Polish cinema struggles with the burden of history

Three decades ago, just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in a new era of hope and promise in Europe, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland made the historical drama “Europe, Europe,” which recounts the harrowing ordeal of a Jewish teenager who knows everything did to survive the Holocaust. The title, says Holland, should “express the duality of the European tradition: Europe of our aspirations, the cradle of culture and civilization, the rule of law and democracy, human rights, equality and fraternity, but on the other hand also Europe as the cradle of the worst crimes against humanity, selfishness and hatred.”

Throughout her career, the three-time Oscar nominee has drawn inspiration from “the great and tragic themes of the 20th century,” driven by the belief that “history is relevant, that what happened is relevant,” says Holland diversity. Her latest film, Green Border, making its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival after bowing out of competition in Venice, finds a director in the grip of history as it unfolds in real time. The focus is on the humanitarian crisis along Poland’s border with Belarus, where Kremlin leader Aleksandr Lukashenko has tried to flood the EU with refugees.

Holland, who fled communist Poland for France in 1981 before the imposition of martial law in the central European country, feels history has come full circle. “The totalitarian danger [of World War II] hasn’t stopped and is still there and can wake up at any time,” she says. “I think that we in Europe feel very strongly, and the people in Ukraine feel even more strongly, that this moment is coming – that it has come.”

Spurred by the Ukraine war and the ensuing refugee crisis, while Russian President Vladimir Putin rattles sabers on Europe’s eastern borders with the threat of nuclear war, Holland is one of several Polish filmmakers whose latest films are driven by a sense of deep moral urgency – by the Conviction that “we are witnessing a very special moment in history,” says documentary filmmaker Maciek Hamela (“In the Rearview”).

Other high-profile Polish titles will appear on the festival circuit this year, including Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz-set drama The Zone of Interest, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and Louise Archambault’s World War II-era biopic Irena’s Vow. are also reflections on dark chapters of Polish and European history by filmmakers who look at their subjects with an unwavering gaze. Both films – co-productions of the Polish minority – will be shown in Toronto this week.

Hamela, who is at the Canadian festival for the North American premiere of a film that screened in Cannes’ ACID series, was working on a documentary set on the Polish-Belarusian border when Russian forces attacked last February launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For many Poles, it was a haunting echo of “the stories of our grandparents,” says the director, recalling how the Central European country was invaded by Bolshevik Russia in 1919 and, two decades later, by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union within 16 days. “It wasn’t just me; There were tens of thousands of people who felt that this was a war that also affected us,” he says. “You can’t ignore history.”

Maciek Hamela’s “In the Rearview” tells the stories of Ukrainians fleeing war.
Affinity Cine/Impakt Film

In the days after the invasion, Hamela rented a van to help transport refugees – first from the Ukrainian border to the safety of Polish cities and then across the war-torn country. He soon decided to pick up his camera to document the plight of some of the estimated 8 million Ukrainians who would eventually flee the country, recording over the course of six months and tens of thousands of stories of terror and loss, hope and uncertainty fixed by miles. “They had an urgency to say something. They wanted to deliver themselves,” says Hamela. With Ukraine’s fate uncertain, the filmmaker was driven by the fear that “these stories would never be told.”

Holland also felt compelled to “give a voice to those who have no voice,” focusing on the countless refugees, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, whose efforts to find safe haven in the EU have led to them instead clinging precariously to the edges of the EU. The screenplay for “Green Border,” which the director wrote together with Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko and Maciej Pisuk, is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with refugees, border guards, border residents, activists and migration experts.

Holland insists that the ongoing refugee crisis, which peaked in 2015 in what is said to be the largest wave of human migration since World War II, will be part of Europe’s new normal as millions of people whose lives have been upended by war, Famine, drought and climate catastrophe are fleeing their countries in search of a better life in the wealthier countries of the global north. “We are not at all prepared for this intellectually, culturally, psychologically and politically,” she says. “At some point we have to face the situation. And if not, we will turn into the monsters we don’t want to be.”


Agnieszka Holland on the set of “Green Border”.
Film boutique

The war in Ukraine is approaching its grim 18-month milestone and a resolution to the conflict is not in sight. The resulting humanitarian and economic crisis has magnified the aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in neighboring countries such as Poland. Meanwhile, Europe is suffering its hottest summer on record, with forest fires leaving a trail of destruction across much of the continent. Few can remember a time when the future seemed so uncertain. Fear, says Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska (“The Silent Twins”), is “the defining feeling of our world today.”

Smoczyńska is currently developing her next feature film, “Hot Spot,” a genre-bending mix of horror, science fiction and “anti-crime” set in an unnamed European country. It’s about a disillusioned private detective who is supposed to investigate a murder in a refugee camp. He becomes increasingly unstable as he faces a “cyber witch” who tries to take control of his life. The film, which Smoczyńska is developing with screenwriter and long-time collaborator Robert Bolesto (“The Lure”), is set in an alternative near future in which climate change has brought the environment to the brink of collapse and millions of people are forced to flee their homes forced.

Smoczyńska says the film is inspired by the growing unease many are feeling after years of COVID-induced isolation, an anxious time that has left us “fearful” of both the world around us and each other. Although “Hot Spot” emerged from this particularly dark moment in human history, it is a story of “metamorphosis” and rebirth, she says, and a meditation on “how fear can be transformed into love.” The director asks probing questions: “Who are we today?” What defines us? Where are we heading as a species, as humans? What are we really afraid of? And what can lead to our liberation?”

As one of the more innovative and provocative filmmakers in contemporary world cinema, Smoczyńska is unlikely to provide easy answers to these questions. She is also not prepared to accept defeat. “I’m trying to understand these still-evolving phenomena,” she admits, adding, “When there is love, there is always hope.”

https://variety.com/2023/film/global/polish-cinema-history-agnieszka-holland-green-border-zone-of-interest-1235713784/ Polish cinema struggles with the burden of history


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