoyable production makes the viewer wish for more Portuguese plays - and certainly more plays by Rodrigues - on the UK stage. 

The Directors' Festival runs until 11 August. Further information and booking details here

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Shooting the Moon: on the 9th Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź, 12-19 July 2019

Ja Teraz Kłamię 

"I wish you all a strange trip," said director Paweł Borowski as he introduced his new film Ja Teraz Kłamię (I'm Lying Now) to a packed house at the 9th Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź. "Strange trips" were not in short supply at this year's edition of Jan A. P. Kaczmarek's "glocal" 7 day film and music event, which, following last year's independence-themed programme, this time took as its topic "The Moon Landing and Other Interrupted Dreams" - as a way of celebrating not only the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission but also the transportive, dream-inspiring potential of the cinematic and musical arts.

Ja Teraz Kłamię

Borowski's wish was realised: Ja Teraz Kłamię, the director's first feature since his acclaimed debut Zero ten years ago, is a dazzlingly designed Rubik's cube of a movie that, in its idiosyncratic way and with a Rashomon-esque narrative structure, addresses our "post-truth" culture via the interwoven experiences of three protagonists who participate in a "reality" TV show. A pleasingly convoluted plot (which only conks out a bit at the very end) and some breathtaking visuals - don't be surprised to hear yourself exclaim "Wow!" on several occasions - are complemented by the efforts of a fabulous (and fabulously costumed) cast, with talented young Łódź theatre heroine Paulina Walendziak more than holding her own against such luminaries as an intense Maja Ostaszewska and the otherworldly Agata Buzek, garbed in black as the show's enigmatic host. A unique offering in contemporary Polish cinema, Borowski's film seems destined for major cult status.

Arturo Ripstein 

Elsewhere, the Festival's wide-ranging programme encompassed philosophical debates and such unique events as the Instant Composition Contest and the always-popular Cinema in Bed screenings, in which great recent films including Tully, Fugue, Happy as Lazzaro, The Heiresses and Summer 1993 - a highlight of Transatlantyk 2017 - were presented. The Culinary Cinema section found four new foodie documentaries and Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's evergreen Big Night (1996) inspiring delicious dinners and stimulating conversations at EC1, where Jull Dziamski, the artist responsible for this year's Festival poster, also exhibited a selection of his exciting work.

A rare retrospective of the films of Aleksei German was greatly appreciated, and, as usual, attendees also had the opportunity to engage with filmmakers in person thanks to post-screening Q&As and the series of special Master classes, which this year featured Mexican maestro Arturo Ripstein (recipient of this year's FIPRESCI Platinum Award 94), Wojciech Marczewski (whose Star on the Łódź Walk of Fame was unveiled during the Festival), and Martha Coolidge, whose new film I'll Find You received its Polish premiere at the Opening Gala. A soapy, well-meaning and determinedly old-fashioned WWII love story that's somewhat reminiscent of Amma Asante's recent Where Hands Touch (2018), I'll Find You was few people's idea of a galvanising festival opener but justified its inclusion due to its Łódź setting and Kaczmarek's status as the film's composer.


The New Cinema section, however, offered more innovative visions. The exciting new Israeli cinema was well represented by Nadav Lapid's Golden Bear-awarded Synonyms, a ludic, cerebral and sharp-edged investigation into issues of nationhood, language and identity that features charismatic Tom Mercier (variously naked or sporting a highly covetable mustard-coloured coat) as Yoav, a twentysomething who, having completed his military service, rejects his homeland for France but finds assimilation into the City of Light a more problematic prospect than might be imagined. 

God of the Piano

Meanwhile, the influence of Lapid's wonderful The Kindergarten Teacher (2014) could be felt in Itay Tal's confident debut film God of the Piano, a brisk but haunting drama that grips like a thriller as it focuses on a complicated heroine (great Naama Preis) striving to make her son a piano prodigy. Lean and stylish, God of the Piano is notable for its intelligent perspective on the place of talent in family dynamics, and, following the success of Sara Colangelo's superb US take on The Kindergarten Teacher (2018), it wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine an American remake of Tal's film in the future, too.

Several other memorable dramas also placed complex female protagonists at their centre. Teona Strugar Mitevska's God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya focuses on the patriarchal ruckus that results when the title character (Zorica Nusheva) intrudes on male territory by being the one to pull a cross out of a river during a religious ceremony in a Macedonian village. Marie Kreutzer's The Ground Beneath My Feet plays out as a sincere, emotionally insightful counter to Maren Ade's ghastly Toni Erdmann (2016) as it critiques corporate culture through a focus on an ambitious business consultant (Valerie Pachner) grappling with her carefully compartmentalised professional and personal commitments.

Nina Wu

Premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section, Midi Z's #MeToo-influenced Nina Wu oscillates compellingly between social realism and hallucinatory Lynchian weirdness in its exploration of the exploitation of an actress (the director's usual collaborator Wu Ke-xi) in the Taiwanese film industry. As in The Ground Beneath my Feet the (lesbian) sexuality of the protagonist is presented with refreshing matter-of-factness - though a lurid, overly explicit final flashback sequence unfortunately leaves the film itself open to the charge of exploitation. 


Fresh from Cannes' Main Competition, Justine Triet's campier, all-over-the-shop Sybil features the elegant Virginie Efira as the title character, a psychiatrist cannibalising the life of a patient (Adele Exarchopoulos, perpetually tear-stained) for a novel. With Erdmann's Sandra Hüller rehashing her frazzled schtick as an under-pressure filmmaker and Niels Schneider steamily reuniting with Efira after last year's An Impossible Love, the film takes off in all manner of directions and never quite comes together, but offers a memorably off-kilter ride, held together by Efira's game, quicksilver turn. With female protagonists and performances such as these standing out throughout the festival, it was also notable that the audience-voted Distribution Award went to a female-directed film for the third year in a row: this time, the winner was Nora Fingscheidt's System Crasher, a distinctively kinetic take on the in-care experiences of a "problem" child.


American cinema didn't have anything of substance to offer, though Nicolas Pesce's Piercing, screened in Cinema by Night, which features the appealing duo of Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska in a highly stylised torture porn power game curio adapted from Ryū Murukami's  novel, is the quintessence of a guilty pleasure. International filmmakers, in contrast, were to be found grappling with intersections of personal and political histories in interesting ways. Flavia Castro's Unremember tracks a family's return from exile in France to their homeland of Brazil where teenager Joana (Jeanne Boudier), initially resistant to the move, finds herself drawn into new pleasures and memories of the past, the latter related to the fate of her father. Castro's film isn't particularly satisfying dramatically but its brooding, moody texture keeps the viewer close to the emotional experience of its young heroine.


A belated (and cheekily titled) follow-up to his immaculately chilling debut Michael (2011) Markus Schleinzer's Angelo follows an African slave boy's progress through the 18th century Austrian court where he starts out as the favourite of a countess (Alba Rohrwacher) and ends up...well, that would be telling. With unstressed anachronistic touches piercing the period ambience, and the director's super-subtlety subverting some traditional tropes, the opening scenes promise much but the film falters due to an unsatisfying, decades-leaping structure and its frustrating failure to make its protagonist more than a cipher.

I Was Here

A welcome contrast to the celeb-struck tendencies of Asif Kapadia - whose shallow "trilogy" of Senna (2010), Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019), as "tabloid" as the culture they ostensibly critique, screened as part of a retrospective - two fantastic new documentaries focusing on "ordinary" people were revelations for the festival audience. In I Was Here, directors Nathalie Biancheri and Ola Jankowska interview a range of people from around the UK about their lives, posing the question of why they would make a compelling documentary subject.

The question leads to some fascinating accounts of illness, creativity, work, and adoption. An elderly woman sings, dances and does the splits - and then shares a perceptive account of her previous life as a carer. A confident, beefy guy weeps as he recalls his separation from his sister as a child. Brief moments of re-enactment - from sleeping positions to a doctor's examination - make mimed daily activities  a strange ballet, but what captivates here are not the meta aspects so much as the articulated memories hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies of the protagonists, their faces lovingly attended to in Biancheri's and Jankowska's unflinching but tender frame.

Diagnosis poster

A unique city symphony, both intimate and monumental, in which the metropolis and human psyche become indivisible, Ewa Podgórska's Diagnosis takes a more overtly stylised approach to the documentary form, with a haunting sound design, slow zooms and some stunning overhead shots creating a hypnotic, multifaceted portrait of Łódź that might be described as an investigation into the city's subconscious. As the title indicates, Diagnosis combines elements of psychoanalysis with urban studies, as questions such as "If the city had parents, what would they be like?" and "If the city was a colour what would it be?" yield answers at once poetic and direct from the interviewees, generating insights that create a deeper, more impressionistic vision of the city than that made possible by a focus on demonstrable facts. 

Like I Was Here, Diagnosis unfolds stories of caring and compromise, loss, disappointment and resilience, and it was especially powerful to screen the film in the city that is its subject, with some of the protagonists present for Q&A discussions. By turns moving, funny and surprising, both of these empathetic documentaries deserve to be widely seen. Affirming a common humanity, they also prompt a subversive reassessment of what constitutes "ordinary" experience. In a year in which the festival celebrated the special achievement of the moon-landing, it was essential to have these films to remind us, so insightfully and intensely, of the pains, joys and complexities of our earthbound lives.

A full list of festival winners is available here.