Kinoteka: Notes Towards London’s Sixth Polish Film Festival

By Nancy Harrison

katyn-andrzej-wajda.jpgKatyn, 2007

Begun in 2003, a year prior to Poland’s arrival in the expanded EU, the Polish Film Festival was initially conceived as a showcase for the young Polish filmmakers that were beginning to emerge from the wreckage of Poland’s earlier film industry. Although the making of traditionally very high quality, imaginative animation had continued relatively unbroken, during the 1990s Polish live action cinema experienced a profound slump during its transition from state control to independent production. Its major, world-renowned directors – Krzysztof Kieslowski, Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Zanussi – all took advantage of the chance to secure extensive international co-production work during this period, leaving an unfilled gap in the domestic industry. By the millennium this was beginning to be rectified, and the Polish Film Institute undertook to bring new Polish cinema to an international audience.

After focussing initially on contemporary, albeit somewhat mainstream films, the festival began to take in documentaries and shorts alongside an annual retrospective of more established directors. The first of these, in 2004, highlighted Holland, a rare example of a female Polish filmmaker, and one of the country’s most internationally recognised directors due to extensive co-productions and German-, French- and English language films. Holland has remained actively involved in the festival since, closing the 2007 edition with the UK premiere of Copying Beethoven and hosting a lively and slightly combative Q&A after the screening. As a further broadening of the festival’s programming, last year’s retrospective and masterclass subject was veteran documentarist Marcel Lozinski, with screenings focussed on his later works: political and social essays including The Microphone Test (Proba Mikrofonu), Matriculation – initially banned on its release in 1979 and his Oscar-nominated short 89mm from Europe.

agnieszka-holland.jpgAgnieszka Holland in conversation at the Copying Beethoven premiere, 2007

As the scope of the festival has widened, the demographics of the audience have also shifted, from the original primarily Polish constituency, keen to catch up on contemporary work not available in the UK, towards a significantly more mixed attendance, most notably in the retrospective programmes. Festival director Marlena Lukasiak was surprised at the percentage of non-Polish, ‘foreign’ viewers attending the Krzysztof Zanussi screenings during the 4th festival in 2006. This trend was once again repeated during the Lozinski retrospective, as the British documentary community was given a rare chance to view work largely unseen in this country.

copying-beethoven-agnieszka-holland.jpgCopying Beethoven, 2007 

The 2008 festival has once again expanded, and will be presented in an extended format. To date, confirmed screenings include new films Rezerwat (Lukasz Palkowski), Korowod (Jerzy Stuhr) and Hope (Nadzieja) (Stanislaw Mucha), the third in a trilogy of films by Kieslowski scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz (following Tom Twyker’s Heaven and Denis Tanovic’s L’Enfer) about blackmail in the art world. There are also hopes to open the festival with Time to Die (Pora umierac) rising star Dorota Kedzierzawska’s thought-provoking black and white meditation on age and memory. Sixty years of Polish animation will be celebrated with an enlarged programme of shorts as the Polish Film Institute declares 2008 ‘The Year of Polish Animation’, and the festival will be partnering with the East End Festival for a weekend of outdoor screenings in Shoreditch. A selection of Polish documentary screenings is planned and, to mark the death of Jerzy Kawalerowicz this past December, a small retrospective of his work will be presented.

The main news is the presence of Andrzej Wajda, 2008’s special guest and the focus of both a comprehensive retrospective and the festival’s main premiere screening. Wajda events include an exhibition of his storyboards at the Riverside Studios throughout April; the UK premiere of Katyn, Poland’s entry to the 2008 Oscars, which deals with the effect of the 1940 Katyn massacre incident on the lives of the survivors, and an onstage interview after the premiere at the BFI Southbank. Wajda will also take part in a debate on ‘Censorship as a Creative Force’ at the Barbican Centre, alongside Hungarian director Istvan Szabo and the Czech Jiri Menzel.

katyn-andrzej-wajda-2.jpgKatyn, 2007

In the future Lukasiak would like to further widen the festival’s remit to include video art and work that lives on the border between film and fine art. The Polish Cultural Institute acknowledges that the increasing international profile of Polish video artists such as Artur Zmijewski, Pawel Althamer and Katarzyna Kozyra is one that they cannot ignore, and the Polish Film Institute’s healthy funding has allowed, and continues to allow, the festival a level of experimentation that otherwise might not be achievable.

The main festival runs from April 10th to 23rd at Riverside Studios and independent screens across London, including outdoor screenings for the East End Film Festival. The festival then shifts to the BFI Southbank in May for the Andrzej Wajda retrospective. For more information visit the Polish Cultural Institute website or the BFI website.

Nancy Harrison is Vertigo’s Assistant Editor and Publication Manager. She writes regularly for Kultureflash.