Most Poles agree that their national cinema has been rejuvenated and the credit should go, in part, to the Polish Film Institute. Since it was launched in 2005, the number of film produced has grown to more than 40 a year, thanks to a national production fund totaling $28 million a year, and a network of 11 regional funds.
But instead of funding tired old historical epics or inscrutable arthouse fare, that money has led to a democratization of filmmaking, allowing regional hubs to develop and new players to enter the biz. More pics are helmed and produced by young and femme filmmakers. The Polish industry has also upped its international co-production activities, with the institute putting coin into more than 20 co-prods last year, such as Ari Folman’s “The Congress,” which is the Directors’ Fortnight opener, and Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” which is in Cannes competition.
Nikolaj Nikitin, the Berlinale’s delegate for Eastern Europe, sees two recent Polish films, Malgoska Szumowska’s “In the Name of…,” which won Berlin’s Teddy Award for a film with a gay theme, and Kasia Roslaniec’s “Baby Blues,” which nabbed the Crystal Bear for top pic in the youth section, Generation 14plus, as emblematic of the new generation.
The pics were notable for the fact that they were both directed by young women, and they approached contempo social issues with a fresh pair of eyes, free from the usual tropes, notes Nikitin. The first centered on a gay priest, and the second a teen mom, but neither was portrayed as tragic nor heroic; they were just ordinary people in difficult circumstances.
“It’s a positive sign that the young generation are preoccupied with their own stories and contemporary issues, and have moved away from the classical, historical orientation that used to exist in all the former Eastern Bloc countries because they often didn’t know how to handle the present,” Nikitin says.
Both pics were produced by Agnieszka Kurzydlo. She will rep Poland in the European Film Promotion’s Producers on the Move program in Cannes.
“The last two years have shown that there are a few strong and creative women producers, who have made it with projects that were successful at home and abroad, but they are still the exception,” says producer Marta Plucinska, whose last film, “My Father’s Bike,” was a hit at the box office.
At the end of the day, it is the quality of the film that counts, as was the case with the success of “My Father’s Bike.” “It proves that Polish viewers need intelligent, empathetic and well-made films with universal stories,” Plucinska says.
Increasingly, Polish producers are looking abroad for partners, and in particular toward Europe.
“In the European Union, nationality is more a platform to work together, but it is not a barrier. I think that today we have more borders to cross in people’s minds, than on a political or geographic level,” says Kurzydlo, who will be looking to find international buyers at Cannes for her upcoming projects, including Marcin Koszalka’s “Red Spider,” which is the true story of a teenage serial killer in communist-era Poland.
Michal Chacinski, artistic director of Gdynia Film Festival, the leading festival for Polish films, says one positive development has been a greater focus on screenwriting and original stories. “Films have started to talk about the current reality in a more honest way, and they have become more intimate because the filmmakers were writing films about themselves,” he says.
The top Polish film at the box office last year was Leszek Dawid’s “You Are God,” which looks at three friends who form a hip-hop group in the late 1990s.
It grossed some $7.8 million. Robert Balinski, international co-productions project manager at the Polish Film Institute, says this film too was marked by an interest in the day-to-day concerns of today’s urban youth.
The same verite approach is evident in this year’s hits. Wojtka Smarzowskiego’s “Traffic Police,” which is the second-most-popular film in Poland this year with a $6 million gross, is a gritty drama about corrupt cops. “The Closed Circuit,” which topped the charts for three weeks in April, centers on three businessman who are framed by crooked government officials, and is based on a true story.
The same is true when Polish helmers explore their history. Two of the top films last year, Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s “Aftermath” and Marcin Krzysztalowicz’s “Manhunt,” both deal with problematic episodes during the Nazi occupation.
“There is much less classical black and white, good guy, bad guy. So even though someone is supposed to be a hero, they have demons inside them,” Nikitin says. “I’m a bit tired of flat characters and one-dimensional story-telling in historical films.”
The more nuanced, personal approach to the past will be seen in upcoming pics, like Jan Komasa’s City 44, which is set during the Warsaw Uprising, but focuses on a love triangle between young partisans. Komasa has a cult reputation as a controversial tyro helmer following his 2011 Berlin player “Suicide Room,” which looks at a teen drawn to an online suicide chatroom.
Yet there are those who feel that films have not gone far enough.
“We are not brave enough to make films with inspiring new visions, and be uncompromising in terms of our treatment of subjects, and initiating public discussion. We are far too polite,” says helmer Dariusz Jablonski, prexy of Apple Film Production and one of the producers of “Aftermath,” adding that this has led to the lack of Polish winners at major festivals.
Select Polish films screening in Cannes market: