Polish Cinema in Warsaw Film Festival: Looking for New Perspectives?

in 31st Warsaw Film Festival

by Barbara Giza

Arguably, among the most characteristic features of Polish cinema is filming the past – a frequent subject of many Polish films, including the ones shown within the framework of the FIPRESCI competition at  the 31st WFF. They enter in a dialogue with tradition, trying to find new perspectives, but instead end up demonstrating how strong this tradition is and that, paradoxically, the only way to remain loyal to it, is to remain within its confines. The question here is then what is the result of this strategy?

The films, discussed below are The New World, Hel, and Klezmer, with all three of them offering examples of handling various traditions – whether national, social and – in some way – cinematic. The New World, directed by Elzbieta Benkowska, Lukasz Ostalski and Michal Wawrzecki, features three stories about contemporary Poland – that is, about "the better new world" for people from Eastern Europe and Asia, who immigrate to Poland. The film follows three young people form Belarus, Afghanistan and Ukraine for whom Poland is the "new world". But The New World is also a street name in downtown Warsaw, marked by an artificial palm tree at a crossroad. This simple landmark is well known to Poles, mostly because of the book "The New World and its Vicinity," published in 1990 by famous immigrant writer Tadeusz Konwicki, born in Lithuania and living in Warsaw, who describes with irony and devotion this street and its environs as a "new world." To a great extend, Benkowska, Ostalski and Wawrzecki have preserved the emotional mode of the literary original. The famous Warsaw street brings together all three narrative lines, with crucial events taking place in this street, and with characters finding themselves there at the same time, but without knowing each other. The question of immigrants and immigration is one among the most important for today's Poland, and in this sense the film constitutes a testimony to the present day, although the language in which this question is discussed, and the way the film interprets immigrant characters, are too simplistic, following maybe too close the easily recognizable Polish cultural tradition.

Similarly, Hel by Katia Priwieziencew and Pawel Tarasiewicz initiate discussion with the Polish cinematic tradition, which never favored film genres (with the arguable exception of comedies). This film is designed as a thriller – a unique approach for the Polish film industry. Hel is actually the name of a peninsula on the Baltic Sea which, while a very popular summer  destination, is almost deserted during the rest of the year. The protagonist is the aging, world weary Jack, an American scriptwriter, who comes to Hel in order to seek inspiration for his new script, which seems to be his last chance to stay in the business. Very soon Jack gets involved in strange and terrible events, and becomes the main suspect of a crime. Featuring an  American scriptwriter as main character clearly signals the authors' strategy, strongly implying references to American film masters like David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino. The film music, the way of shooting and handling characters and mood, the marshaling of space, even the acting manner sometimes, all work towards building a particular kind of excess, which point to a pastiche or parody strategy. Unfortunately, it remains unclear whether indeed the real goal of the filmmakers was to create a deliberate post-modern imitation of the thriller genre, or the film is the result of a not very successful attempt to make an authentic Polish genre film. In any case, Hel remains an example of looking for the new opportunities for Polish cinema in dialogues with a world cinematic tradition, no matter how difficult it seems to adapt this tradition to the locally specific conditions.

Klezmer by Piotr Chrzan is probably the most interesting among the three films under scrutiny. It belongs to the long and rich tradition of Polish Holocaust cinema. This tradition was initiated around the time of The Schindler's List, and raises the question of responsibility, both individual and collective, of Poles for the extermination of Jews during the war. The question is very difficult and often triggers emotionally charged reactions, but Polish cinema perseveres in this discussion. On this intense backdrop Klezmer does not look overly original, but on the other hand it makes an interesting artistic proposition, suggesting that there is no way of knowing of what has really happened between few simple, unsophisticated people, in a forest somewhere in eastern Poland around 1942. While at work, they find a young Jewish man, wounded and unconscious – and decide to take him to their village, report to the authorities and get an award from the Germans. And while proceeding with their decision, they seem to be devoid of any human feelings, but we find out that the sister of one of the Poles is hiding a young Jewish girl, and is also helping out a group of Jews, hiding somewhere in the forest. She recognizes the prisoner as a musician, whom she heard playing  beautiful and touching music at a wedding. Although in a forest, people feel claustrophobic, do not trust each other, being actually afraid of one another, and therefore do not hesitate to kill each other, which is the real tragedy in this film. There's no possibility to avoid being part of this, to stay "out" and remain human. It is this baring of the powers of evil, which makes this film universal and  worth seeing, even if it tackles a subject that has become familiar from  contemporary Polish cinema

These three titles seem to each bring a new proposition for the Polish cinema to pursue, demonstrating that these propositions are firmly rooted in solid traditions of subjects and discussions, already well known to Polish audience and filmmakers. And while The New World, Hel, and Klezmer  are testaments to the resilience of these traditions, their fascination with them implies the impossibility of Polish cinema to leave this enchanted circle.

Edited by Christina Stojanova
© FIPRESCI 2015

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