This offered two programmes in the Leeds International Film Festival Short Film City section.
The Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Filmowa, Telewizyjna i Teatralna im. Leona Schillera w Łodzi) is the leading Polish academy for future actors, directors, photographers, camera operators and TV staff. [The current name is in honour of the actor and first rector Leon Schiller].
You get a sense of the school’s status when you look at the list of alumni:
The School has three Oscar-winning alumni: Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and Zbigniew Rybczyński, while alumnus Krzysztof Kieślowski was nominated for an Oscar. Both Polanski and Wajda won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 and 1981, respectively.
So it was a must for me to turn up for the first programme which was a series of short films produced between 1958 and 1986. The selection repaid my interest.
Two men and a wardrobe (Dwaj ludzie z szafą 1958) in black and white and running 14 minutes. The film is without dialogue and follows the characters and prop of the title. This is one of the famous films made by Polanski as a student. It is a real surrealist piece, droll and engaging as we follow the antics of the men and their interaction with passersby. The film opens and closes on the sea-shore which seems highly symbolic.
Conflicts (Konflikty 1960). Directed by Daniel Szczechura, this is a seven minute animation using stop-motion techniques. The plot concerns a marital triangle leading to a violent conclusion.
The Game (Zabawa 1960). Filmed in black and white and directed by Witold Leszczynski, the film runs for 9 minutes. The game in question involves a couple in a car and another driver with whom they race. This is a very sardonic piece: I wondered if Spielberg saw it before Duel (1971)?
The Office (Urzad 1966). This is a five minute documentary in black and white. The focus on an administrative space and the interaction betweens staff and users seems typical of the director, Krzyztof Kieślowski. The sort of sequence that appears in far more complex fashion in his later films.
Kirk Douglas (1966). A 10 minute documentary directed by Marek Piwowaki recording the visit by the Hollywood actor to the Film School. Douglas is clearly exploring h his routes, but also enjoy the intense interest and even adulation that he is accorded.
Concert of Requests (Koncert zyczeń 1967. This 16 minute drama in black and white was directed by Krzyztof Kieślowski. Like The Office it has recognisable themes and style. A couple on a motor bike, packing up after camping, encounter a fairly rowdy bus load of people. The latter include band members, perhaps returning from some concert event. The film follows the encounter and the brief conflict that develops. Like the filmmakers later and longer features, this was fascinating to watch.
Market (Rynek 1971). This five minute experiment was directed by Józef Robakowski and Tadeusz Junak. The film uses fast motion over a period of about a day and in long shot to record the event.
Square (Kwadrat 1972). Another experimental film with animated colour by Zbigniew Rybcznski. The four minutes are filled with changing shapes and music in a sort of abstract ballet.
With Raised Hands (Z podniesionymi rekami 1985). This 6 minutes black and white film won a Palme D’Or for the Film School and the director Mitko Panov. The photograph which the film uses is a famous one. But we are offered an alternative narrative. One that offers hope and which seemed to speak both to Polish history and recurring pre-occupations in the work of the Film School.
Krakatau (1986). This was an essay film rather than one with story. In black and white and running for eleven minutes the director, Mariusz Grzegorzek used ‘found footage’ to present a picture of rising frustrations. The footage included what seemed to be a volcanic eruption and reference to the famous one at Krakatoa.
Most of the films were in academy ratio, but a couple were in 1.66:1. They involved a whole host of School students in cinematography, editing sound and other production functions. The one flaw in all of this was the sound track. The volume went up and down from film to film. Apparently the poor projectionist was turning the output up and down as the films, copied to digital, ran. It seems this was on the disc supplied from Poland. This was not only unfortunate, but given the standards in the recent Martin Scorsese Masterpieces of Polish Cinema [with more Łódź alumni] surprising.
There was a second programme of short films made in the last couple of years. One, Hangover (Kao 2015) had arrived without subtitles. With a certain amount of effort I followed the main plot, but not all the subtleties. Set in an Alcohol Recovery Centre it looked rather good. The director was Maciej Buchwald, who likely also scripted the film.
The film that I was most impressed by was Gigant (Giant 2015). The film follows the romantic adventures of young Bartek and his mother, a single parent. I do not know if Polish Television ever featured Yellow Pages adverts, but this seemed to provide a back-story to one that involved French Polishers. I thought the cast were very good, and the development of the characters over 33 minutes was very well done. There was an engaging ironic take on the events as they unfolded. The film was both scripted and directed by Tomasz Jeziorski.
All the films were in colour and widescreen and this was an interesting and enjoyable screening. [Quotations with Links – Wikipedia].
Jerzy Skolimowski is the Polish director who was a rebel filmmaker in the early 1960s, a young man who went to Lodz film school and tussled with Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and Roman Polanski. After several Polish features he moved into ‘international’ filmmaking with a series of English language films, including Deep End (1970) made about UK issues but shot mainly in West Germany. Later he moved to Hollywood but his directing career foundered in the 1990s. In 2010 he teamed up with Jeremy Thomas to produce a critically acclaimed international thriller Essential Killing. Thomas is a legendary international producer who had previously produced Skolimowski’s The Shout in the UK in 1978. Essential Killing premiered at Venice and like many of Skolimowski’s previous titles generated awards interest (Skolimowski boasts 22 awards as writer and director from major festivals around the world). 11 Minutes, the next Skolimowski-Thomas production also opened at Venice in 2015 and was again nominated for the Golden Lion.
11 Minutes is a Polish co-production with Ireland. Most of the film appears to be shot in Warsaw with sound recording and possibly some interiors in Dublin. Most of the dialogue is Polish except for English used in one narrative strand. The only thing I can say about the ‘plot’ is that it covers what happens between 5pm and 5.11 one afternoon in the lives of a group of characters in central Warsaw. The group includes an actress who has an appointment in a hotel with an American actor/producer re a new film. Her husband is trying to find her in the hotel. A man sells hot dogs from a cart in the park and a woman walks a dog. A teenager breaks into a pawnbroker’s shop. A couple look through some video porn on a laptop. A motor-cycle courier delivers more than just a package to a married woman. Some nuns wait for a bus. A security guard watches CCTV monitors. An ambulance crew are on a mercy mission. There may be other characters I’ve forgotten. The separate stories are not told in a linear fashion and Skolimowski sometimes goes back in time before he goes forward again. This play with time also includes a cheeky image of time running backwards. The film lasts just 81 minutes, cut down from a 120 minutes original version.
For me, this was a thrilling ride. At one point I thought I was watching some kind of avant-garde film and I searched for the kinds of editing rhythms I remembered from 1970s structural films. Eventually I realised what was happening but I wasn’t prepared for the ending. Somebody who watched the same screening that I attended, at which Skolimowski answered questions, reported on IMDB that they were unimpressed. They must be hard to please. I thought that 11 Minutes was a triumph of editing and the choreography of actors’ movements and camera set-ups must have been very difficult. At the Q&A Skolomowski said that he treated the narrative as a poem full of metaphors and symbols and that like all poems he thought that readers should decide for themselves what the metaphors meant. There was a brief discussion as to what the ‘dead pixel’ on one of the CCTV screens might mean as well as suggestions that there was something supernatural going on. What was it that seemed to make some of the characters look up into the sky? It occurred to me afterwards that the film had something in common with the Argentinian collection of short stories, Wild Tales (2014). The two films have very different narrative structures but both seem in a way to be commenting on something about lives in their respective countries/cultures. A final question asked about the opening of the film and this was indeed interesting. Skolimowski begins with introductions to several of the most important characters by way of what might be considered ‘non-theatrical’ video sources – a camera on a mobile phone, the webcam on a laptop, CCTV in an interview room etc. The rest of the film is then shot conventionally on film or HD. Again, we are invited to decide what this choice of formats means.
11 Minutes does not yet have a UK distributor but it does have a leading UK sales agent, Hanway, so it should arrive here. It will be released in Ireland by co-producers Element Pictures. The film will divide critics perhaps but if you like terrific cinematography combined with excellent sound and great choreography in a whole that challenges your perception of the pace of contemporary city life, this is a winner.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.
People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.
Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.
The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).
The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.
Trailer for Something Better to Come:
This Andrzej Wajda film is an adaptation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Władysław Stanisław Reymont (1867 – 1925). The original Polish cinema release was nearly three hours long with a four hour version for television. This was restored in Poland in 2011 and was shown at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds as part of the Martin Scorsese presentation of classic Polish films currently touring in the UK. I’m surprised at how few cinemas are showing these films so I’m grateful to get the chance to see some of them at the Hyde Park. My knowledge of Polish history is not as good as it should be and I had to check out Wikipedia to learn a few important things about the subject matter of The Promised Land. I wish some of the reviewers elsewhere had done the same and then they wouldn’t have made some of the misleading statements that have possibly damaged Wajda’s reputation after his work on the film. The novel’s title refers to the city of Łódź which after 1815, when it was made part of the Russian ‘Kingdom of Poland’, developed as an industrial city and attracted immigrants from all over Europe. Łódź grew as a textile centre and in the latter half of the nineteenth century was sometimes known as the ‘Manchester of Poland’ as it was cotton mills that powered its prosperity. The enormous influx of workers for the mills created an unusual population mix in which the local Polish population was matched by large numbers of Germans, many of whom were Jewish. From these two groups came many of the mill-owners and the bankers who supported them during the rapid growth (and financial downturns) of the period. The film’s narrative focuses on three young men. Karol is the son of an aristocratic Polish family in decline. He is employed as the Chief Engineer/factory manager of a mill owned by a despotic German. Max is German and the son of a mill owner who is still operating a handloom mill in the 1880s. He is not as ruthless as the other owners and his business is doomed because of his honourable stance. Moryc is a Jewish ‘middleman’ who operates in the futures market (cotton comes into the region via Hamburg and Trieste). Together the three “have nothing – the perfect place to start” and they set out to find money and to develop a new factory using every trick that they can think of. This includes sex, espionage and deception. Given its subject matter and literary source there is an assumption perhaps that this will be something like the literary adaptions of British or French cinema but the vitality of the film made me think more of 1970s/80s Hollywood. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) shares some of the sense of unbridled capitalist excess. Others have suggested Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976). There is a long sequence in the opera house that reminded me of Visconti’s Senso (1954). I was amazed by the sheer energy of the film and the way in which the narrative raced along. I’m usually very adept at reading subtitles but for the first half hour I felt I was running to catch up. Wajda used three cinematographers and certainly gave them plenty to do. The camera moves swiftly, often from a low angle and using wide angle lenses so that the characters appear to be crowding around the camera and the audience is immersed in the hustle and bustle. There is also a busy orchestral score and sumptuous production design – I’m assuming that the mills we see are those still standing in Łódź (although the textile business has now largely disappeared). I’m not sure how to describe the film. It is certainly a melodrama but it is also a satire. In a strange way it echoes some of the scenes in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, although the scenes in the pleasure gardens are rather more explicit than 19th century British literature was able to suggest. Much of the time the satire is buried in the detailed plotting but Wajda exaggerates some scenes to make them grotesque, including two explicit scenes of accidents in the mills. At the end of the film when the ‘education’ of the three principals in the ways of industrial capitalism is complete, Wajda ‘flash’ cuts scenes of worker’s resistance with the celebrations of the mill-owners and the critique of capitalist exploitation is explicit. The Promised Land is a major global film but it was criticised, especially in the US for being anti-capitalist – as if Wajda was somehow ‘toadying’ to the Russians. Others have pointed out that the film appeared as Polish worker’s resistance was building towards the birth of Solidarity. The film was also criticised for being anti-semitic. I don’t think this charge stands as the narrative critiques the behaviour of the young men and the mill owners whether they are Polish, Protestant German or German Jews. There is a Region 2 DVD of The Promised Land from Second Run and a Polish Blu-ray with EST. In the YouTube clip below is a scene (virtually without dialogue) in which we see Karol’s aged father and his fiancée arriving in the city to live close to the new factory being built by the central trio. The music here seems to be influenced by the kind of score used by Ennio Morricone in Once Upon a Time in the West.