The Debt Collector

September 12–17, 2005

The flavour of the Polish Feature Film Festival in the coastal Gdynia is defined not only by the screened films, but also by the space in which for a brief moment the film industry of Poland condenses to disperse a week later until the same time next year. The Polish Feature Film Festival is set in a triangle formed by Silver Screen multiplex, the Music Theatre and Hotel Gdynia filled with festival guests. All three locations are just a few meters from each other and from the Baltic Sea, and a walking distance from the Gdynia shipyard, where Lech Walesa changed the course of Polish history in the 1980s by prompting a semi-intentional shift from communism to capitalism. Each of these locations, just like the Festival’s films, brings its own distinct timbre to the Festival; a timbre that coincides with the three distinct, yet at times overlapping, flavours of the Festival films.

Since 1987, the Music Theatre has hosted the Festival centre, its grand opening and its final gala, as well as the screenings for the Festival jury, which this time was presided by Andrzej Wajda. The Music Theatre’s original raison d’être was to praise the communist state’s cultural outputs, which are now insulted by a casino hosted in its walls. Offering a surprising combination of the shabby detail with intentions of grandeur, Gdynia’s Music Theatre represents comfortable coexistence of the old communist Poland the new capitalist one. The aesthetic rawness of that concurrence is similar to that of films like “new brutalist” Czesc Tereska (Hi, Tereska) (Robert Glinski, 2001) and this year’s Pare osob, maly czas (Few People, Little Time) (Andrzej Baranski, 2005) or Barborka (St Barbara’s Day) (Maciej Pieprzyca, 2005).

Hotel Gdynia, on the other hand, ridiculed in the early ‘90s for its immunity to change, now matures gracefully in a way that warrants a mention in design magazines of the Wallpaper ilk. Its comedy-of-errors service and idiosyncratic use of floor space are not only reminiscent of the communist absurdities but they constitute a new canon of trendiness accentuated by the presence of Festival paparazzi. Hotel Gdynia’s restated appeal is akin to that of films that rediscover and rejuvenate the beauty of bygone times and stories, making them attractive to the contemporary audiences. A list of films in this category is long and includes Doskonale popoludnie (The Perfect Afternoon) (Przemyslaw Wojcieszek, 2005) and this year’s winning Komornik (The Debt Collector) (Feliks Falk, 2005) leading the way with a story of redemption reminiscent of Falk’s earlier and much acclaimed Wodzirej (Top Dog) (1978).

Ode to Joy

Silver Screen multiplex is the newest addition to the Festival, which moved into six of its seven screening rooms only in 2004. Unlike some other Polish multiplexes, the first of which opened in Poznan in 1998, Silver Screen hosts a supermarket, an antiques market and a jazz café as well as several small shops, all of each empty most of the time. Silver Screen stands for a new Poland, one disillusioned with the failings of a capitalist system, but firmly and with no hesitation set on its course. Oda do radosci (Ode to Joy) (Anna Kazejak-Dawid, Jan Komasa, Maciej Migas, 2005) resides in that shade of Polish contemporary reality. While the three flavours of Polish Festival cinema overlap in most cases with the generational shifts represented by its filmmakers, the Festival winners are the main indication of the current Polish film industry climate.

After two consecutive years of debut films winning its Grand Prix, Andrzej Wajda’s jury selected Feliks Falk’s The Debt Collector to be the most deserving film of 2005. Born in 1941, Falk is one of the three oldest film directors of the 23 whose films were screened in the main competition of the 2005 Festival. As he has done several times before, this old-school director repackages his favourite fable of the desire for success at all cost and this desire’s pitiful consequences. This time, at Falk’s film’s centre is a debt collector, Lucjan Bohme (Andrzej Chyra), whose ruthless efficiency has run its course when a rising soccer star commits suicide after Bohme’s debt-collecting intervention. Distraught, Bohme attempts to redeem himself by distributing money to debtors he encountered in his career. Yet, at the final reckoning none of the benefactors of his quest for redemption is willing to vouch for his newly-found humanity.

Apart from the Grand Prix, The Debt Collector received awards for production, script, and cinematography (for Bartek Prokopowicz), the latter of which prompted whispers in the audience of the press screening that industrial Walbrzych, where the film was shot, had never looked as photogenic before. The lead Andrzej Chyra, multi-awarded for playing a similarly uncompromising character in the seminal Dlug (Debt) (Krzysztof Krauze, 1999), received the award for the best male lead role. Precise and poignant, The Debt Collector retells a well familiar story carefully remastered for the contemporary audience by Falk and his colleagues. Its one-liners are well-prepared to be taken up by the Polish vernacular, for instance “You are not afraid? A decent person should be afraid at least of him/herself.”

It’s Me, Now

The best debut of 2005 was considered to be Teraz ja (It’s Me, Now) (2004) by 33 year-old Anna Jadowska. It is an unresolved road movie in which Hanka (Agnieszka Warchulska), seemingly happily coupled with Pawel (Maciej Marczewski), leaves their home and embarks on a trip across Poland. The film opens with a scene of screaming children in a school bus, with a hooded quiet character amidst them. The film’s texture evolves with beautiful cinematography by Robert Mleczko and Aleksander Jaquat to reflect Hanka’s engagement, or lack thereof, with the world around her. It’s Me, Now is a promising and perplexing film, which lingers on after its last frames leave the projection screen. Its obstinate effect may be partly due to the intense calmness of Warchulska’s acting combined with the calm confusion of Marczewski’s character. Jadowska’s film’s lasting reverberation may also rest in its resistance to give any kind of valuation of its characters or the reality in which they co-exist.

Two other films by young directors offer contrary representations of Polish contemporary reality. A well-awarded triptych, Ode to Joy is directed by three young filmmakers aged between 24 and 29 years. Three stories told within it are framed by hopelessness of Polish contemporary reality, which leaves these stories’ young protagonists no choice but to seek a better life in the West. Surprisingly, the film’s pessimistic message is in line with the thematic preoccupation of the older filmmakers for whom a critical approach to the imperfect reality was the only artistically viable option in the Polish film culture that traditionally considered such approach a filmmaker’s foremost duty.

Unashamedly optimistic, Doskonale popoludnie (The Perfect Afternoon), a third feature film by Przemyslaw Wojcieszek, lies at the opposite end of the evaluative spectrum of the Polish contemporary reality. Just like Wojcieszek’s previous films (W dól kolorowym wzgórzem [Down a Colourful Hill] [2004] and Glosniej od bomb [Louder than Bombs] [2001]), it is an entertaining and vibrant work that tells a story of a young couple just about to get married and striving to sustain their small publishing company. The bride’s parents are “sausage lords” of the new capitalist Poland, with the father displaying a gold signet with a dollar sign on it, a proud reminder of his meat business success. Often tongue-in-cheek, but rarely overstated, Wojcieszek’s general attitude to story-telling is well reflected by his press conference statement after a confused viewer questioned him on his optimism unmatched in the Polish – broadly understood – art cinema. He responded by saying “Life in Poland is good; bombs are NOT exploding on the buses, so it’s all cool.” Hence, it is not surprising that his already well-developed authorial style lends itself to his film’s message of unity and suggestively happy endings. In The Perfect Afternoon, unlike the case with many real-life stories in contemporary Poland, the publishing business takes off thank to one spectacular author, the groom’s parents (Jerzy Stuhr, Kieslowski’s actor, turned director, and Gosia Dobrowolska, known from Paul Cox’s films, living in Australia) get reunited, and the “sausage lord’s” parents agree to finance the god-send author’s first edition, despite the father’s (Slawomir Orzechowski) earlier insistence that “there ain’t any point in reading books; I know how it is without reading them.”

I Am

After her seven year absence, Dorota Kedzierzawska returned with her powerful cinema of child neglect in Jestem (I Am) (2005) to receive the audience’s prize for the best Festival film. The film’s music by Michael Nyman and cinematography by Arthur Reinhart were also awarded by the festival jury. The much awaited second film by Piotr Trzaskalski, who was proclaimed a mesiah of Polish film for his 2003 debut Edi, went by quietly with one modest prize for the set design by Wojciech Zogala. Mistrz (The Master) (2005) presents a charming collage of elements originating in Patrice Leconte’s La Fille sur le pont (Girl on the Bridge) (1999) and magic realism of sorts, as well as clichéd beauty of its props and landscapes, all not enough to answer to the high expectations created by Trzaskalski’s first film, Edi. Another festival film that received a quiet treatment by its jury is Wrozby kumaka (The Call of the Toad) (Robert Glinski, 2005). Usually aiming for the controversial layers of contemporary reality, as he did in his naturalistically raw Hi, Tereska, this time Glinski chose to adapt Gunter Grass’ novel about the ambiguities of the Polish–German heritage of Gdansk. A well-measured and balanced film might have disappointed jury members most likely expectant of the usual accusatory darkness and anger of other Glinski films.

One film that is likely to disappear from the cinematic horizons quickly, but undeservedly so is Maciej Pieprzyca’s St Barbara’s Day. A television feature filmed in one week, this unlikely love story documents the slowly disappearing culture of coalminers of Polish Silesia. Beautifully shot, played by a pleiad of non-professional and/or young actors, it depicts the microcosm of once privilaged group of people, now marginalised and forgotten yet with lingering pride in their traditions. St Barbara’s Day is a film whose charm is difficult to relay because of the presumed “unsexiness“ of its subject matter. It is even more difficult to resist Basia (Iwona Sitkowska), its lead character, and the clarity of her world order. It is a great pity that Pieprzyca remains heavily involved in directing television soap operas. With his filmic sensibilities, and his training in script writing in the film school that remains one of the best in the world, he could be delivering much cinematic pleasure to Polish and foreign audiences.

Two films of the Festival took on Polish literary history, one being Izabella Cywinska’s mesmerisingly theatrical Kochankowie z Marony (The Lovers of Marona) (2005), a rarity in Polish cinema because it explores the (almost) openly homosexuality of Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, one of the greats of Polish literature. Andrzej Baranski’s Pare osob, maly czas (Few People, Little Time) (2005) recasts the life of Polish 20th century poet, Miron Bialoszewski, in relation to his female friend, Jadwiga Stanczakowa, a poetess in her own right. Similar in the balance of power to the Beauvoir–Sartre coupling, the story of Stanczakowa (superb Krystyna Janda) and Bialoszewski (Andrzej Hudziak) has an additional layer created by Stanczakowa’s blindness, in spite of which it she who guides the neurotic Bialoszewski through the meandres and complexities of everydayness.

The 30th Polish Feature Film Festival did not come with magnificent revelations, yet it did attest to the stabilisation in the rejuvenation phase in the post-transitional cinema of Poland. The proliferation of younger directors, older directors‘ successful climatisation to the new realities, and – even more importantly – the five-fold increase since 2002 in funding available from the government spell well for Polish film industry. Anna Jadowska, Przemyslaw Wojcieszek and Maciej Pieprzyca are only a few names worth watching out for in the next few years.

About The Author

Renata Murawska lectures in film and media in the Department of Media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her research focuses on comedy, émigré filmmaking, Polish and Eastern European cinema, and Public Relations.

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