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Polish Filmmakers Talk New Political Reality

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Following the October parliamentary election that saw the defeat of the right-wing Law and Justice party and appointment of leader of the opposition party Donald Tusk as prime minister, Polish filmmakers are cautiously readying for change.

“So far, our cinema authorities have not changed. It remains to be seen whether they will change their approach to funding more topical or controversial projects. Recent years have been very difficult in this regard,” says acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland.

Holland’s latest film, refugee drama “Green Border,” had been attacked by the right-wing government last year. Her next film, “Franz,” about Franz Kafka, is a Czech-German-Polish co-production to be sold at EFM by Films Boutique.

“We know everything and nothing about Kafka. There are dozens of detailed biographies and the reasons for his growing importance remain a mystery. I am trying to put this film together like a scattered jigsaw puzzle,” she adds. “Under Communism, he was practically banned. The Czech Republic took over Kafka after 1989, mainly as a tourist attraction, but I would like to bring him back as a living person. He belongs to the whole world.”

Other historical figures are also getting proper — and unorthodox — film treatment. From military leader Tadeusz Kościuszko, portrayed in Paweł Maślona’s “Scarborn,” to astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

“’Copernicus Secrets’ is already attracting co-producers. Its potential is generating a lot of interest,” says Alicja Gancarz of Orka Studio; 4film’s Anita Juka (Croatia) and It’s Alive Films’ Jani Pösö (Finland) are on board.

“Scarborn,” featuring Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”), is produced by Aurum Film, the shingle behind Oscar-nominated “Corpus Christi.” K5 International is handling sales.

Aurum is also working on Piotr Domalewski’s upcoming “Saint Boys,” Jan P. Matuszyński’s “Kind One,” starring Agata Kulesza, and Jan Komasa’s “Shine of the Sun.”

Still, projects verging on the experimental side are harder to develop locally, says Amsterdam-based Zuza Banasińska, whose “Grandmamauntsistercat,” created from archival footage, will be shown at Forum Expanded as one of few Polish accents at this year’s fest.

“My film is about the perspective of ‘others,’ forming a family that resists patriarchal system. Until recently, I would be afraid of how such topics could be received, but I am not planning to come back anytime soon. As a non-binary person, I don’t have to explain myself abroad. In Poland, I still hear: ‘A what?’”

That being said, young filmmakers — especially female — are embracing daring subjects.

“I have been advocating for finding new ways allowing women to make their debuts. It was time to turn those words into action,” says Extreme Emotions producer Ewa Puszczyńska.

Puszczyńska acts as a minority co-producer next to German Cala Film Production on Ulrike Tony Vahl’s “Crux.” “In ‘Crux,’ we show the situation at the end of World War II, when Russians were approaching German territories and local propaganda urged citizens to commit mass suicides. It has elements of a thriller, but it’s also very much in line with modern times,” she says.

Another emerging Polish filmmaker is Marta Prus, making her feature debut with “Nocne Motyle” (“Night Butterflies”), following well-received doc “Over the Limit.”

“It’s about ballet, where violence, and compulsion to be perfect, meets various forms of abuse and manipulation — also coming from the teachers. There is a bit of ‘Whiplash’ here,” adds Puszczyńska.

No stranger to international collabs, she also produced Oscar-nominee “The Zone of Interest” and Sundance hit “A Real Pain,” where Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin travel to Poland after their grandmother’s death.

“With these films, we have proven we can efficiently organize production in Poland at every stage. In the case of Jesse Eisenberg’s film, everyone was from Poland except for the actors and the director. We can do it. It was the same with ‘The Zone of Interest,’ ” she says. “Unfortunately, the most important factor is money. Incentives are great, but this pool of resources is limited. The team of ‘A Real Pain’ was thinking about making another project in Poland, but the money was gone. The system should work all year round.”

Justyna Mytnik’s debut “Wet Monday” will take on bold subjects as well, led by Lava Films, also behind Magnus von Horn’s “The Girl With a Needle” and Alireza Khatami’s “Things That You Kill.” All three are in post-production.

Continuing the alternative biopic trend, the company will also develop “Tears of Neon” by Karolina Bielawska, about singer Violetta Villas, and Łukasz Ronduda’s “Black Madonna” about Gen. Jabłonowski, a Black Polish prince sent by Napoleon to fight Haitian rebels.

“We hope there will be room for diverse cinema. The new generation brings fresh perspectives and themes, while filmmakers with a proven track record — like Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, and Agnieszka Holland — still generate interest,” notes Marta Gmosińska of Lava Films. “It should be possible to secure a larger portion of the budget on the Polish side, however, for example by increasing the funds allocated for support through tax incentives. The situation of less commercial, artistic films is difficult, but that’s not a reason to stop fighting for such cinema.”

Weronika Czołnowska, head of industry at New Horizons Film Festival, agrees: “There are debut projects about minorities, women and topics that are still taboo: abortion, rape, surrogate mothers. These are realistic stories, but also more symbolic, even surreal. Mental health topics are also becoming more common.

“I hope that Polish cinema will become bolder and that the number of co-productions, strengthening Polish presence on the international market, will increase.”

Meanwhile, Madants — behind Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s “The Silent Twins” and upcoming “No Beast So Fierce” by Burhan Qurbani and “Varn” by John Skoog — is making a move into animation, starting with adult-skewing “Cherub.” “It’s based on folk beliefs and a fascination with magical realism. I want to further develop my technique, which combines puppetry, plasticine and painterly animation. Everything is wet, sticky, organic. The world I create is beautiful, but also disgusting,” says director Barbara Rupik, who was responsible for the puppet animation in “The Silent Twins.” Producer Bogna Szewczyk adds: “It’s elevated horror. Animation allows your imagination to go much further, while [Rupik’s] work attracts you and repulses you at the same time.”

Despite the works of emerging directors and new political winds of change, Polish filmmakers still face funding and other challenges.

According to Holland, Polish films have fallen into stagnation.

“The pandemic and authoritarian government are to blame, as well as the lack of freedom, self-confidence and money. In my opinion, the system of managing cultural institutions, their resources and grants, should change. These should not be political or technocratic decisions, but expert and self-governing. Our reality is wildly dramatic, full of challenges and threats. I consider it a proof of Polish cinema’s weakness that it refuses to face it.”

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