The rebirth of Polish cinema

POLISH cinema is reclaiming its place at the edge of innovation on film’s world stage, thanks to a belated investment in an industry which had established a proud reputation decades ago.

The creation of the Polish Film Institute in 2007, after years of torment about the post-Communist state of the industry, is credited with a flood of leading-edge productions to come out of the country. Once lauded as among the world’s leading film-making nations, Polish productions are being recognised once again at major festivals worldwide.

A stable of Polish directors is arriving at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, which is showcasing a specially-curated selection of recent releases that have attracted industry acclaim. After two decades of decline, Polish cinema is back on the map.

Success has not come easily. Poland’s original film revolution came out of the east European nation’s post World War Two quagmire. Then, the Lodz Film School and the establishment of state-owned film units spawned greats like Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski. Giants of European film during the 1960s, they had a remarkable influence that reached as far as Hollywood.

But the death of communism very nearly caused the demise of Polish film. During the 1980s, in the wake of the Gdansk shipyard workers’ rebellions and subsequent upheaval, the state-supported system — film schools, funding, distribution — began to creak at the edges. As the state struggled to maintain the basics — health, social services, the economy — film fell by the wayside. By all accounts the period following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was grim indeed.

“The 1990s were awful,” remarks Rohan Crickmar. “What you had was a coming together of political and economic circumstances that meant that those films which were made in Poland were produced by a small and diminishing group of people with access to the mechanisms of the industry. That clogged things up for the generation behind them. The number of films actually made in Poland fell as low as seven in one year.”

Crickmar, a Scot who taught in Poland and worked in the film industry there, is currently completing a PhD in Polish cinema at St Andrews. He will present a significant review of the industry, from the 1950s to present-day, at Edinburgh’s “Focus on Poland”.

“Some of the best film schools in Europe, at places like Lodz, are back and getting funding, so we are now seeing new talent breaking through. Directors might normally have to wait until their 40s to make a movie, but now we are seeing people in their 20s and 30s coming through,” he says.

The impact is there for the industry to see. Films to look out for at Edinburgh include The Erlprince, Satan Said Dance, A Heart of Love and The Sun, The Sun Blinded Me. They are among a raft of features and shorts to be curated by Crickmar and colleagues.

So what changed for Polish cinema? Industry sources are unanimous about that: the creation of the Polish Film Institute in 2007. A publicly funded body, the PFI set out with the aim of restoring Poland’s tattered reputation, and to find a cohesive role that would play to the country’s strengths.

Among those strengths were its training schools. The problem they faced during the dark years of the 1990s was that they were exporting talent elsewhere. It is not difficult to find Polish technicians and creatives, and especially cinematographers, somewhere in the credits of major movies made on either side of the Atlantic.

“The PFI was created in response to a crisis. Very few Polish films were actually being made. The multiplexes were full of Hollywood movies, Disney and so on. In one especially bad year there was no prize awarded as only seven movies had been made,” says institute spokeswoman Kalina Cybulska.

One priority for the PFI was to encourage Poles to return to the cinema. Prior to its creation, just 700,000 tickets to Polish movies were being sold each year. In 2016, that figure had reached a much healthier 13m (of a total of 55m tickets sold). In a country with a population of 38m — and a culture that is heavily influenced by foreign TV and movies — that represents real progress.

The average annual number of Polish titles is now 45–50. Most popular are movies that tell stories of Polish history, reflecting growing nationalist sentiment in a country that has found itself often squeezed by neighbouring cultures — German and Russian — over the last century.

With a budget of approximately £27m, the PFI does not support blockbusters, or indigenous films that are aimed at mass market cinema or TV. “We support artistic cinema. Apart from film production, we also help 130 small cinemas. We support film education, digital upgrades of independent cinemas, and various awards programmes,” explains Cybulska.

Ania Trzebiatowska, expatriate Pole and artistic director of the Krakow festival Off Camera, is enthused. “We see something very rebellious about film right now. A lot of younger people are coming into the industry, they want to make their mark and they are willing to take risks.

“In culture and film people do keep going back to Polish history. We are similar to the Scots and Irish — we like to suffer as a nation! Younger people though are breaking through that, I think. They are willing to embrace new ideas, and to work with those in other countries. We are seeing some new money, more ambition,” she adds.

“Polish people always feel guilty about something, or feel they are not good enough. Quite the opposite of Americans in this industry. But there is a new confidence, a willingness to engage.”

She cites Marcin Wrona’s Demon as an example. Released in 2015, it tells the story of a bridegroom possessed by a spirit during his own wedding. “It discusses issues that are not often discussed in Poland. It wasn’t flattering to Polish society. He dares to say something like that.”

Rohan Crickmar believes that the Polish industry is leveraging more from film today than larger countries, including Britain. “Polish cinema has been able to marshall its resources to better effect over the last 10–15 years,” he adds. “There is a varied commercial market place, and a lot of scope for international co-production. The emergence of the PFI has helped grow the audience, and we are seeing a broad range of productions, from the romantic, slapstick ‘patriotic’ through to art-house, literary adaptions, and now crime drama.”

The irony for the Polish industry is that it is re-stating an old tradition of rebellion, of the avant-garde, just as Polish society has retreated towards conservatism. The election of a right-of-centre government, one that makes “patriotic” noises and is appropriately Euro-sceptic, has raised tensions among the creative community. Some film makers are concerned that, just as the PFI marks its first 10 years, there may be pressure for future funding to be directed more towards the conservative than the radical.

Katarzyna Adamik, director of the crime noir, Amok

Director Katarzyna Adamik is bringing a crime drama, Amok, to Edinburgh. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of a body found on the banks of a river. Three years later, a book is published that includes detailed, sinister clues about the unsolved murder. “It’s a film noir really,” says Adamik. “I’m interested in a film that gets inside a dark mind. It’s not an easy journey. The viewer has to make an effort to enter this work, but the film has done well in Poland since release in March and I am taking it to several festivals.”

Adamik, aged 44, is blunt about what happened to Polish film post-Communism. “It just kind of died. Now 25 years later it is back. We are being noticed. Polish film is becoming fashionable, we are definitely on a roll.”

She is the daughter of Agnieszka Holland, one of Poland’s most eminent film-makers, and a woman who was in the resistance movement in Czechoslovakia as a student there during the Prague Spring in 1968. Mother and daughter still work together. “Even if we are not political, we have to be now,” reflects Adamik. “Politics is becoming part of every day life. For film makers that means we have to make films that matter, more than at any time. It is about what it means to be human.”

The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs until July 2. Rohan Crickmar presents Diamonds out of the Ashes: A Brief Survey of Polish Cinema 1946 — present at The Filmhouse on June 28.

This article first appeared in The Herald Arts Mag, Friday June 23 2017