It wasn’t so long ago that the notion of Wroclaw, Poland, emerging as a hub of art film and a private sector boom would have prompted outright laughter. Just five years ago, no fast rail or reliable airline service was even on offer to the city.
Now, the city is sharing the title 2016 European Capital of Culture with San Sebastian, Spain, and the recognition seems almost overdue.
Aside from two major Polish film festivals and a bold new professional development workshop for the industry — the 3-year-old School of Film Agents — the southwestern city is securely on the arts map. Its galleries and design scenes are as hip as those in major capitals, and this year in particular, the city’s calendar is chock-full of concerts, art openings and events in celebration of the Capital of Culture nod.
Steven Spielberg even used the city as the double for Cold War Berlin in his Oscar-nominated pic “Bridge of Spies.”
It’s a far cry from when Polish producer Roman Gutek and a few colleagues launched the New Horizons Film Festival in 2006, when the idea seemed like a brave, possibly risky, move.
Since then, some 500 Polish pics have been produced in Wroclaw, and New Horizons, as both the country’s largest fest and a production and distribution arm itself, has been a driving force. Gutek’s latest coup, the launch of the Helios Cinema — one of Poland’s best new arthouse facilities — keeps the indie programming running year-round, taking in almost everything from Laura Poitras docs to “Carol” and “10 Cloverfield Lane.”
Helios, a multiplex screening Polish and “ambitious films” from around the world, the sleek and airy space also books more mainstream fare, but is dedicated to a non-Hollywood aesthetic — and goes so far as banning popcorn. Polish films are also screened with English subtitles, a practice that’s hardly standard in the country.
Wroclaw’s other trendsetting fest, the American Film Festival, brings U.S. indies, accompanied by filmmakers, to Polish audiences who would otherwise never see their works in local cinemas. The event’s artistic director, Ula Sniegowska, says the city’s cultural feats demonstrate what smart municipal backing, combined with creative talent in a given sector, can accomplish.
Wroclaw mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz has partnered strategically with Gutek during three successive terms to support and develop not just a thriving film scene but also other festivals and theater.
But the city has not neglected business growth while nurturing the arts, Sniegowska points out. “Cultural development of Wrocław comes secondary to its industrial growth,” she says, noting that major corporations such as HP, BNY Mellon and Amazon have built and opened facilities here, employing thousands of potential festgoers.
The School of Film Agents is also an increasingly critical part of the mix, as founder Nikolaj Nikitin points out.
The venture, aimed at professional development for people already working in the regional film business, runs Aug. 19-28. It focuses on helping them not only create viable business plans, but also helps them find backing for new ideas — such as a Serbian networking center or Poland’s Cinebus rolling film school. It’s proven to be a driving force in a local film biz boom, Nikitin believes.
“Poland has surely become one of the hottest co-production countries in Europe, with outstanding local productions winning awards at major film festivals,” he says.
Sofa won support early on from the Polish Film Institute, and also benefitted from a strong network established by Polish producer Radek Drabik, maker of the domestic hit “Planet Single,” Nikitin says.
Setting up shop in Wroclaw made sense when “this energetic city embraced us with open arms and we felt the support of many locals,” he adds. Besides the attraction of a major arthouse cinema as a partner along with strong fests, the Wroclaw Film Commission gave Sofa a big boost.
With other Polish cities, such as Lodz, eager to brand themselves film biz meccas, Wroclaw will need to stay competitive, says Sniegowska. “Plus, changing the name to something easier to pronounce would help!”