Pokot is an entry in a recent genre cycle of ‘eco-thrillers’ – and like the Icelandic film Woman at War (2018) it has a central female character. In this case the film is also directed by a woman, the now veteran Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland who has recently directed episodes of well-known American ‘long-form TV narratives’ such as House of Cards (2015-17) and earlier The Wire (2004-8). Actually the directorial role is shared by Agnieszka Holland and her daughter Kasia Adamik and the script is by Holland and Olga Tokarczuk, adapted by the latter from her own novel. Pokot is also, as the title implies, a form of North European genre based on the hunt and the machismo of its male followers. There is a further set of generic elements but I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll put them to one side for the moment.
The central character is Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), a woman in her sixties (IMDb calls her ‘elderly’ – harrumph!). She’s a mysterious character with a past who doesn’t like people using her personal name and is quick to correct pronunciation of her family name. I did wonder if this was an identity issue (i.e. a language/naming issue) as other characters stumble over it and repeatedly check it. Someone else at the screening suggested that this might be a hangover of the communist regime in Eastern Europe but I think it is significant that the narrative is located in a ‘contested’ region in South West Poland along the border with the Czech Republic. This is an area with National Parks on either side of the border. Designated a UNESCO ‘biosphere’ the area has plentiful wildlife, which moves across the borders. The local population is Polish but has also historically been part of German-Czech Bohemia.
The narrative covers the four seasons with a short coda. Each section of the narrative has a title card for the month of the year and a listing of all the wildlife that can legally be hunted during the month. Duszejko has a house on the edge of the forest. She has a couple of neighbours, one who treats animals very badly and another she will later come to know better. Her past is not spelt out but there is a suggestion that she has been an engineer and that she worked overseas, possibly on forms of aid work. Perhaps she was a form of hippy traveller? Now she has three interests. She teaches English part-time in the school in town, she explores astrology and she cares passionately about the wildlife in the region. This brings her into confrontations with the hunters, i.e. most of the older male population, and the police to whom she regularly reports the ‘murder’ of animals killed by the hunters and rails against the absurdity of a legal killing one day that is illegal the next (i.e. at the end of the designated monthly season).
This is a familiar thematic of an ‘odd’ character (in the context of local culture) and conventionally, the narrative then provides Duszejko with a small team of potential collaborators who will help her against the strength of the local hunting lobby. She meets a young IT specialist and his girlfriend, Boros (Miroslav Krobot) a Czech entomologist, and her neighbour ‘Matoga’ (Wiktor Zborowski) who also has a back story. Each of these individuals has something in their past which makes them an outsider in the region. The narrative is an eco-thriller on the basis of the struggle to protect the wildlife from the hunters. But perhaps it is more a question of the brutality of hunting and the extension of that brutality across the local culture? I was struck by the difference between hunting in the UK (influenced by social class and the ecological damage caused by maintaining large populations of game species impacting on other flora and fauna) and the more widespread hunting culture in the rest of Europe which is more ‘open’ but more pervasive. I’m thinking about films such as The Hunters (Sweden 1996) or The Hunt (Denmark 2012) both of which share some elements with Pokot. The hunting crowd in Pokot includes most of the men in the district and the ‘club-like’ feel of this fraternity also has links to science fiction/horror narratives like The Stepford Wives (1975/2004) in which the men in a community secretly replace their wives with simulacra/android robots.
But this film also draws on both crime fiction and fairy tales. An older woman who acts as a kind of animal detective investigating the murders of several hunters recalls Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, though the murders themselves might have taken place in the mythical world of Midsummer Murders. There is also a suggestion that the filmmakers have turned to Angela Carter and her ideas about traditional fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood is referenced and, although I shouldn’t think it is intended, there seems to be a kind of reverse Wicker Man narrative in which the outsider, instead of being sacrificed, turns the tables on the local community of hunters.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure of the film, but I think most audiences will guess what has been happening re the murders. The coda offers what most of us would consider as a ‘happy ending’ though in the discussion which followed our screening some voices raised concerns about violent actions being condoned because the victims deserved to die. I’m interested in this resurgence of what I have termed the ‘eco-thriller’. Thinking about it, the eco-thriller is a much larger category than I have suggested, but in the past it has mostly been about large corporations threatening to damage the environment and it has linked in to the ‘technology gone wrong’ elements of science fiction or the ‘disaster’ narratives of climate change such as The Day After Tomorrow (US 2004). Pokot belongs to a more defined category in which ecology issues are presented in more subtle ways and lead to more individual actions. I suspect we will see more films like this. I also wonder if there is the suggestion of a new tendency in Polish cinema in which Poles who have been abroad and returned home bring a new perspective to life in modern Poland. I was reminded of my experience of watching The Birds Are Singing in Kigali (Poland 2017), a very different film dealing with PTSD suffered by a central character on her return from Rwanda.
Mainstream Polish films are getting released in the UK, targeting the large Polish diaspora community, but more art-orientated films are harder to find. Pokot is available on a Region 2 DVD. One last trivia point, Tomasz Kot, the star of Cold War (Poland 2018), which made £1 million at the UK box office, plays the town’s prosecutor in Pokot.
Mother Joan of the Angels is a sort of sequel to The Devils (UK, 1971), Ken Russells’ hysterical and extravagant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (1952) which was based on actual events that occurred in the 1630s. ‘Sequel’ because it deals with the aftermath of Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) death although it is based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s novella written in 1943 whilst incarcerated in a concentration camp. The stylistic contrasts between the film could not be more striking as director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki’s adaptation eschews full frontal representation of sexual repression in favour of restraint. The stylisation in the earlier film is through Jerzy Wójcik’s stark and beautiful black and white cinematography and some striking set pieces.
This version of the ‘devils of Loudon’ focuses more on the conflicted, unworldly Father Suryn, who arrives to exorcise Mother Joan, rather than the sexual repression of the nuns. Mieczyslaw Voit’s haunted performance as Suryn makes it clear from the start that he is unlikely to be up to the task. In one heavily stylised scene he asks a local rabbi for help: the conversation between the two, where each character (both played by Voit) occupy the same space in the frame after the edit, emphasises the priest’s inner conflict. The rabbi asks if the devil ruled the world it would explain why there is so much evil.
Unlike the elaborate design (by Derek Jarman) of Russell’s film, the setting is a muddy and pitted expanse of ground between the locals’ inn and the convent. In the middle there’s a burnt out stake, that saw the last of Grandier, that is a reminder of the Church’s violence. Unsurprisingly the Catholic church condemned the film but the Polish authorities were happy with its anti-religious stance; Cannes awarded it the Special Jury Prize.
Apparently this is Kawalerowicz’s most stylised film as he was, predominantly, a commercial filmmaker; he’d made Night Train a couple of years before which is equally good. Mother Joan of the Angels is brilliant on so many levels: direction, performance, mise en scène and the portrayal of the psychological damage that religion can wreak. What stands out, however, is the chiaroscuro cinematography that seemingly effortlessly presents a real space as abstract.
My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.
The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.
As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.
There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant. The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).
A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage. Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.
Is one of the best films of the year so far.
This was a very difficult film to watch for a variety of reasons. The film was introduced by its co-director Joanna Kos-Krauze who revealed that the film took several years to put together and that both her cinematographer Krzysztof Ptak and her husband and co-director Krzysztof Krauze had died before the film was completed. Since the film’s narrative focused on the ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ brought on by experience of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the chosen aesthetic approach was also driven by a ‘disturbed’ mise en scène and narrative ellipses, it was clearly going to be challenging. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t quite rise to the challenge and my concentration floundered at some points. Nevertheless, I could see that this was a profoundly moving and hard-hitting account of events over twenty years ago that are still relevant today.
The central character Anna Keller (Jowita Budnik) is a Polish ornithologist studying vultures in Rwanda – the film opens with a blurred image that eventually becomes clear as a group of vultures feeding on the carcase of a cow. Anna has become friendly, even intimate, with a family of middle-class Tutsis who are the victims of Hutu attacks in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. When the killing begins, Anna flees the country and manages to smuggle out the grown-up daughter of the family, Claudine (Eliane Umuhire). But when they arrive in Poland, both Anna and Claudine are traumatised by their experience and at first they can’t live together and Claudine opts for a hostel as she begins an application for asylum.
Claudine is treated as an asylum seeker but rather unadvisedly sent to work at a fish farm where she witnesses live fish being gutted and their still twitching innards being discarded. This is far too close to the brutality meted out to Tutsis in Rwanda. Eventually she will arrive at Anna’s house and the two will agree a tentative truce before Claudine will argue to return to Rwanda to find members of her extended family (knowing this will affect her claim for refugee status in Poland). The aesthetic of the film includes use of soft focus and compositions which present disturbed images (shot through doorways or other obstacles which obscure the action). The pacing is very slow and I can’t be sure if I actually missed scenes or whether there are deliberate ellipses, so that we don’t know exactly what has been decided at the end of a scene. There have been several fiction films about the Rwanda genocide – all difficult to watch, I think. Birdsong and the squalor and horror of genocide is a powerful juxtaposition and sets up the drama of post traumatic shock. I wish I could have stayed for the Q&A when some questions might have been answered (the film has an open ending) but the curse of the film festival means I had to race off to a venue some distance away, not sure of how long it would take to get there.
Birds Are Singing in Kigali is a very powerful film. As in my first screening of Casting, I wish I’d prepared myself for it. The trailer below probably says much more than I’ve been able to put into this review, simply through the use of well-chosen images and moments in the narrative.