By Irina Trocan
Although my first visit to Gdynia was a distant seven years ago – for the 2014 edition of the Polish Film Festival –, the largest film industry event in Poland has always left me feeling like a bit of an outsider, and I don’t mean this as a complaint. The country’s film production is much higher and more diverse than most of its East European neighbors, to the point where it is quite difficult even for Polish film critics to keep up with new releases – thus, the main competition of the Gdynia festival is a welcome selection. The efficiency of the Polish Film Institute in stimulating local film production over the previous decade and a half, the important heritage of canonical films made in Poland in the past century, as well as the reliability of local audiences even in challenging times for theatrical distribution collectively mean that there is plenty to talk about – usually in untranslated Polish – on the local scene, and Gdynia is the place for these conversations to happen. (The more foreigner-friendly festival is Nowe Horyzonty in Wroclaw, though its selection is oriented toward international arthouse and, thus, it has a less expansive offer of Polish films; it rarely leaves the same impression of the why’s and how’s being sometimes lost in translation, but Gdynia definitely offers a privileged position for the curious overhearer of the local industry).
During the editions I attended, there always seemed to be a divide between the international-festival type of film and those featuring Polish history and local celebrities or, plainly, in-jokes that a foreigner might not recognize. The specter of my own remoteness haunted me this year as well, for instance while watching the highly anticipated Other People (Inni ludzie), directed by Aleksandra Terpinska and based on a book by acclaimed writer Dorota Maslowska. A hip hop musical, it used verses to convey the emotions of its protagonists – a network of people existing in a desaturated urban setting and cheating on their partners, plus a cap-and-hoodie-wearing Jesus figure occasionally standing by their side and providing detached commentary on their turmoil. Without the expressivity of language, for those – like me – who rely on subtitles, it all becomes a cynical and mainly unfunny take on all walks of life intersecting in a 21st century city. Iwona (Sonia Bohosiewicz) has the picture-perfect family life that predictably turns out to be hollow; Kamil (Jacek Beler) refuses to just get a job while also self-sabotaging his ambition to be an artist, and he seems as desirable to women as he is likely to end up feeling used – by Iwona as well as his mean-girl conquest Aneta (Magdalena Kolesnik, awarded last year in Gdynia for her role in Magnus Van Horn’s Sweat). The network extends to Iwona’s husband, his mistress and daughter, their Ukrainian cleaning lady, Kamil’s mother and sister, even Aneta’s supposed-lesbian flatmate, though neither of the characters is properly defined – at best, the intertwined narratives lead to music video trickery (justly awarded at the end of the festival for Best Editing). Once you’ve met one character, you’ve met them all, since they come from the same disenchanted at best, misanthropic at worst outlook on contemporary life. The most unpredictable parts of the film are Jacques-Demy-esque interventions to the main melody from passengers in public transport, a cashier who tells Iwona she too cheated with a “thug”, mall mannequins coming to life to ruin the myth of the nuclear family etc. It is surely one of the bleakest collective confessions of a despairing world, but you might possibly find its stylization uplifting.
The other musical in the main competition was Katarzyna Klimkiewicz’s Autumn Girl (Bo we mnie jest seks, a lyric that literally translates “There is sex in me”), a biopic of stage/TV/film actress Kalina Jedrusik that presumes (or at least improves with) familiarity with the actress (deemed either modern or scandalous, a Polish, brunette alternative to Marilyn Monroe) and interest in rumored her love life along with her on-screen achievements. In an almost textbook #MeToo story, actress Maria Debska brings enough energy on screen to define her character beyond the romancing and the cleavages and expose the brutality of her rejection – by a man in power whom she turned down, and possibly by a segment of her TV audience – on account of how she chooses (and is encouraged) to perform femininity. The film is generally a lighthearted throwback to the 1960s – their candy-colored sweetness, conservative mores, and patriarchal entertainment industry, of which it seems that only the color scheme has truly significantly changed to the present day – with intermittent musical crowd scenes dissipating the severity of certain plot twists (chiefly, Kalina’s expulsion from a popular television show at the peak of her glory; and the suggestion that she is not the only victim of predatory behaviour). Autumn Girl certainly has its charm, especially thanks to Debska’s exuberance, and through the song and dance and wardrobe displays still paints a flattering portrait of a level-headed provocateur, the likes of which the original Marilyn Monroe could never have hoped for. Perhaps one could still fault the film for sacrificing complexity in exchange for entertainment value, since essentially Jedrusik comes across as a coquette (albeit through the filter of a less judgmental epoch) and the reduced timeframe necessarily simplifies a rhizomatic career. Even assuming this is when she engaged with the broadest Polish audience in her career, should popularity be the protagonist’s highest virtue in a feminist film?
At the opposite end of the enjoyability axis were the otherwise respectable Return to Legoland (Powrót do Legolandu) by Konrad Aksinowicz and Sonata by Bartosz Blaschke, both unfurling their dramatic thread within the binds of family. The former follows an initially sympathetic character, Alek (Maciej Stuhr), the father who just returned from the US with abundant presents for his wife and pre-teen son – the type of artifacts that in the early 1990s signify to East Europeans the yet-inaccessible good life, just as Alek in his good days has the aura of someone larger than life. It won’t be long, however, till he takes up heavy drinking (not for the first time, as it quickly becomes clear), proves unable to hold down his radio job, and sees his status in the family turn to splinters as his wife and son start treating him like a “sanatorium” patient. The focus throughout this dissolution is on those who suffer alongside him: the boy who is forced to carry longtime-treatment amounts of vodka back home to his dad and the woman who is at risk of imminent violence and, to make matters worse, chided by everyone who could support her for insisting to keep matters in the family till better days. Aksinowicz’s treatment of the crisis is nuanced and subtle, and while the man’s aggravation predictably goes from bad to worse, the story is often reframed with fine directorial and screenwriting touches so as to be bearable. In one scene, for instance, the boy’s teacher intrusively asks why his grades have dropped and whether he has trouble at home, and instead of opening up – like a stock character in a feel-good film would do – he lashes out against her righteousness. While pretty classically structured – outside of what verges on the temps morts aesthetic that lets spectators feel the stagnation in characters’ lives –, Legoland compromises little to be an inspirational or cathartic tale, and given that alcoholism is a widespread issue in post-Soviet bloc Europe, it’s also a story that will feel close to home to many viewers; and whatever memories it triggers, they won’t be pretty.
Sonata follows the challenges faced by Grzegorz (inspired by real-life musician Grzegorz Plonka), who in his 30s finds out that he was misdiagnosed with autism, and that his language development was rather held back by hearing problems. Belatedly discovering his passion for music that channels all his effort to make up for lost time, everyone who could help him is either far away (his family lives isolated in the mountains) or ableist and conservative – thus dismissive of someone with imperfect hearing and arrested development to become a successful musician. Michal Sikorski assumes a tricky performance in the young man’s role, who in a short (diegetic) time goes from being rebellious and emotionally stunted to learning the basics of social behavior and facing persistent marginalization at the very moment he rushes to find his place in the world. (Sikorski was awarded in the Gdynia gala for Best professional acting debut.) The burden of his seemingly impossible ambition is mainly carried by his parents, whose tenacity is heroic, though the outcome doesn’t always align with their best intentions. It’s noted even with some redundancy that their attention to Grzegorz makes them neglect his younger half-brother, who needs less care and gets even fewer. While the arc of the tale checks the boxes for the “ambition conquers all” Oscar-movie paradigm, the actual process we’re guided through is always messy, sometimes despairing, and with a hint that even in the best moments all this progress could topple in the blink of an eye.
Marginally less heavy – since it does involve a young girl’s suicide and an unbridgeable social chasm, but it focuses cautiously on what could feasibly make things better – is the Golden Lions winner, Fears (Wszystkie nasze strachy), directed by Lukasz Ronduda and Lukasz Gutt, co-written with Katarzyna Sarnowska and Michal Oleszczyk. (Ronduda also co-wrote the script, while Gutt was also Director of photography, for which he won an award in the gala.) Again based on a true story, of contemporary artist (and contemporary person) Daniel Rycharski, a gay man living in the countryside who is part-time community activist – we see him protesting for better wildlife control, since boars are intruding in the village and spreading disease among farmers’ livestock. Daniel (Dawid Ogrodnik) grieves for the loss of his younger friend, a girl who he is unsubtly accused by the villagers of having intoxicated with talk about LGBT freedom and identity; he wants to mourn her by undertaking the Way of the Cross, and makes a cross out of the tree in which she hanged herself, but can’t convince the girl’s loved ones of his gesture. Perhaps transcendently, perhaps morbidly, the crafted object earns the respect of his art curator from Warsaw, and the cross departs from the village to the big-city gallery and subsequent polarizing media attention. As contemporary art is bound to do, the association of a religious symbol with LGBT oppression sparks controversy beyond immediate control – and the villagers, including those mourning for the girl, are caricatured in the press for their obtuseness. Neither the depiction of the village, nor the portrayal of the art crowd are one-note, to the film’s credit; even episodic characters are lively, and backgrounds filled with rich detail, though the clash of mentalities remains central. As anyone who’s been on social media lately can testify, antagonizing the other side is never a conversation starter, and consequently the soberness and subtlety of Fears is to be cherished.
The apparent health of the Polish film industry – even after a year of syncopated production and challenges in festival organization – shows in all forms of cinematic crafts, from directing to acting and the less glamorous departments like cinematography and set design. For films as different as The Getaway King (Najmro. Kocha, kradnie, szanuje, dir. Mateusz Rakowicz) and Back Then (Zupa Nic, dir. Kinga Debska), their success in taking us back to the 1980s would be unthinkable without well-trained professionals in departments like production design and costumes – although the former is a gangster film whose protagonist wanted fine Western things under socialism, while the latter is a family-set drama-comedy whose protagonists take up smuggling goods across the border and have a huge argument over living room furniture; the films’ illusionistic appeal is totally dependent on their visual accuracy. Call it heresy to place a genre film alongside a humanist family portrait, but the first – in spite of its reliance on plot conventions – is informed by social observation as much as the second is refreshingly entertaining in its dry humor.
My main focus in choosing between recent films – in a festival that is often an embarrassment of riches; perhaps this is why every film had so many screenings throughout the week – has been on the main competition, although parallel microbudget feature and short competitions completed the scope of what contemporary Polish cinema has to offer. Artistic director Tomasz Kolankiewicz undertook the festival in the midst of a pandemic, when things had to change considerably to stay the same. Certainly, the return to a physical festival was welcome for everyone attending the event – the communal experience of watching films has been one of the pleasures denied to us by the ominous 2020, and in that sense, even watching demanding arthouse films seemed like a step toward reassuring normalcy.