The 17th Polish Film Festival Kinoteka in London, featuring a selection of over forty different works, has served as a fitting example of positive direction within the issue of gender inequality in Polish cinema. The festival started and ended celebrating the success of Polish prominent men (opening with Another Day of Life, an homage to renowned Polish corresponder Ryszard Kapuscinski, and finishing with a gala celebrating the recent success of Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film Cold War), and the most recognisable names of the festival belonged to such old masters as Krzystof Zanussi, Andrzej Zulawski or Stanislaw Lem. But there was also a strong number of pictures directed by women (both in quantity and quality), such as Playing Hard (Kinga Debska), 52 Wars (Ewa Bukowska) and Fugue (Agnieszka Smoczynska). I had a pleasure of speaking to three female filmmakers – Ewa Banaszkiewicz (My friend, the Polish Girl), Jagoda Szelc (Monument) and Olga Chajdas (Nina) about what, if anything, it means to be a Polish female filmmaker today.
Ewa Banaszkiewicz is the only one of the trio who’s born and grew up outside Poland. Born in the UK, Banaszkiewicz met her husband and co-creator of the latest film, Mateusz Dymek, at Lodz Film Academy where she studied Film and Directing. Currently, the couple lives in UK and the double perspective of foreigners/children of immigrants serves as an important theme in their feature début My friend, the Polish girl. In this fictional documentary, an American amateur filmmaker, Katie, follows Alicja, a Polish actress living in London, recording the most intimate moments of her life. The complex relationship between the two women becomes a central focus of the film.
When I meet Banaszkiewicz, I asked if she intended to make a feminist picture. She laughed and told me that recently, after one of the screenings, she was told that her film takes the female cause back twenty years. She said she didn‘t think too much about gender issues when writing a script. She just wanted to tell a story of a person regardless of their gender or nationality. Alicja, the main character in My friend, the Polish girl, simply happens to be an aspiring actress from Poland in the UK. The picture highlights more universal experiences such as an emotional detachment and a sense of wariness rather than fitting into a popular culture version of feminism or reproducing the stereotype of „the hardworking immigrant“‘, Banaszkiewicz said. Putting too much emphasis on such categories as „male“ vs. „female“ or „Polish“ vs „foreigner“ creates unnecessary categories between filmmakers.
Jagoda Szelc, the winner of the director’s debut for Monument at Gdynia Film Festival 2018, seems to share a similar view. We talked about the role of semantics and how language creates reality. Szelc told me how much she dislikes the Polish term „kobiece kino“ („female film“), which is often used when talking about female filmmakers. According to her, there isn’t such a thing as „female film“, only films made, produced, directed, or written by women („film by females“). The difference in linguistics has drastic consequences and can really influence the way society thinks about gender roles.
If My friend consciously plays on „feminine“ aesthetic, and explores themes like female sexuality, Monument represents a completely different genre. It’s a dark psychological thriller with elements of horror magic realism about a group of students taking an internship in a remote hotel. It‘s a raw, and partly frightening depiction of the human psyche and its coping mechanisms. Szelc said that she’s often confronted with the opinion that her film‘s „too heavy“ for such a young woman, even though she’s a professional with solid experience in the field. She talked about the double standards among film critics who look into themes of feminity and search for meanings and symbols which don’t exist – simply based on the belief that her films must represent a „female voice“.
There’s no feeling sorry for herself in the way Szelc talks about these issues. Her method of defiance, she said, is to always work to the best of her abilities. She described herself as an excellent technician and the leader on set. There’s a breath of fresh air in her passionate speech about how subjects such as Logistics on a Film Set and Psychology of Leadership should be taught in film schools. Professionalism has no gender.
The last filmmaker I spoke to, Olga Chajdas, is the one who’s struggled most with the simplified categorisation around her work. Her feature début Ninais an intense emotional portrayal of an unusual relationship that develops between a couple searching for a surrogate and a younger gay woman, Magda, who’s their potential candidate. The film was quickly named a Polish LGBT classic. Chajdas, however, doesn’t like such a title, explaining that this isn‘t a movie that represents LGBT community issues in modern-day Poland. It’s a story of a woman in search of identity who dares to step outside her comfort zone in the name of love. But the queer spaces in the film, lesbian clubs, or even the families‘ reactions portrayed, are not realistic and therefore the film shouldn’t be considered in terms of a pro-LGBT activism. The terminology of Queer Cinema can be problematic, constructing a whole genre based solely on characters‘ sexual orientation. Fundamentally, Nina‘s a love story, Chajdas said.
We also spoke about the notion of a „female film“. Olga agreed that there’s a lot of stigmatization when it comes to women in films. Female protagonists usually have one function to fulfill – they’re someone’s mothers, daughters or lovers. In a way, Nina attempts to deconstruct these biological roles that society puts on women. The main character, while desperately trying to have a child, meets someone who helps her reinvent herself.
Altogether, Banaszkiewicz, Szelc and Chajdas have one thing in common. Ironically, it’s the reluctance to be categorised in specific genres and to have certain attributes assigned to their work. The expectations for female filmakers are higher because there’s a pressure of making a „pro-feminist“ picture without falling into the contemporary popular „feminist hype“ in showbusiness. It’s almost impossible to win. Together, the three filmmakers prove that the only way to escape this unwanted race is to reject expectations altogether and to focus on the storytelling without the agenda.
KINOTEKA Polish Film Festival ran in London 4-18 April 2019 . For more information please visit: https://kinoteka.org.uk