Thursday 30 September 2021

Powrót do Gdyni: on the 46th Polish Film Festival (20-25 September 2021)


Held online-only in a delayed edition last December, where its condensed programme included Piotr Domalewski's Jak najdalej stąd (I Never Cry)Małgorzata Szumowska's Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie (Never Gonna Snow Again), and Tomasz Jurkiewicz's Każdy ma swoje lato  (Everyone Has a Summer), Polish Film Festival's 46th edition was able to take place in person in Gdynia last week. "Poland's Cannes" is a Festival that means a lot to me, so seeing it return to full power this year was heartening, to say the least. 

Jacek Bromski and Agnieszka Holland
(Photo: PAP Adam Warzawa)

Retaining (some might say regaining) its central place in the nation's film culture, the Festival remains dedicated to honouring Polish film past, with an expanded "Pure Classics" selection that this year celebrated Munk and Kieślowski and presented a Platinum Lions Award for lifetime achievement to Agnieszka Holland, who, noting her position as the first female recepient, highlighted the dire situation of refugees currently at the Polish border in her speech. 

Tomasz Kolankiewicz (Photo: Materialy Prasowe)

Most importantly, of course, FPFF is there to showcase Polish film present via its three central strands: the Main Competition, the Microbudget Competition, and the Short Film Competition. Lacking an artistic director for a couple of years, the Festival is now under the creative stewardship of Tomasz Kolankiewicz, whose intelligent guidance showed in a highly diverse but coherent programme that made for one of the most satisfying Gdynias I've attended, matching the strong showings of the 2015 and 2018 editions (and, incidentally, compensating for this year's quite disappointing New Horizons). Further reviews of individual films and interviews from the Festival will be published in the coming months but I wanted to first record a few more personal impressions of the event here. 

(Un)acceptable in the '80s

A quickly-apparent aspect of this year's programme was the amount of films looking back to the 1980s, a fraught, transformative decade in Polish history that contemporary filmmakers evidently feel freshly compelled to investigate. Director Jan P. Matuszyński described this period to me as one "full of untold stories," and it's this rich seam that writers and directors are mining in both political and personal ways, as they approach the era with attitudes ranging from wry nostalgia to fierce critique. 

Matuszyński's own film falls firmly into the latter camp. Opening in 1983, Żeby nie było śladów (Leave No Traces), which debuted at Venice and screens at London FF in a couple of weeks, is a rich, chunky drama about the case of Grzegorz Przemek. A high school graduate and son of poet and activist Barbara  Sadowska (Sandra Korzeniak), the young man was arrested by the Militia after refusing to show his  ID. With friend Jurek (Tomasz Ziętek), he's taken into custody and viciously assaulted (the title refers to an officer's stipulation to "leave no marks" on the body), subsequently dying in hospital of his injuries. The wide-ranging government cover-up operation that seeks to discredit Jurek as the only witness is the central focus of the film. 

Matuszyński is a formidably intelligent filmmaker and, perhaps inspired by his work on the very entertaining 8-part Król series, he here combines an expansive approach with the intimacy that distinguished his indelible debut feature Ostatnia Rodzina (The Last Family) (2016). Some commentators have critiqued this strategy, deeming the result overlong and diffuse. For me, Leave No Traces remained the Festival's most accomplished film. Vivid, sensitive, absorbing, and one of the few works I've seen this year that truly earns and uses its lengthy running time, its impact is also enhanced by the case's connection to a wider, post-George Floyd focus on instances of police brutality, the kind explored in (Black) British contexts in Steve McQueen's Mangrove and Ken Fero's documentaries, such as the recent Ultraviolence

While Leave No Traces constructs a portrait of People's Republic corruption with intertexts ranging from Wajda's cinema to Michael Mann's epically-scaled crime dramas, other films took radically different approaches to '80s realities. Mateusz Rakowicz's super-stylised Najmro. Kocha, kradnie, szanuje (The Getaway King) turns the decade into the setting for an exuberant caper comedy that plays out as a hyper Polish take on David Lowery's The Old Man & the Gun (2018),  with a star performance from Dawid Ogrodnik as the endlessly-absconding criminal. 

Kinga Dębska's Zupa Nic, meanwhile, presents PRL privations in the context of a warm but tart family comedy drama. (Dębska's characterful films never seem to have much luck with English language titles, though: Zupa Nic has been witlessly translated as Back Then - a bland moniker that could potentially fit about half the films in this year's Main Competition.)

Zupa Nic

Episodic to the point of plotlessness, Zupa Nic turns a bit too soft as it progresses but it's delightfully performed, often laugh-out-loud funny - "That line freak would buy a tank if people were queuing up for it!" complains Kinga Preis' harried, Solidarity-active matriarch following a questionable purchase made by her spouse (adorable Adam Woronowicz) - and certainly Dębska's most satisfying film since Moje córki krowy (These Daughters of Mine, gah) back in 2015. 

Powrót do Legolandu

A similar savouring of '80s domestic detail and attention to coveted objects (from Lego to VCRs) was evident in Konrad Aksinowicz's Powrót do Legolandu (Return to Legoland), based, like Zupa Nic, on its writer-director's own background. Maciej Stuhr stars here as an apparently charming patriarch returning to his wife and teenage son with shiny Western goodies after a prolonged period in the US. Joyous to start, the film boasts a mid-point tonal shift that Aksinowicz fumbles, turning the piece into a monotonous and uninsightful domestic melodrama about the difficulties of living with an alcoholic that serves as little more than a vehicle for Stuhr to deliver a committed (but indulgent) display of drunk acting. 

Hyacinth © Bartosz Mrozowski

Gay Times and Country Life

A highlight of New Horizons, where it premiered last month, Piotr Domalewski's Netflix-produced Hyacinth (which won Marcin Ciastoń this year's best screenplay prize) exemplifies the kind of "untold story" to which Matuszyński referred in its focus on the targeted campaign against homosexuals in mid-80s Poland known as "Akcja Hiacynt". Also concerned with police brutality, and boasting another fine performance from Tomasz Ziętek, this time on the other side of the law (for a while, at least), the film stood up extremely well to a second viewing, revealing beneath its police procedural trappings a love story between two protagonists who are each concealing the whole truth from the other.

Wszystkie nasze strachy

As a film about Polish LGBTQ+ experience Hyacinth was joined in the FPFF Main Competition by Wszystkie nasze strachy (Fearsdirected by Łukasz Ronduda and Łukasz Gutt, which was the eventual winner of the top Golden Lions prize for Best Film. The film is inspired by the life of Daniel Rycharski, the gay Catholic artist from the village of Kurówka. It makes the suicide of an (underwritten) lesbian friend the catalyst for the decision of Rycharski (played by Dawid Ogrodnik with the artist's signature bleached blonde hair and rainbow-striped tracksuit) to suggest a Way of the Cross for his friend as a redemptive action undertaken by the whole community whom he sees as implicated in her death. 

Daniel Rycharski & Dawid Ogrodnik. (Fot. Jarosław Sosiński)

Compromised by several aspects including the miscasting of Ogrodnik, a generally uncritical acceptance of Rycharski's own self-image, and an overreliance on choral vocalising to whip up an emotional response, Wszystkie nasze strachy's scooping of the main prize surely represented a politically-motivated gesture of LGBTQ+ solidarity on the jury's part. Lacking an objective stance on its hero, the film still scores in some of its intimate scenes (the protagonist's interactions with his supportive babcia are a crowd-pleasing highlight), its beautiful cinematography (by Gutt), and the subtler moments in which the screenplay by Ronduda, Katarzyna Sarnowska and Michał Oleszczyk attends a bit to the contradictions inherent in Rycharski's position as a figure self-consciously bridging contemporary Poland's polarisation. 

Here and Now, Black and White 

A less high-profile but intriguing exploration of the Polish province, religion and desire came courtesy of Po miłość / Pour l'amour, which screened in the Microbudget Competition. Andrzej Mańkowski's decidedly odd drama puts Jowita Budnik (who also makes the most of a small role as the grieving mother in Wszystkie nasze strachy) through the physical and emotional mill. Here Budnik plays a school cleaner, Marlena, who finds herself caught between an abominable husband with a drinking problem and a smooth-talking Senegalese scammer (Mamadou Ba) who contacts her via a social media app. 

Much concerned with the escapist and exploitative potential of Internet interaction - which it also explores via a not-too-subtly-developed subplot involving Budnik's young colleague (Patrycja Ziniewicz) who ends up slut-shamed by the rural community - the film begins promisingly. But its attempt to blend social realism with fantasy in sequences in which Marlena visualises her online beau as present with her (accompanied by jaunty "African" music, natch) proves ill-advised.

Budnik's powerful performance holds the film together, though the shrill climax, which literalises the heroine's position as a trapped woman, is painfully over-extended. Undoubtedly feminist, the film is a bit more problematic when it comes to race issues. The topic of African online scammers is one that Western liberal filmmakers, obsessively dedicated to portraits of Black heroism or victimhood at the moment, would be sure to shy away from, and Ba (an actor known for his work with Warsaw's Teatr Powszechny) manages to bring some subtler shadings to the role later on. But the fact that the only non-white character to feature in the some 17 films I saw at this year's festival is, at base, a negative stereotype indicates (like the brief moment of racist caricaturing that cropped up in Smarzowski's Kler three years ago) that Polish cinema has a long way to go when it comes to effectively broadening its scope of ethnic representation.

As Po miłość and Wszystkie nasze strachy show, the films at FPFF 2021 didn't ignore the contemporary world. Several more took on social topics, such as Michał Otłowski's Lokatorka (The Tenant. You Can't Burn Us All), a blunt critique of "wild privatisation" that uncovers a web of corruption beneath the recent removals of social housing tenants from buildings reclaimed by their owners. The film's highlighting of the disparagement of such tenants as worthless wastrels within capitalist society is certainly well-intentioned (one envisages Ken Loach nodding approval) but the style and execution are basic, to say the least. 

At the other end of the scale of creativity was Filip Jan Rymsza's Mosquito State, an ambitious blend of bio/body horror and corporate black comedy in which the consequences of a mosquito bite become less a threat than a liberation for the socially awkward Wall Street hero (Beau Knapp). Its title evoking both a personal condition and a parasitic social system, the film offers an idiosyncratic origin story for the 2007-2008 financial crisis while also keeping us immersed in its protagonist's freaky headspace. From its leisurely, artfully-designed title sequence onwards, the movie is a trip, and was a deserved winner of the "Visions Apart" and Best Sound prizes. 

Inni Ludzie

Also offering a wild ride of a different kind was Aleksandra Terpińska's  Inni Ludzie (Other People), adapted from Dorota Masłowska's 2018 text. The film brings together Poland's haves and have-nots via the relationship between an aspiring rapper (Jacek Beler, a surprise winner of the Best Actor prize) and his wealthy older lover (Sonia Bohosiewicz), translating Masłowska's language to the screen in the form of an attention-grabbing hip hop musical, complete with narrating Jesus (Sebastian Fabijański).

Frenetic to a fault, Inni Ludzie won many admirers. But some deft touches notwithstanding (those who loved the brief bout of musical muff-diving in Leos Carax's Annette will thrill to several sung-through sex sequences here), I found the film increasingly repellent: obvious in its social points, tonally one-note, and so smugly scuzzy in content that you might feel like a bath afterwards. (The rhymes yield some unintentional comedy, too, at least in their translated form. Sample: "He badly wanted a Lego Space Rover/Would've had a hard-on - if he'd been older.")

Those seeking a more modest take on the musical could find it in the Microbudget Competition, where Tomasz Habowski's Piosenki o miłości (Songs About Love) (the eventual winner of said competition), served up a pleasing confection about a drifting rich boy (Tomasz Włosok) with musical ambitions and the underconfident waitress (Justyna Święs, of The Dumplings) with whom he collaborates after overhearing her sing. Black-and-white for the most part but turning to colour for its social media inserts, the film has plenty of charm, some insight and bite, a nice dash of Nouvelle Vague spirit (as indicated by that Honoré-alluding title), and a brilliant performance from Andrzej Grabowski as the hero's self-regarding actor Dad.

Performance was indeed a pleasure of many of the films at this year's festival, from the great Agata Buzek bringing her vaguely extraterrestrial quality to the part of Jo, an English teacher undergoing entwined personal and professional tensions in Łukasz Grzegorzek's delicious Moje wspaniałe życie (My Wonderful Life) to Maria Dębska's radiant star turn in Bo we mnie jest seks (Autumn Girl), Katarzyna Klimkiewicz's stylised, intermittently enjoyable retro musical about Kalina Jędrusik. Props, too, to the brilliant DP Weronika Bilska, whose cinematography on Everyone Has a Summer I already admired, for her superb work on both of these films and her loving lighting of their heroines. (The in-demand Bilska shot Piosenki o miłości, too!) 

Dialogue not division 

One takeaway from this year's festival was that Polish films currently tend to be reliant upon a journalistic approach, mostly dramatising historical/contemporary events or figures and using the "Based on true events" tag as a stamp of authenticity. (In this context, the cheeky slogan that precedes Bo we mnie jest seks - "The events presented in this film may or may not have happened" - seems quite subversive.)  

This is not an exclusively Polish issue (rather, it may be linked to a wider distrust of "fiction" in our over-mediated age), and it's not necessarily a problem when it yields films of the quality of Leave No Traces. Still, one would hope to see directors letting loose with their imaginations more (in the vein of Mosquito State) and further embracing the expressive potential of the medium. Nonetheless, FPFF 2021's uniting of new and established talents (with a significant number of young or debuting directors in the Main and Microbudget Competitions) and its open attitude were bracing, and bode well for the future of the festival based, in Kolankiewicz's phrase, "on dialogue not division."

The 46th Polish Film Festival took place in Gdynia between 20-25 September 2021. 

Sunday 26 September 2021

Review of Uprising in Sight and Sound

My review of Steve McQueen and James Rogan's three-part  BBC documentary series about the New Cross Fire, Uprising, is in the October issue of Sight and Sound and on the magazine's website. You can read it here