These Daughters of Mine, Polish documentary-maker Kinga Debska’s second feature film, explores the loss of one’s parents; and in this case, it’s both parents at the same time. But the film, whose Polish title translates as ‘My Daughters, the Cows’, is also the story of two sisters, now in their 40s – played by Agata Kulesz and Gabriela Muskala – who are forced together through illness and shared tragedy. Their childish quarrels and very different approaches, personalities and problems make for realistic and amusing dialogue, bringing some much-needed levity to the film.
When their mother (Małgorzata Niemirska) collapses in hospital and falls into a coma, father (Marian Dziedziel) tries to cope on his own, with the help of his two dysfunctional daughters. When he himself gets ill and the situation becomes critical, the already rickety family unit descends into total chaos. At times both desperately sad and hilariously funny, we watch them struggle through hospital visits, upsetting diagnoses and emotional ups and downs in their very different ways. When Marta throws her prescription for anti-depressants in the hospital bin, Kasia shamelessly fishes it out for herself.
Agata Kulesza (best know for her role in Ida) plays Marta, the strong and stable sister with no patience for her younger sister’s weaknesses. With greasy hair and shapeless clothes, Marta is a soap actress and the father’s favourite. She has a teenage daughter but no husband, and has had therapy to help understand her failed relationships. She blames her father for her loneliness, and looks tired and stressed all the time, but her kindness also comes through: she brings her father donuts and procures ‘grass’ for him from her errant nephew, handing out chocolates to the nurses.
Her younger sister Kasia, played by Gabriela Muskala, is a rosy-cheeked red-haired primary school teacher, prone to self-pity, fits of tears and religious fanaticism. Kasia drinks a lot of what looks like vodka and coke and has a turbulent relationship with her handsome but unemployed husband. When not dragging her family to pray with her shaman, or chanting with nuns in a rural church, she dangles a statuette of the Madonna over her mother who lies in her hospital bed conscious but in a vegetative state. She cools her with a noisy hand-held electric fan and fusses over her as if she were a child. But when it comes to delivering bad news, she lets her sister do it.
The women have so little in common, it leads the older sister, Marta, to speculate to her comatose mother that one of them ‘has to have been adopted’. Their deadpan father never thought any man good enough for his girls; now, as they sit together in a car en route for the countryside, he laments having to go away with ‘these cows’. Marian Dziedziel plays the long-suffering father wedged in between these mad yet somehow likeable women. He surrenders complete control to them early on, and convincingly plays the confusing roles of mischievous school-boy, invalid and grieving husband.
The film feels real: the actors don’t look airbrushed and the backdrop is often just a sterile hospital ward. Somehow though, through the strong and humorous characters and at times hilariously vulgar dialogue, it succeeds in making life’s depressing realities very watchable – and almost bearable.
These Daughters of Mine (Debska, 2015) was screened as part of the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival (7-28 April, at various venues round London).