After years of frustration with the course of the country’s politics, Poland’s labor minister has all but thrown in the towel. An idealist at heart, she’s ready to resign when an unexpected controversy opens the door for her to rise to the very top of the political establishment. The only thing standing in her way? A fiery, rebellious, openly gay chef who’s suddenly captured the minister’s heart. With her political fortunes hanging in the balance, she has to choose between her career and love—even though she manages to win at both in the end.
“Politics of Love” is perhaps not the most conventional romantic comedy to come from Poland, a country whose president, Andrzej Duda, has in recent years decried homosexuality as an “ideology” and made anti-LGBTQ rhetoric a central tenet of his ruling Law and Justice Party.
But Joanna Szymanska (pictured), who is developing the film through her Shipsboy production outfit, is among a number of Polish filmmakers looking to confront such rhetoric head-on. “I feel that it’s important to highlight that LGBT people, myself included, are part of a regular society, and they have the same problems, the same challenges,” she says. “They have normal lives.”
Such normalization of the LGBTQ community might seem almost radical in today’s Poland, where recent months have seen a crackdown on gay rights protests, and one-third of local municipalities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones.” In addition, President Duda has signed a “Family Charter” of proposals that would stop LGBTQ people from getting married or having children, and would ban teaching about LGBTQ issues in schools.
Last month Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, and Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski were among more than 70 signatories to an open letter addressed to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, calling for “immediate steps” to defend gay rights in Poland and voicing outrage at “repressions directed against the LGBT+ community.” Other signatories included directors Pedro Almodóvar, Yorgos Lanthimos, Mike Leigh, and Luca Guadagnino, and actors Ed Harris, Isabelle Huppert and Stellan Skarsgaard.
The hostile political climate is of no small consequence for a film industry that relies heavily on funding from the state-backed Polish Film Institute (PFI), which last year invested roughly $34 million in local development and production. Despite industry concerns about possible political influence on the institute’s funding decisions, however, PFI director Radosław Śmigulski tells Variety that “no one will be excluded from PFI support, regardless of their political and religious beliefs or sexual orientation.”
“The basis of my policy at the Polish Film Institute is the idea of creative and ideological diversity,” he says. “Only the full variety of views and voices within the arts reflect Polish culture and tradition.”
The PFI has supported LGBTQ-themed projects in the past, including “Floating Skyscrapers,” Tomasz Wasilewski’s provocative coming-out drama, and “In Hiding,” Jan Kidawa-Błoński’s film set during the Nazi occupation of Poland, about the relationship between a young Jewish woman and the daughter of the family who’s hiding her. Śmigulski insists that “nothing will change in this regard.”
“Members of the LBGTQ community are among PFI employees, PFI expert committees, as well as PFI beneficiaries,” he adds. “A culture that excludes any individual in their expression is incomplete and fallacious.”
Director Olga Chajdas, who received funding from the institute for her lesbian drama “Nina,” says the film was partly born out of the frustration she felt as a young, gay Polish woman raised without a culture of LGBTQ films.
“As a teenager, when you realize you want to see yourself in films, you can’t really name the problem,” she says. Growing up in Poland in the late-‘90s, Chajdas would use a dial-up internet connection to discover movies and TV series, like “The L Word,” that depicted gay life. “I realized what it meant only later…[that] there was no single title in Polish that mirrored [my] situation.”
Bringing the breadth and diversity of the gay experience in Poland to the screen also means recognizing how often the country’s LGBTQ community has been marginalized, persecuted, or scrubbed from history. Writer-director Grzegorz Mołda’s forthcoming adaptation of the award-winning novel “Only Lola,” by Jarosław Kamiński, chronicles the forbidden love of two women caught up in the anti-Semitic purges of the 1960s. The film recently participated in the ToronoFilmLab.
Producer Jan Kwieciński, of Akson Studio, has spent four years developing an adaptation of “Lubiewo,” Michał Witkowski’s controversial novel about growing up in the queer underground of communist-era Poland in the 1970s and ‘80s. “When we started, we were thinking that we are going towards the liberalization of the law [about gay rights],” he says, not realizing how dramatically the political winds would shift.
While any LGBTQ-themed movie in Poland today is bound to stir controversy, Kwieciński says the filmmakers “don’t want to be in the middle of a political fight.” “We want to portray communism from a totally different perspective, and we want to talk about a group of gays in an era when homosexuality was a topic which wasn’t even touched by the government or society,” he says. “I feel that it’s…a very important and necessary piece of art which we really want to make.”
The urgency could not be more pronounced at a time when the LGBTQ community in Poland faces both physical and existential threats. “It’s a very tough moment, living in a country that’s obviously trying to kick you out,” says Chajdas. As a teenage activist she was insulted and pelted with eggs, but she calls this “the first time ever that I don’t feel safe on a personal level.” Szymanska adds that “the atmosphere and the weight of it all is unbearable.”
For many in the industry, the country is facing a tipping point. “I think we are ready for [change] as a society,” says Kwieciński. “It’s the 21st century, and there’s no way we should stop talking about LGBT rights. It’s the perfect time finally to do it. And I think if we won’t start now, that will be very bad for the future of our country.” He adds: “There must be diverse voices heard in this country. And they must be loud.”