Festiwal Polskich Filmów Fabularnych (The Polish Festival of Fiction Film)

Festiwal Polskich Filmów Fabularnych (The Polish Festival of Fiction Film)

Gdynia 2019

Lucian Tion
Post-socialist; Polish cinema; film festival; nationalism; historical film.

Judging from the rather lackluster Eastern European productions that entered the international festival circuit lately, I wouldn’t jump to pronounce the last few years a stellar period for cinema – not only in Eastern Europe, but on the international stage at large. Based on this assumption, I would argue that the repetition of tried and tested formulas and a certain lack of young blood in the veins of Poland’s forthcoming generation of cineastes help make contemporaneous Polish cinema appear lacking in creativity, and incapable of (re)defining its identity along the lines of former ‘waves’ – such as that of the Polish Film School – that helped make this country famous in world cinema in the sixties and the seventies.

With the few exceptions discussed below, this was the feeling in the air at the last two editions of the rather overlooked – if historically influential – Gdynia Film Festival in Poland. The launching pad of many a name in the Polish film industry since 1974, Gdynia (or Gdansk Film Festival, as it is also known for the city in which it originated) is one of the few film events that doesn’t boast the nowadays quasi-mandatory ‘international’ epithet in its title. What’s more, with 2018 marking 100 years of Polish independence last year, it seems that Polish cinema didn’t only go national but, as many feared, nationalistic, in a move that also describes the country’s politics.

Festival poster from 2019

Considering the films screened in the last two editions of the festival, it isn’t, however, nationalism per se that appears to be the problem here, but a certain incapacity of the vociferous art community to condemn nationalism from the opposite political camp in a way that overcomes the phase of facile experimentation that Polish art cinema has entered since the fall of socialism in 1989.1 Although battle cries against nationalism exist in fiction films such as last year’s Pewnego razu w listopadzie/Once Upon a Time in November (2017, Poland) and this year’s Mowa ptaków/Bird Talk (2019, Poland), from the films screened at the last two editions it appears that these attempts at political rebuttal, so to speak, are faint and somehow weak-hearted, as I hope to show in my following discussion of the two films. While it is understandable that lack of funding constitutes a valid reason for disgruntlement in the art community, I would argue nevertheless that arthouse Polish cinema has not yet matured or moved away from the style that characterized the first decade of postsocialist film, a style marked by the frustrations of economic transition which defined what I can only describe as Poland’s own version of chernukha cinema.2 This style left an undeniable imprint on Poland’s first postsocialist generation of directors like Xawery Żuławski and Jan Komasa (Wojna polsko-ruska/Snow White and Russian Red, 2009, Poland, and Sala samobójców/Suicide Room, 2011, Poland, respectively), and despite the ensuing work of promising veterans like Wojciech Smarzowski (whose Wolyn I will discuss later) the influence of this type of dark cinema with anti-socialist overtones was strongly felt in the films presented at the festival’s last two editions.

Bird Talk poster

The talk of this year’s festival, the much-anticipated Mowa ptaków/Bird Talk (2019, Poland) is a case in point. Written by the director’s father, the celebrated Andrzej Żuławski,3 the film purports to be, at least in a self-promoted blurb praising it for its “stylistic tour de force [and] ecstatic finale” (Żuławski 2019) a weapon used by artists in the face of right-wing adversity. When adapting his father’s screenplay, Żuławski-the-son purportedly condemned—he states in an interview—the increasing isolation of Poland and the country’s increasing nationalism. (Bałaga 2019) (This is the same Xawery Żuławski who made Snow White and Russian Red mentioned above). But Bird Talk’s calling card sounds better than the film is: Instead of attempting to liberate the language of cinema, as Żuławski claims is his intent in the film, the director falls prey to a self-indulgent amour-propre and an ostentatious display of elitism. The film follows the friendship between two artists, a writer and a musician, walking a thin line between a bohemian lifestyle and poverty, and is structured around extensive monologue-styled conversations on literature, cinema, and philosophy, while adding the historical element in the person of a third character, a history teacher manhandled by young Poland’s increasingly right-wing, violent high school students. It is not the heavy-handed manner in which characters are written and the relationships between them perpetuated that makes Żuławski-the-father’s script self-absorbed. It is the postmodern, fragmented narrative, ultimately reminiscent of Jean-François Lyotard (The Postmodern Condition, 1984) but inadequate for the visual medium, that ultimately doesn’t deliver, as the intellectually-heavy film tries too hard to be a philosophical reflection on today’s dangerously nationalistic society. Furthermore, shots of fictional characters mingling with real-life demonstrators in Poland’s November 11 nationalist rallies that became habitual in the years following 2008, do not help lend credence to a plot that suffers from cumulative disorientation as it unfolds. A far cry from “ecstatic,” as the director calls it, the ending is further proof that the writer/director—but also father-and-son duo—does not have a clear idea of how to handle either their characters or the situations in which they have been placed. As such, without any logical motivation, after an overlong diatribe delivered without a reason by the otherwise charismatic protagonist played by Sebastian Fabijanski, the final chapter introduces an aging Daniel Olbrychski in the role of the protagonist’s father (an alter ego of Żuławski the elder?) in a drawn-out scene that lacks both vibrancy and direction. More of a self-reflective artistic family drama than a comment on today’s society, Bird Talk feels unable to personify the much-needed cry against nationalism that it styled itself as.

Last year’s 2018 edition of the festival featured a similar film that, while not as eagerly awaited as Bird Talk, opened the way to the condemnation of right-wing nationalism from what are only lightly-assumed leftist positions. Like Żuławski, who fails to cast aside the shackles of the anti-communist expression that characterized most of the long-winded transition to democracy in Poland, Andrzej Jakimowski combines in his Pewnego razu w listopadzie/Once Upon a Time in November (2017, Poland) live footage from a violent neo-Nazi demonstration taking place in Warsaw in 2013 with the fictional account of an incidental young anarchist caught in that web of destruction. And ‘incidental’ is key here, since the appropriation of the hero’s anarchism occurs solely through chance (his mother only happens to take shelter in a leftist commune), mirroring the director’s half-hearted promotion of leftist values. Critical views of the vilified turn to conservatism in Kaczyński’s Poland notwithstanding, what makes Jakimowski’s film stand out therefore is not its political commentary as much as the camera’s distant observation of Marek, the pensive blue-eyed protagonist (played with obdurate endurance by Grzegorz Palkowski) in his attempt to bring some stability in the life of his homeless mother. It is through this maturing son/aging mother relationship that we see a Warsaw not exactly teetering on the edge of radical nationalism but one in which isolated anarchism effectively clashes with the sporadic ‘hooliganism’ of nationalist character. In that sense, Jakimowski’s film surpasses Bird Talk through its ability to paint its themes more cinematically than the effort of the Żuławski team. However, neither of the two films seems able to tackle in ways other than self-absorbed commentary the all-too-real atmosphere of political and cultural disorientation present in Poland’s society, as well as the identity crisis of the country.

Another hesitating effort of the cultural elite in its confrontation with the country’s right-wing government became clearer at this year’s edition through at least two films attacking the corruption of the incumbent Law and Order party: One is Bartosz Kruhlik’s Supernova (2019, Poland), awarded the directing debut prize, and the other is Marek Lechki’s Interior (2019, Poland). While Kruhlik demonstrates genuine talent for staging a drama in a single location and is able to realistically portray the aftermath of a horrible automobile accident involving a confrontation between an apathetic police force, the suffering village population, and the despicable representatives of the high echelons of the Polish government, the film comes across as slightly tendentious. What we have with Kruhlik as opposed to Żuławski is a better use of dramatic tools to tell a simple story, yet the results are comparable: A government employee gets away with manslaughter after running over a family of three, while an overzealous cop and the villagers watch impotently the unfolding of this unjust drama. In Supernova the storyline would have been more powerful had it not been tainted by the film’s heavy-handed thesis, the condemnation of high-level corruption. As it is, the message of the film is too obviously painted in all the scenes leading to the finale. Except for a mind-blowing beginning in which a battered wife leaves her alcoholic husband in the middle of a village road, and takes away both of their children, the film has the words ‘injustice’ written all over it, and so much so that it lowers the intensity of an otherwise perfectly realist drama.

Marek Lechki goes one step further. In Interior two stories driven by separate protagonists converge rather unconvincingly in the end to symbolically point to the similar fates of both a mistreated corporate employee and an upper-middle class government professional. Maciek has not been paid for a few months, yet his unsympathetic and corrupt boss refuses to give him his salary. This drives Maciek to a desperate act: He steals the boss’ car and escapes to the countryside, where he takes temporary shelter with relatives. The sought-after connection between him and the relatives refuses to materialize, and Maciek feels a connection only with the couple’s son who sports a similarly rebellious behavior. After a few more days on the road, which end with a metaphorical yet confusing fireworks display in a field, the story moves abruptly into the second segment of the film. In this story a local government aide who is also the mother of a young daughter is torn between advancing her career and revealing the unpalatable realities of small town politics to a visiting delegation of foreign dignitaries. While the premise is strong, Lechki goes out of his way to up the ante by having the protagonist’s daughter fall ill in the middle of the festivities. (It turns out there is nothing serious at stake after all: the girl simply ran a high fever). In one of the closing shots we see both Maciek and the downcast government employee symbolically cross paths in the town square without being aware, of course, of each other’s previous histories.

Instead of intensifying the government employee’s conflict between her humanity and her duty, the director maladroitly pushes the domestic angle, favoring the populist theme of protection of family life, which has the effect of whitewashing the seriousness of the film’s focus, namely the corruption of small-time politicians. As in the case of Bird Talk and Supernova, we notice that concepts take priority over the narrative, with weakening effects for the art of film. Here, as in other cases of contemporaneous Eastern European cinema,4 film becomes a vehicle for nothing short of propaganda, well-intended as this might be. The result in this case is that film characters become expressions of political concepts, while storylines are instruments for agitation. And this wouldn’t be a problem if it were approached from a politically-conscious position: However, unlike similar methods traditionally used to this end by Brechtian theatre or left-wing postmodernism, both Supernova and Interior attempt to make their points by way of employing a predominantly realistic style, despite some rather heavy-handed metaphoric visuals—such as the fireworks display—meant to portray the characters’ confusion and alienation from a world that is otherwise truly ugly and manifestly corrupt. Although they have their heart in the right place, so to speak, neither film portrays this reality convincingly, with the result that the mash of symbolism and realism ultimately detracts from the strength of cinema to remain faithful to its genre conventions while not exactly offering a new alternative to deliver its concepts.