BY Ela Bittencourt in Profiles | 30 JUN 14

54th Kraków Film Festival

A report from the 54th Kraków Film Festival

BY Ela Bittencourt in Profiles | 30 JUN 14

Kraków in Southern Poland, is at first glance a picturesque Eastern European city. The former seat of Polish kings, home to the Jagiellonian University (one of the oldest in Europe), the town was spared during the Second World War and has resisted the call to modernize. While other Polish cities, such as Warsaw, were rebuilt practically from the ground up, Kraków still boasts Gothic and Renaissance architecture, a vastly restored but nevertheless imposing Wawel Castle, and hints of a once bristling Jewish quarter in the Kazimierz neighbourhood. More importantly, Kraków is the perfect place to be reminded not only of Poland’s history, or the painful legacy of the Holocaust, embodied by nearby Auschwitz, but also of the city’s vibrant cultural life that has endured throughout centuries. What better place to stumble on an exhibition like The Drawer of Wisława Szymborska, devoted to the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, or to hide away in the legendary Pod Baranami, a cinema and art space that has plazed host to avant-garde films, jazz, political cabarets, and world-renown theatre directors such as Tadeusz Kantor? Kraków is a city of timeless bards – another Noble Prize winner, the writer Czesław Miłosz, is buried at the 13th century St. Mary’s Church – but occasionally, away from the constant hullabaloo of tourists crowding the main square, it reveals a more contemporary side. Such was the case during the 54th Kraków Film Festival (KFF), the oldest film festival in the country, devoted to documentaries, animation and short films. KFF’s events spread across the Cinema Pod Baranami to a re-purposed factory prosaically called Fabryka, and Forum, a post-socialist hotel-cum-event space. Forum is the kind of mélange you would hope to find in contemporary Poland: an austere concrete structure, enlivened by bright strobe lights and a young crowd, a sign that Poles are ready to reinvent their past.

Having previously featured major film talents such as Kazimierz Karabasz, Marcel Łoziński and Krzysztof Kieślowski, KFF itself is poised between a traditional and more global approach. Among the Polish filmmakers who garnered prizes this year, a good number sought stories beyond the country’s borders. Domino Effect (2014) by Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski depicts the tiny Georgian separatist republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea. A former freedom fighter, Rafael, toils fecklessly as a Sports Minister with dwindling hopes that a local Domino championship may bring attention to his people’s plight. Abkhazia needs industry and jobs, and there is no sight more poignant than that of two old Abkhazian men following the championship parade avidly from their newspaper stand while tourists take photos. We follow Rafael and his Russian wife, who feels rejected by the proudly nationalist community. But more satisfying than glimpses at local politics, which at times get lost in intimate retelling, is Rosołwoski’s sumptuous camera work. His lingering on the crumbling post-Soviet architecture creates an aura of timelessness, while other shots capture the Abkhazians’ reverence for their land. A story of a people on the Empire’s fringes, Domino Effect resists cliché by showing that a private passion need not necessarily overcome profound nationalist allegiances. History instead remains an incurable wound, which the film captures in all its festering glory.

Domino Effect, which in addition to prizes for best national and international documentary also won best cinematography, screened in a strong international documentary competition in which the Silver Horns went to Talar Derki’s Return to Homs (2014) and to Dan Wasserman’s Do You Believe in Love? (2013). The latter is a cameral story of love against all odds: A hard-nosed Israeli matchmaker with ALS disease, assisted by a devoted, albeit cantankerous, husband whose own mental frailty grows with each frame, devotes her life to pairing up singles, particularly those with disabilities. As Wasserman focuses an unstinting eye on the challenges of dating for the handicapped, the motto, ‘there is no love in the world. It’s all compromise’, reverberates through this occasionally heartbreaking, keenly observed documentary. Return to Homs, which opened the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is Derki’s anguished sonnet to the ruined city. It is nearly impossible to compare the stoic beauty of Domino Effect, or the cheeky, bracing objectivity of Do You Believe In Love? with the relentless brand of embedded journalism of Return to Homs. Sharing in the daily terrors of resistance fighting, Derki creates reportage in the tradition of Frank Capra. Fearless, maddeningly claustrophobic, Return to Homs is a rare document of our time, and I would like to think that it spoke to the Polish audiences with the same eloquent desperation as the consecrated WWII epics, such as Andrzej Wajda’s Canal (1957) about doomed Polish resistance fighters.

In Deep Love (2013), the debut by Polish filmmaker Jan Matuszyński which won the Silver Hobby Horse in the national documentary competition, an accomplished diver suffers a stroke that partly paralyzes him and reduces his speech to inarticulate gibberish. Oscillating between utter helplessness and obstinate endurance, in spite of his fragile health, Janusz resumes deep sea diving. Matuszyński’s film is reminiscent of another, nerve-wrecking sports-survivor documentary by Lucy Walker, The Crash Reel (2013). Like Walker, Matuszyński focuses on the impact that a sportsperson’s injury has on their loved ones: Janusz’s partner, Asia, fears that diving strains his heart to the point of killing him. With National Geographic-esque moments distilled to the painterly scene of Janusz’s final descent, and emotions kept taut as Asia veers between affection to revolt at her partner’s selfishness, Matuszyński steadily ratchets ups the pressure in a film that demonstrates how nature checks human will.

At the heart of this year’s festival was a retrospective of films by Bogdan Dziworski, who won prizes at KFF in 1973 for Cross and Axe, in 1977 for Hockey and in 1979 for The Olympics. All three films were shown, along with fifteen of his shorts. Dziworski, whose first love was photography, is known for bringing a playful, image-driven approach to the documentary form. Eschewing dialogue and, for the most part, voiceover, and using sound effects to bring out the rhythmic qualities of his films, Dziworski has often focused his camera on sports. Hockey, horse riding, skiing and diving are just a few of the disciplines that in his treatment become symphonic meditations on motion. Dziworski’s other love is the circus, and two films, the black and white Arena of Life (1979) and the colour Szapito (1984), show Dziworski peering behind the magic of stunts to capture performers as larger-than-life figures, while simultaneously focusing on the arduousness of their trade. The human body is often both glorified and exposed as vulnerable in Dziworski’s work, as beautifully captured in A Few Stories About a Man (1983) where in its most gripping scene an armless man plunges from a bridge into a river as a steamship chugs idly by. Dziworski’s absurdist, zany sensibility was a relief at KFF, which mostly leaned towards respectability and tried-out forms rather than experimentation.

KFF’s music documentary and short film categories paled somewhat by comparison. Amanda Sans and Miquel Galofré’s Songs of Redemption (2013), which took the prize for best music documentary, presented the redemption of Jamaican inmates through popular music and religious reawakening. Along with a few affecting confessions involving murder, most of the documentary is taken up with positive messages of social relief interspersed with rousing prison songs. Similarly, the Silver Dragon winner for short film, Juliette Touin’s The Big House (2013), is a straightforward observational documentary, though as it follows young mothers at an institution for pregnant women in Cuba it builds a sense of uncanny melancholy. While the short film category did feature a few quietly haunting films – from Matias (2014), Brazilian filmmakers Felipe Tomazelli and Ricardo Martensen’s film about a farmer who lives alone in the protected forest area of the São Paulo state, Łukasz Konopa’s desolate portrayal of American urbanity, Vegas (2014), to the stark black and white allegorical tale _Lux Aeterna _(2013) by Carlos Tribiño Mamby – most other selections lacked the daring of the main slate.

THE OBVIOUS CHILD (Trailer) from small time inc. on Vimeo.

THE OBVIOUS CHILD (Trailer) from small time inc. on Vimeo.

Where KFF excelled was animation. Among the films I saw, Danny Madden’s Confusion through Sand (2013), Jerzy Kucia’s Fugue for Cello, Trumpet and Landscape (2014), and Stephen Irwin’s The Obvious Child (2014), were clear standouts. Madden’s undulating hand-drawn pencil strokes on rough recycled paper simulate a desert, in which soldiers lose their bearing. Kucia’s Fugue, for which he won the director of the best film in the international short film competition, is composed of loosely strung impressions: from swampy areas and lines metamorphosing into a flock of birds to vast canvases of intense colour, the film quivers constantly between figuration and abstraction. Finally Obvious Child, a bold, post-modern tale of patricide from the British animator and graduate of St. Martins College of Art and Design, is the real highlight of the festival. Irwin’s nightmarish pop art aesthetic, with a kitschy, colour-saturated palette, is like a Jeff Koons sculpture sprung to life in a dystopian landscape. It is one in a handful of films this year that show KFF’s appetite for more challenging fare, a trend that hopefully will continue.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.