European film producers are voicing outrage over what they allege was the politically motivated sacking of the head of the Polish Film Institute, the nation’s key funding and international networking hub for cinema production.
Magdalena Sroka’s ouster, announced Oct. 9 by Poland’s culture minister, Piotr Glinski, prompted street protests at the Warsaw film festival this week. Filmmaker Wim Wenders, the head of the European Film Academy, said in an open letter that the organization’s members were “deeply disturbed” by the right-wing Polish government’s move to fire Sroka.
“The Polish Film Institute is financed by private sources, and the director can only be dismissed by the government if she has broken the law, which she hasn’t,” Wenders wrote. He described Sroka’s removal as “an expression of disrespect for culture and artistic freedom, and that, indeed, concerns us as a European Academy. It shows how shortsighted governments are when trying to subjugate culture and art to their own political interests.”
Oscar-winning director Agnieszka Holland, one of Poland’s best-known directors at home and abroad, added that ousting Sroka was an attack on the independence of a critical film industry body. “The fear is big, like a tank,” Holland said, “which will totally destroy the grass, which is pretty green.”
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The Polish Film Institute, created in 2005, is funded with a share of revenue from film exhibitors and TV stations and was set up to be politically independent, with a director serving five-year terms. Sroka was halfway through her first term; Izabela Kiszka-Hoflik, a colleague of Sroka’s, has been named acting director.
The institute has helped scores of films achieve success, Holland noted, including the Oscar-winning “Ida.” It has also helped create domestic demand for less commercial films, with Polish cinema audiences growing from less than a million when it was founded to well over 11 million currently.
Likening Sroka’s removal to the authoritarian policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Holland said: “These are pretty dark times for Poland.”
The European Film Academy, formed around the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1988 to create solidarity among Europe’s filmmakers, has asked Glinski to reconsider his decision. Polish film students protested Monday (pictured) as thousands signed petitions opposing the sacking.
Another open letter, signed by 427 representatives of the Polish film industry, decried Sroka’s dismissal as “unlawful” and unjustified in light of her achievements. Firing her is “incomprehensible in the light of a recent great success of the Polish film festival in Gdynia,” which highlights the best in Polish film each year, a benchmark praised last month by the Polish prime minister.
Sroka did not immediately reply to a request for comment. But she has released a statement to local media indicating she was “not surprised” by the move, noting that the Polish Culture Ministry had been pressuring her to step down “for the last couple of months.”
A ministry statement at the time of her ouster accused her of breaching her professional responsibilities. The ministry cited a letter drafted by a Polish Film Institute staff member, since dismissed, which was sent to MPAA President Christopher Dodd, describing filmmakers, including Holland, as facing censorship issues in Poland. Sroka has said she did not approve or know about the letter.
Sroka’s expulsion is the latest cause for international concern over Poland following an effort by the government in July to undermine the independence of the judiciary, which sparked protests by 50,000 demonstrators and reprimands by the European Union. A move to limit abortion rights by members of the reigning Law and Justice party, elected in 2015, prompted massive protests last year and was later reversed.