Polish cinema comes into its own again
Oscar for best foreign-language film, a Silver Bear and another award in Berlin, and dozens of other festival prizes are recognition for nation's cinematic renaissance
A Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February followed by an Oscar and a public returning to theatres in droves after more than a few dismal years all add up to one thing: Polish cinema is back.
The revival comes in large part thanks to a savvy system of film financing forged a decade ago to capitalise on the explosive growth of Poland's audiovisual market after communism's demise.
"While receiving the Silver Bear, I thought to myself that we're witnessing a great era in Polish cinema," says Krakow-born director Malgorzata Szumowska, 42, who's probably best known for her film Elles, about a journalist who immerses herself in a prostitution ring run by university students.
Szumowska received the award for Body, the story of a Warsaw widower and his anorexic daughter who seek the help of a therapist who believes she can communicate with the dead. It was the third Silver Bear in the history of Polish cinema, after those won by directors Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colours: White, 1994) and Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer, 2010).
Then, a week later, the best foreign-language film Oscar went to director Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, eliciting fanfare across the country. The black-and-white production tells the tale of a woman in 1960s communist Poland who discovers she is Jewish just as she is about to take her vows at a Catholic convent.
The film scored well at the box office in France and the US, with half a million tickets sold in each. At home, where the film triggered heated debate, about 215,000 people turned out to see it.
There's more: fellow Polish director Maciej Sobieszczanski won a special award at Berlin for Performer. Poles also earned three other Oscar nominations this year and dozens of prizes at festivals around the world.
"With our return to freedom in 1989, state-funded cinematography dried up," director Andrzej Wajda says, referring to the fall of communism. "Polish filmmaking plunged into crisis … [but] now we're witnessing its renaissance." Wajda, 88, has had four Oscar nominations and received an honorary Oscar in 2000.
The crisis lasted almost two decades. Wajda and others who shot to fame in the 1960s to the '80s - such as Kieslowski and Krzysztof Zanussi, all alumni of Poland's renowned Lodz Film School - were unable to adapt to the new realities.
After 1989, young directors had their hands tied for lack of a viable system of financing film. Many turned to shooting advertisements or television series. "Back then, you'd earn more for producing an ad than a feature film," recalls Agnieszka Odorowicz, head of the Polish Film Institute (PISF). "The generation that was getting its start then got pulled into the market economy. It's a lost generation in terms of cinema."
PISF is the financing motor behind the newfound success of Polish cinema. Created in 2005, it is largely inspired by its French counterpart. The industry's major players contribute an average of 1.5 per cent of their earnings to the PISF budget. As such, the institute has between €35 million and €40 million (HK$295 and $337 million) a year to invest in films, as well as education and the revamp of small cinemas.
"Today we have one of the best systems of financing film in Europe," says Szumowska.
PISF's focus is on new talent. "It is easier for a young director to start out in Poland than in France, where the system is really patriarchal," says Rafael Lewandowski, a 45-year-old Franco-Polish director.
"Since its founding, PISF has funded more than 130 debut films," says Odorowicz.
After 1989, the term "Polish film" took on an ironic connotation, becoming synonymous with boring, poorly shot pictures with little artistic value. "In 2005, when PISF was created, Polish films drew some 700,000 moviegoers, or less than 2 per cent of the public," says Odorowicz. Last year, that number went up to 11 million moviegoers, or around 27.5 per cent of the public.
Lewandowski is optimistic about the future of Polish cinema. "You have these real individuals who have the courage to speak with their own voice, even if it means not pleasing everyone," he says. "Poland is a gold mine - and still underexploited - of unusual topics and characters."
Body , today, 9.30pm, UA Cine Moko. Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival