Sky is the limit. Film (r)evolution in Poland

Exactly a year ago, the famous words “and the Oscar goes to…” thrilled the Polish film industry. Paweł Pawlikowski’s internationally acclaimed and award-winning Ida is a light at the end of the tunnel for international exposure and global success of Polish productions. Indeed, the Academy Award marked the beginning of a very fruitful year for Polish cinema but was also the culmination of changes that have been occurring in the national industry for over 25 years of socio-political transformation. It would be naive to say that the process of European integration resulted in the Oscars, however it resulted in a lot of these changes. How exactly have they influenced the film production in Poland? How do filmmakers deal with them? Here are some answers.

Let’s be honest: it is extremely hard for Poles or any other Eastern (or Central, if you prefer) Europeans to get an Oscar. America is not their neck of the woods. They are still too exotic in their way of expression. There was a time when Western Europe was just as foreign. Now, I wrote “there was a time”, because Polish filmmakers are garnering more and more attention. Outcomes of European festivals speak for themselves. Just a week before the triumphal 2015 Academy Awards ceremony, Małgorzata Szumowska returned from the the Berlinale with a Silver Bear for her film Body/Ciało screened in the main competition section. Two years earlier, at the same festival, she won the Teddy Award for In the Name of/W imię. Roman Polański’s latest film – French-Polish co-production Venus in Fur/Wenus w futrze – premiered in competition for the Palme d’Or in Cannes. So did Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes/11 minut few months ago in Venice, where the movie competed for the Golden Lion… To name but a few of the most renowned festivals so as not to bore the reader.

Saving Polish cinema

All those films were co-financed by the Polish Film Institute. Its establishment through a new Polish law on cinematography in 2005 was fostered by the difficult situation of the audiovisual industry at the time and a concern that no one would desire to produce movies in Polish language anymore – we must bear in mind that Poland’s accession to the EU had taken place barely a year before. Despite initial worries about the Institute’s effectiveness, the industry entered a period of rapid growth. The Institute’s annual budget of approximately thirty million euros directly finances its operational programmes and the pursuit of the objectives set out within them. It seems that, although originally regarded with suspicion, the Institute has become a viable partner for filmmakers. Brilliant directors, such as Wojtek Smarzowski, produce film after film and 33-year old Jan Komasa directed Warsaw 44/Miasto 44 (becoming the second highest-grossing film in Poland in 2014) with a budget of over six million euros, which is a huge amount for a movie in Poland.


Poland’s regional film funds are another source of financing. “The Krakow Regional Film Fund (KRFF) exists from 2009,” explains Ania Krupiarz who coordinates the Fund on behalf of the Krakow Film Commission. “Generally, in Poland, regional film funding structures are new in comparison to Western ones. Nevertheless, regarding development in the field, Kraków is one of the pioneers in the country.” To be eligible to apply, there are only two conditions: a film project related to the region in any way and a closed budget with a definitive list of funding sources. There are no requirements concerning experience or subject matter. “Our experts have never refused financing a film because of its theme,” adds Ania. “Last year, they decided to finance 5 out of 30 submitted films. It is not our objective to produce as many films as possible. On the contrary, the fewer, the better, because a film can get more money.” The fund’s budget varies every year and it depends on contributions from the Małopolskie Voivodeship and the City of Kraków. Last editions showed that the funding was about 1.000.000 zloty (approximately 250.000 euros) in total.

… and more money

I then ask about Poland’s image abroad and international co-productions shot in Kraków. “Foreign producers come willingly because Kraków can pass as any other city,” Ania responds. “Besides, I have never met someone who has not been satisfied with our style, our way of doing things, with Polish professionalism. People often say that we offer better and cheaper services than the West.” Recently, Bollywood showed a high interest of Poland. 2015 saw a rise in co-productions with Europeans and, later in the year, Americans. Aside from the availability of qualified film professionals, the Krakow International Film Fund (KIFF) is a pretty good incentive to produce films there. This brand new tool supporting international co-operation is the first of its type in Poland. The KIFF works as its regional counterpart, with the exception of international involvement. In 2015, the Fund’s very first Competition Committee decided to grant financing to the French-Belgian-Polish co-production, Grand Froid directed by Gérard Pautonnier. According to recent press reports, the shooting has just begun in the Bieszczady mountains.

Having taken the above into account, one might assume: the Polish film industry is doing well. Nevertheless, I was wondering if it really is in the eyes of beginners, young talented filmmakers entitled to expect support for their projects. My research led me to an interesting Skype conversation between Strasbourg, France and Kraków, Poland…

Tough beginnings

Young director, Daria Woszek caught my attention through her first out-of-school short film. The Dogcatcher/Hycel took off. Several renowned Polish actors accepted to take part in the production. A real success… and no small feat.

Bearing in mind the history of Polish cinematography after 1989 – coping with regained freedom and wild capitalism (Kieślowski’s White/Biały), women’s position in society (Pasikowski’s movies), religious propaganda (Kotlarczyk’s The Primate/Prymas and a John Paul II film boom) as well as critical approaches to reality (Szumowska’s 33 Scenes from Life/33 sceny z życia, Żuławski’s Snow White and Russian Red/Wojna polsko-ruska) – you might get the impression of breaking through a sort of capitalist-nationalist-Catholic narrative. But, is this really the case in today’s Polish cinema? “The market is hermetic and not fully ready for experiments,” Daria says. “This is the hardest challenge facing young directors today. It is like we got stuck in the 70s, in an atmosphere of moral anxiety and secret psychologism. In the background there is a message: ‘it’s bad and will get worse’.” That said, she admits that the film school was a disappointment. “Every film school creates its own society with its own practices, lines of conduct. It becomes complicated, when you do not comply. This phenomenon has never been stated outright, it is very informal.” The fact that everyone in the filmmakers’ community knows each other is not insignificant. “I am aware that my movie got rejected twice just because my former professor did not like me,” confesses Daria. Shall we then simply wait until the next generation? “Perhaps, because we are still dealing with the aftermath of communism here – everyone who stands out does not fit in. But plenty of young directors have started to think the same way: ‘it was hard for me, so I will make it even harder to the rest of them’.”

The new trend is coming

However, even if mostly on an individual basis, changes are beginning to take place. To illustrate that thinking, learning and creating differently is possible, Daria gives a couple of examples: Wajda School – a private institution created by legends of Polish film direction, where she truly grew artistically – and the Cracow Film Cluster – an association of film professionals creating a competitor market for Warsaw. She continues listing changes: movies with good scripts, young, motivated producers, alternative ways of funding… Funding? “The way in which financing for films is determined in Poland is problematic,” she says. “Funds’ commissions prefer conventional movies to those conveying an unusual perspective. The favoured films are produced and that’s it. No award. Nothing.” Not surprisingly, directors are rather in favour of co-productions and private sources of funding to increase chances of finalising their project. Moreover, if they search for possibilities and are able to communicate in a foreign language, they can find them abroad. Bonjour, je suis Antek, another short movie which Daria had submitted to a contest, got rejected by Munk Studio – a movie studio supporting production of ambitious artistic films, especially short ones, cooperating with the Polish Film Institute. Then, she translated the script and sent it to the European Short Pitch of Nisi Masa, an NGO supported by the Council of Europe and the European Commission, among others. “People from across Europe loved it! Rejected by the national institution, I found a co-producer from Luxembourg.” A new pan-european tendency is emerging and Poland is part of this big community.

Paradoxically, the more Polish movies are appreciated abroad, the more they are criticised domestically. Questioning the current Polish mainstream in filmmaking can not be revolutionary, because, in general, Poles themselves are not ready for rapid changes. The stubborn Slavic soul does not like them. On the other hand, open borders and wider international exposure in arts contribute to the evolution of Polish tastes – as well as their way of making films. New projects, such as Doc Lab Poland, new film festivals, such as PKO OFF Camera, an increasing importance of festivals, such as those in Kraków and Warsaw – the latest addition to the list of competitive film festivals (“A” list) – are examples of this changing quality of the Polish cinema. Poles are ambitious enough to take advantage of new possibilities. The sky is the limit. This time, it is a Polish sky.

About the author: Marta Przywała is student in Master 2 European Policies and Public Affairs at Sciences Po Strasbourg, member of the PEAP working group “Audiovisual and Cinema in Europe”.

Picture: Magdalena Czerwińska in Wojna polsko-ruska

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