Eastern cinema reaches all points of the compass

Migration and the lessons of history inform a cinema with domestic and foreign appeal, Ewa Mazierska argues

March 7, 2013

Kinoteka
The 11th Polish Film Festival

Various UK venues
7-17 March

Recent news reports have flagged up the fact that, according to the 2011 Census, there are now more than 500,000 Polish-speakers in England and Wales, making it the UK’s second language. This inevitably means an increased need for cultural products in Polish, such as newspapers, books and films, to cater for the appetites of expatriates, their spouses, friends, educators and even neighbours. Today marks the opening of the 11th annual Kinoteka Polish Film Festival across various UK venues, so it seemed apposite to discuss this phenomenon’s implications for Polish cinema.

In general, the Polish films that are most successful abroad are not entirely Polish in their themes, confirming a wider rule that the most famous Poles are hybrids - from Copernicus through Chopin and Joseph Conrad to many Polish footballers. Foreign viewers traditionally favour the work of Polish directors who have made films abroad (preferably in a language other than Polish), such as Roman Polanski or Krzysztof Kieślowski, rather than Andrzej Wajda, who is considered the ultimate director at home. There is also a preference for subjects that cross borders, so to speak, rather than those pertaining solely to Polish history and national character, such as stories of the country’s struggle for independence from its neighbours and colonisers, Russia and Germany.

This is far from unique to Polish cinema. International audiences favour the cosmopolitan works of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke to the films of Danish and Austrian directors penetrating the complexities of their national histories. However, the Polish situation is different because, with a population of 38 million, the country can afford to make films exclusively for domestic cinema-goers. Polish directors, more so than their peers in Austria, the Czech Republic or Estonia, thus face a choice: cater for an international audience or simply appeal to local viewers (a decision traditionally facing British film-makers, too).

Of course, the best option is to do both. In recent decades, Polish film- makers and authorities such as the Polish Film Institute have made concerted efforts to create cinema likely to appeal to national audiences, expatriates and foreigners. These efforts have paid off, leading to the production of a number of films that have proved successful nationally and internationally. In the UK, these have been shown not only in niche cinemas in London but also in cities including Manchester and Leeds. One example is Agnieszka Holland’s Oscar-nominated In Darkness (2011). This takes as its theme the archetypal Polish subject of the Second World War, yet it focuses not on the struggles of Polish soldiers against their Nazi oppressors but rather on the Final Solution, and specifically how a Pole called Leopold Socha rescued a group of Jews by hiding them in the sewers of Lwów (now Lviv, in the Ukraine). The fighting takes place between members of oppressed peoples, such as Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, not only against the Germans. Spoken in a plethora of languages including Yiddish, German and the Lwów dialect of Polish, the film manages to make Polish history both local and universal, without becoming nationalistic.

Another interesting example of a film that combines Polish and international perspectives is Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing (2010). It deals with the escape of a Muslim terrorist (or freedom fighter) from a detention camp situated somewhere in a deep forest, which Polish viewers will recognise as the North-West of the country but for foreigners might be Scandinavia. While drawing on Polish Romantic mythology and the conventions of the western, the film, starring American actor Vincent Gallo, engages with the “War on Terror” and the role played in it by the US’ European allies. It is without question one of the most intelligent examples of the genre.

It is also worth mentioning one of the greatest box-office hits in post- communist Poland, Leszek Dawid’s Jesteś Bogiem (2012). This tells the story of the leader of a Polish hip-hop group, Paktofonika, and has all the ingredients for a biopic, namely a misunderstood artist fighting with his inner demons, as well as depicting the oppressive reality of the late 1990s and the demands of a young family. (A parallel might be Control, Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film about Joy Division.) It is a sign of the times that a film about a band little known outside Poland should open in around 16 Cineworld cinemas in the UK last year under the title You Are God, and take £55,000 in the first week.

Alongside this increase in Polish films shown in British cinemas, we can also observe an upsurge of Polish actors and characters in foreign films. There are examples from many European countries but they are predictably most prominent in British films. Two of the UK’s most respected directors, Ken Loach and Shane Meadows, put Poles at the centre of It’s A Free World (2007) and Somers Town (2008), respectively. The former shows a Polish man seeking employment in the UK and falling in love with a Polish woman. The latter tells the story of two boys, one English and one Polish. A young Polish woman (played by Olga Fedori, a Ukrainian actress), invited into the house of a British family, is also at the heart of a quirky British horror movie, Steven Sheil’s Mum & Dad (2008).

Do these films offer a coherent image of Poland and Polish culture? I believe they do. On the one hand, they emphasise the common fate of Poles and their British hosts, who all belong to a “global working class” fighting for survival as it is constantly threatened with social exclusion, even extermination. They tend to occupy marginal and transitional spaces, such as railways stations, airports, run-down council estates and trailer parks. Their common occupation is cleaning (if they are women) and building (for men) - useful but typically invisible and poorly paid work. Most of them are young and single, or single parents. The Poles seek contact with the natives, naively trust the Brits and are often betrayed by them, as happens in It’s a Free World and Mum & Dad.

One might see this as a restaging of the betrayal which took place during the war, and particularly in 1945 when Britain handed over the loyal Polish nation to the Soviet Union, although here played out on a much smaller scale, at home or at work. Yet Poles somehow survive and even give the British lessons, most importantly about respecting family values.

Such an idealised representation reflects the fact that Poland is perceived as a Catholic country, where family values trump all others. Yet it is for this very reason that young Poles living in the UK treat such films with a certain scepticism, believing that “real Poles” are less Catholic and family-centred than Loach and Meadows assume, while others manage to transcend the position of “invisible labourers” and move on to more glamorous and better-paid occupations.

All these examples demonstrate, on the one hand, a desire on the part of Polish film-makers to universalise Polish history and, on the other, an attempt by their British counterparts to pinpoint a specific and rather admirable “Polish character”. I welcome both these tendencies, in the hope that they will lead to better communication between our two nations and help us to live, if not in perfect harmony, then at least in peace.

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