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On screen: the women behind the evolution in Polish short film

On screen: the women behind the evolution in Polish short film
Still from Fragments, dir. Aga Woszczyńska (2017)

Encounters, the UK’s premier short film festival, showcased the best cinematic miniatures out of Poland this year, with female directors and actors given centre stage. The Calvert Journal reports back on a selection that highlighted the nation’s many rising stars

19 October 2017

One of the UK’s foremost festivals dedicated to short film, Encounters — held in Bristol each September — is best known for its expansive competitive programmes. And at this year’s festival, the most intriguing proposition may have been the “Polish Voices” section. Programmed for Encounters by Marta Świątek of Krakow Film Foundation — an organisation committed to the promotion of Polish short film — this multi-event subsection presented “contemporary Polish shorts that feature women in front of or behind the camera.” Świątek wanted the programme “to be truly ‘polyphonic,’” so as “to show the diversity of Polish cinema, and offer as wide a picture of Poland as possible.”

Explaining recent Polish prolificacy, Świątek credits “internationally recognised schools” in Łódź and Warsaw, and more recently Gdynia, which, despite being only seven years old has already had two films in Cannes’ short film competition. Świątek works directly with Polish schools and production companies in her promotional work. Programmes such as “Polish Voices” — consisting of a cross-section of filmmakers emerging from these schools and outside of them — offer viewers a sense of the scope of contemporary Polish filmmaking, ahead of the curve. Below, a selection of highlights that share a preoccupation with “housing and the home”: depictions of domestic drama, both fictitious and observed.

Aga Woszczyńska’s Fragments opens with an indelible image. A shimmering night line of office block lights glimmer against a meridian blue sky, the scene pierced by a breaking sunset. Seen from a wall to ceiling window, the scene is subdivided precisely by three clean lines in the glass, whilst a silhouette figure rests against a black bar in the centre of the frame. A textbook perfect example of the cinematographer’s rule of thirds, it’s the very picture of the kind of clinical, calculated and sometimes irresistible beauty that the film proceeds to collapse on itself.

Anna (Agnieszka Żulewska) lives a model life with partner (Dobromir Dymecki), running through prim green landscapes in the morning, navigating an all-too-perfect techno-capitalist steel-glass paradise by day, before returning to live mechanically in their pristine, fully automated home at night — each scenario choreographed with Kubrickian precision by Woszczyńska. Routine, though, can be ruinous, and before long cracks start to appear. Deviations from the polite platitudes that seem to unconsciously govern this mode of living culminate in a complete breakdown, explosive and cathartic in its rejection of the pressures of civility. Fragments offers nothing too unexpected, but it is impressively and confidently constructed, Woszczyńska displaying a palpable command of tone and atmosphere through to a theatrical final scene that has a lingering effect. The director’s own statement sums it up best: “If you feel cold during this film, it’s not because the air conditioning has broken.”

Grzegorz Zariczny’s Love, Love is stylistically very different to much contemporary Polish documentary, favouring realism and directness over the increasingly common desire to exaggerate life. An intimate, difficult portrait filmed with a distinctive aesthetic, Zariczny’s film about a teenage girl and her family has a closeness that proves unnerving by the end. A slice of life documentary, Love, Love observes Katie as she prepares for her hairdressing exam, hoping to escape the drudgery of life around her through work. Vignettes capture her going about her daily life, chatting with her sister, bickering with her belligerent father and voice-chatting with an internet boyfriend who, mysteriously, has no webcam. All of these engagements have a sense of imminent calamity about them, due in part to the proximity with which everything occurs, the whole family crammed into a single, overcrowded room. With Zariczny’s camera locked into a near-constant close-up, the tension between them is almost visible in the air.

Though painting a bleak picture of the pressures of poverty, Zariczny’s method is not dispassionate. Points of connection emerge, familial grievances subside as the necessity for togetherness overwhelms. But Love, Love’s ending note is a dour one, as, predictably, the online suitor proves to be fraudulent. Having placed all of her remaining energy into cultivating this fantasy relationship, Katie is distraught to find out it’s all been futile. Zariczny’s camera remains fixed on her strained expression for a uneasy period. Weeping in front of her webcam, she cries out to her sister: “Hope, the mother of fools. Understand?”

Another domestic documentary, Teresa Czepiec’s focus in Super-Unit is as much on the building it depicts as the people that inhabit it. Czepiec glides around the Katowice tower in which the film is set, a monolithic, fully automated fortress of an apartment block inspired by Le Corbusier’s concept of a “machine for living”. Swooping through corridors and around flights of stairs, the camera becomes a character, patrolling the building’s 700 plus rooms to observe the interior goings on.

Behind the dreariness — communal walls painted hospital green and endless dull grey walkways — is a world of secret colour

Behind the dreariness — communal walls painted hospital green and endless dull grey walkways — is a world of secret colour, countless stories hidden behind endless doors; muscle men lifting dumbbells, lonely ladies petting cats and teens partying in living rooms and spilling out onto balconies. Czepiec’s camera drifts past them agnostically, and the heightened, often mismatched sound design emphasises the sense of peculiarity generated through this crisp, agile cinematography. As the sequences stack, a simple conceit transforms into an stylised portrait of the surreal qualities of the very ordinary, of how time reframes the meaning of a place and a storied sense of history accumulates even within an environment designed to be free of identity.

Featuring one of the better employments of drone camera tech in recent documentary, the film’s final shot is a breathtaking one. Having scaled the building’s 15 floors and crawled its countless corridors, the camera floats through one final apartment suite before drifting out of the window and over the balcony. Turning around to look back at the apartment’s slightly befuddled owner, the camera propels upwards into orbit, taking a literal flight of fantasy and surveying the grandeur of the massive block, viewable in its entirety for the first time.

Klara Kochańska’s Tenants explores housing as a source not of comfort but conflict as a woman, Justyna, finds herself sharing her new home with the previous tenant after buying the flat in a bailiff auction. Tenants is unshowy but effective, Kochańska gradually complicating what seems at first a simple class conflict between the marginalised council tenant and the ascendant middle-class lawyer who repossesses her home. As Justyna tries increasingly bitter tactics (secretly recording the tenant and trying to evict her on a prostitution charge) to oust the mother and daughter who won’t leave her home, what’s reflected is not so much the collapse of her character, but the level of her own desperation.

Kochańska ramps up tension between the inhabitants of the home, the camera remaining close to the characters at points of conflict, whilst retreating to establish a sense of the space they share in between. “You’re a lawyer, just get rid of her,” advises Justyna’s colleague, an easy comment to make with the benefit of distance. Once involved in the suffering of others, even the hardiest, most single-minded individual will struggle not to empathise. Tenants’ tricky central question is the degree to which well-meaning empathy translates into action that infringes on an individual’s own social and economic liberties.

What is it about this sensibility in the Polish filmmaker? Could it be something about inverting traditionalism, or subverting a safe space?

As Świątek had warned, “Polish films tend to be rather serious, and sometimes even dark and distressing,” and that is certainly the case in all of these domestic portraits. Świątek did note that “more and more” in wider Polish national cinema, “a sense of humour is becoming visible,” though that’s not the case in this selection. What is it about this sensibility in the Polish filmmaker? Could it be something about inverting traditionalism, or subverting a safe space, taking that which is often considered a solace against the hostility of the outside world and making it another source of discomfort?

Domestic films with a rosier outlook featured elsewhere in the programmes. Anastazja Dąbrowska’s documentary Daniel looks positively at a group of children with Downs Syndrome sharing time within a residential retreat, their condition present but not made the crux of the narrative; and Aleksandra Terpińska’s All Souls Day, about a fractured family gathering, features a central character achieving personal revelations and transcending the breakdown of her domestic situation. The films remarked on above have positive sides too. In Super-Unit, the home is communal; in Love, Love and Tenants, connections are made through forced intimacy that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise; and in Fragments, it drives a conflict that needed to occur. Still, if home is where the heart is, Poland’s new generation seem a little heartbroken.

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