Red and White meets Red, White and Blue ______________

by Michael Brooke

Ask a British film buff to cite Polish filmmakers from memory, and you’ll certainly hear the names Roman Polański, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Wajda.  The more clued-up might also list Walerian Borowczyk, Wojciech Has, Agnieszka Holland, Jerzy Skolimowski, Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Żuławski, and possibly Jerzy Hoffman, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Andrzej Munk too – but non-specialists will be flagging by this point.  As for filmmakers born after 1950, there’s the UK-based Pawel Pawlikowski, but who else?

British film distribution is notoriously fashion-prone (since the 1980s, Spain, Denmark, Iran, South Korea and Romania have been disproportionately favoured at any one time), and Polish cinema last had a significant UK profile as a national cinema during the ‘moral anxiety’ period of 1977-82.  Between the delayed release of Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation in 1990 and Kinoteka’s debut in 2003, a British viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Kieślowski was the only contemporary Polish filmmaker still tackling Polish topics, and even he worked mainly in French after 1989.  More recently, the situation has improved, but aside from dedicated distribution initiatives like Dogwoof’s The Polish Connection (mainly aimed at expatriate Poles), only about half a dozen new Polish films have been given a British commercial release in the last decade.

In the last few years, Polish cinema has produced films of the calibre of 33 Scenes from Life (Małgorzata Szumowska, 2008), Before Twilight (Jacek Bławut, 2008), Unmoved Mover (Łukasz Barczyk, 2008), All That I Love (Jacek Borcuch, 2009), The Dark House (Wojciech Smarzowski, 2009), The Forest (Piotr Dumała, 2009), Mall Girls (Kasia Rosłaniec, 2009), The Reverse (Borys Lankosz, 2009), Snow White and Russian Red (Xawery Żuławski, 2009), The Christening (Marcin Wrona, 2010), The Expelled (Adam Sikora, 2010), Little Rosa (Jan Kidawa-Błoński, 2010), Made in Poland (Przemysław Wojcieszek, 2010), Venice (Jan Jakub Kolski, 2010), Erratum (Marek Lechki, 2011) and The Suicide Room (Jan Komasa, 2011) as well as new films by Skolimowski (Four Nights with Anna, 2008; Essential Killing, 2010), Wajda (Sweet Rush, 2009) and Holland (In Darkness, 2011).  And that’s just the fiction features: shorts, documentaries and animated films are thriving too.

Clearly, this is a film culture in robust creative health, not least because most of these films are proudly Polish: geographically, linguistically and culturally.  But aside from importing local DVDs (after reliably establishing whether they have English subtitles: no small challenge), how do you see them outside Poland?  While other festivals offer sneak previews of forthcoming attractions, in most cases Kinoteka’s screenings will be the only British ones these films get.   As the now-veteran festival celebrates its tenth birthday, it’s hard to overstate its continuing importance.

Michael Brooke is a UK-based film critic, historian and DVD producer.  A regular contributor to Sight & Sound, he has also written for BFI Screenonline, Tank, Vertigo, Viewfinder and others, booklet essays for Arrow Academy, BFI DVD Publishing and Second Run, and chapters for Polish Cinema Now! (John Libbey Publishing), Shadows of Progress (BFI Palgrave Macmillan) and Trzynasty miesiąc: Kino Braci Quay (Korporacja Ha!art).  His DVD productions include the BFI’s Quay Brothers and Jan Švankmajer short-film compilations.