Dad, bread and salt, EO, and more

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Every year in mid-September, while Venice and Toronto host massive international film festivals that serve as a launching pad for awards campaigns and distribution deals, the Polish film industry comes together in the sleepy port city. bustling Baltic from Gdynia for a showcase of the best in contemporary Polish cinema, with a sprinkling of classic and under-the-radar titles thrown in for good measure. The relatively circumscribed nature of the Polish Film Festival – known as the Festiwal Polskich Filmów Fabularnych, or FPFF, in Polish – lends a sense of procedure that larger, more expansive festivals often lack.

Some of Poland’s most pressing geopolitical concerns were evident on the streets of Gdynia, even along the city’s touristy southern pier, along which stretches Jana Pawła II Avenue, named, as so many sites in Poland, of the anti-communist pope of Polish origin. whose Western alliances and direct support for the Polish Solidarity movement contributed to the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union. Here, streetlights displaying Polish flags alternate with those displaying Ukraine’s blue and yellow banner, one of many visible signs reflecting the country’s support for its neighbor’s fight against Russia. Another, spotted in a streetside souvenir kiosk during a trip I took to nearby Gdansk, echoed local sentiments even more clearly (and crudely): a roll of toilet paper with Vladimir Putin’s face on each sheet.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was still too recent to have crept into the films shown at this year’s FPFF, Polish-Ukrainian relations nevertheless appeared in a few different entries, often with an trepidation that betrayed some strongest public statements of solidarity with the Ukrainian cause. This feeling of unease between the two nations figured especially in Anna Maliszewska’s book Fatherin which Polish trucker Michal (Eryk Lubos, awfully balanced in a role that could have easily lent itself to sentimentality) transports his daughter, Miska (Klaudia Kurak), several tons of frozen fish, and two illegal Ukrainians—a recently deceased nanny from Miska, the other Miska’s best friend, Lenka (Polina Gromova) – across the border in the Ukrainian hinterland.

Michal returns the dead woman to her husband, Wasyl (Sergei Solovyov), who injects the recovering alcoholic trucker with vodka shot after shot with off-putting insistence. Defensive about Ukraine’s perceived lag compared to more cosmopolitan Poland, Wasyl complains that Poles look down on Ukrainians like him even as “we” protect Europe by fighting Putin. The joke here, which elicited a surprised but heard laugh from the crowd during my screening, is that Wasyl is nowhere near any sort of front line and certainly isn’t fighting. Geopolitical tensions can simply become a card to play when you want to force the other to obey. Unfortunately, while being sensitive to the plight of immigrants in Poland, Father is ultimately too orderly and sentimental to explore in depth the average Pole’s ambivalent relationship with foreigners.

On the other hand, Damian Kocur bread and salt– another feature debut and one of the strongest films in the main competition – tackles similar themes of Polish xenophobia with a haunting mix of candor and obliquity. Kocur presents real-life classical pianist Tymoteusz Bies as a version of himself, who visits his provincial hometown during a break from his studies at the Warsaw Academy of Music and simultaneously finds himself alienated from the crew of her brother (Tymoteusz’s real-life brother, Jacek) from the petty-minded dirtbags and desperate for their approval.

Throughout, Kocur’s unwavering yet sensitive directing merges Abbas Kiarostami’s patiently observant eye with Michael Haneke’s penchant for inexorably growing fear. bread and salt tackles a number of burning issues – racism against Turkish immigrants, homophobia and the rudderless state of Polish culture – but it never feels overloaded or didactic. On the contrary, the film offers a singularly convincing interrogation on the moral responsibilities of an individual living in a society infected by hatred.

A scene by Damian Kocur bread and salt. © Polski Institute Sztuki Filmowej

One of the most invigorating aspects of bread and salt is how he returns to the heights of Polish culture’s past while fully engaging with the nation’s present. Or, to put it another way, Kocur’s film bridges the age of Chopin with the current era of decadent hip-hop. Rap, beloved by Polish youth, appeared frequently throughout the festival. Xawery Zulawski’s apocalyptic comedy Apokawixaa strange hyper-topic hybrid of Van Wilder and Shaun of the dead, essentially breaks off two-thirds of the way through for a hip-hop dance party. Meanwhile, Grzegorz Mołda Glow, an endearing but clichéd tale of rise and fall about a rapper (Magdalena Wieczorek) projects, attempts to highlight some of the sexism and sentimentality of contemporary hip-hop. However, only Kocur’s film fully addresses the contradictions of rap in Poland, namely that it is both an outlet for the marginalized lower classes and a means to reinforce their own prejudices and indiscriminate aggression.

Kocur’s ambivalent and pessimistic view of Polish society apparently did not sit well with his film with the FPFF jury, which completely ignored him when presenting its awards (although the film did win first prize of the separate young jury, focused on young people). The festival’s Golden Lion went instead to Agnieszka Smoczyńska The Silent Twins, an impressionistic real-life portrait of selectively mute sisters from Wales who retreat to their own realm of fantasy. The film, Smoczyńska’s first in English, reflects a genuine attempt to inhabit the imaginatively rich headspace of June and Jennifer Gibbons (Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance) while resisting the impulse to crush their complicated lives. in a neat narrative setting.

At its best, the film draws on the rich history of Polish cinema – including the handcrafted puppet animation of Władysław Starewicz and the delirious emotional maximalism of Andrzej Żuławski – to bring June and Jennifer’s shared inner world to life. At its worst, however, the film feels shapeless and uneven, disconnected from the racial and sociopolitical realities that contributed to the Gibbons sisters’ long and tragic confinement to a mental institution.

While Smoczyńska found her story far from Poland, her film, with its visual turmoil, nonetheless felt in direct dialogue with the festival’s old Polish titles, including Anton Chekhov’s sad but vigorous adaptation of Wojciech Has . A story without a story and the biopic on the lyrical struggle of the beginning of the century by Filip Bajon Aria for an athlete. With their lively, moving cameras and flowery directing, these films practically surround their subjects and attack them with overwhelming force. Even when they engage in languorous meditations on the meaning of life, Has and Bajon’s work dispenses with sharp narrative lines and easily digestible moral lessons in favor of a constant search for moments of ecstasy.

This same sense of constant search for transcendence was evident in two otherwise very different competition titles directed by old masters of Polish cinema, Jerzy Skolimowski HEY and Lech Majewski Brigitte Bardot forever. If Skolimowski’s poetic, itinerant immersion in the life of a simple donkey, with its playful use of strobe effects, hyper-saturated colors and drone shots, resembles the work of a quarter-aged artist of the director, Majewski’s languorous investigation of the self is obviously an old man’s film.

Based on Majewski’s own novel, Pilgrimage to the tomb of Brigitte Bardot Miraculous, Brigitte Bardot forever first appears to be a mildly comedic nostalgia trip into the Amarcord vein, exemplified by an early scene in which a young schoolboy (Kacper Olszewski) gets into trouble with his uptight communist-civil servant schoolteacher for accidentally throwing a pear into the classroom portrait of Polish leader Władysław Gomułka – a moment that sparked a few laughs from the older Poles in the audience. But the film gradually turns into something closer to that of Akira Kurosawa. dreamsa meditative and philosophical expedition into the director’s own subconscious, which takes the form of a cavernous hotel populated by the pop culture icons of his youth – the Beatles, Simon Templar’s The Saintand, of course, Brigitte Bardot (Joanna Opozda)—as well as great artists and writers like Paul Cézanne and Rabindranath Tagore.

Brigitte Bardot forever
A scene from Lech Majewski Brigitte Bardot forever. © Angelus Silesius

Majewski was a student of Has at the National Film School in Łódź, and Brigitte Bardot forever offers a very personal reinterpretation of the labyrinthine phantasmagoria of Has The hourglass sanatorium; it also shares with this film a thematic density that often borders on impenetrability. There can be something rejuvenating about watching a movie you don’t fully understand. I was turning Brigitte Bardot forever in my head the morning after seeing it as I walked down the south pier, hoping for a nice view of the Baltic Sea. As I progressed towards the end of the esplanade, I noticed a large stone sculpture with the bust of a man protruding from the top. Assuming it was a politician or military figure, I didn’t pay too much attention to it until I approached it and realized it was actually of a gargantuan monument to the great marine author Joseph Conrad, a favorite of my youth.

With Majewski’s film fresh in my mind, I felt a bit like I had walked down a pier in a foreign land to see something seemingly come out of my subconscious. In a way, it was a nice metaphor for a film festival. For non-Polish cinephiles like me, the festival offers a unique opportunity to take the pulse of the current state of Polish film culture and, through the veritable camera obscura that is national cinema, to glimpse something of the Polish culture itself. At the same time, we travel to the other side of the world to discover a few dozen works by a variety of artists from divergent backgrounds, and as much as we appreciate the sociological details integrated into this film or the know-how of the there, the most lasting experiences are always those that touch the heart, and I’m lucky to say that more than a few films at the FPFF, including HEY, bread and saltand Brigitte Bardot foreverdid exactly that.

The Polish Film Festival took place from September 12 to 17.

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