Partisan Pressure

Political Intermission in Polish Cinema

Zjednoczone stany miłości United States of Love source oleg mutu berlinale
United States of Love, directed by Tomasz Wasilewski, is one of 18 films competing for Berlinale's top award.

A cold wind is blowing over Polish cinema. The country’s newly elected right-wing government, which funds most of its productions, is moving to force filmmakers and directors to turn out more “patriotic” films.

At this week’s Berlinale film festival in the German capital, some Polish filmmakers said they were worried about the government’s increasing involvement in their industry, and the future of independent filmmaking.

In a move that raised eyebrows, the Polish Ministry of Culture recently added several names to the list of experts on the Polish Film Institute’s panel responsible for selecting films to receive funding.

The additions were seen by some as moves to increase government oversight.

“Many of us are not involved in politics but all of us are interested in freedom,” said Agnieszka Smoczynska, the director of “The Lure,” a film shown at the Berlinale and earlier at the Sundance film festival in the United States.

In an interview in the lobby of the Soho House in Berlin’s city center, Ms. Smoczynska said there was a growing concern in Poland about the government wanting to “change thinking” with its push for historical, patriotic films.

“No one outside of Poland and even inside of Poland would be interested in propaganda,” she said.

Ms. Smoczynska described her film as a “musical horror story” about two mermaids ending up in the midst of the vibrant, glittering, neon-lit world of Warsaw dance clubs of the 1980s.

Poland’s film industry could be at a critical turning point.

A law passed by President Andrzej Duda on January 7 with support from Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, which came to power in October, gave the government new power to appoint managers at public radio and television broadcasters.

 

Warsaw Production Maciej Stankiewicz Film Polska
Poland is a popular location to film. Source: Warsaw Production Maciej Stankiewicz Film Polska

 

Handelsblatt Global Edition spoke with several members of Poland’s movie industry at the Berlinale. Most chose their words carefully on the sensitive topic of the government’s new media policy and whether it could have any influence on their film making.

“In terms of cinema, nothing has changed,” said Robert Balinski, international co-production manager at the Polish Film Institute, the entity that funds most of Poland’s film industry through a tax on public and private TV and radio broadcasters, among others. “The film institute is independently financed. I don’t see the law impacting film production.”

In an email, Polish Film Institute General Director Magdelena Sroka said her organization was not subject to government censorship. The institute, she said, “has always been and still is totally free to select feature, documentary and animations projects.”

Thomasz Dabrowski, head of Poland’s Film Commission, sought to quash rumors of state intervention in his country’s film sector.

“There is an artificial discussion we’re having right now about (filmmakers and producers) having to follow certain rules,” he said. “This is not the case at all.”

The “rules” referred to by Mr. Dabrowski are moves underway by the Polish government to see the production of more patriotic, historical films.

The government’s patriotic film wish list comes on the heels of a law that regulates public broadcasters – a law that is also being challenged by the European Commission. Critics claim the legislation would undermine freedom of expression and reduce broadcasters to propaganda arms of the government.

One international broadcaster has taken action to protest the Polish move.

German-French television broadcaster Arte suspended its contract with Polish state broadcaster TVP in January, citing concerns about the new law.

The German-French broadcaster, which has worked with TVP since 2001, said it no longer had the certainty that “freedom of expression, editorial independence and pluralism of public television in Poland are guaranteed.”

 

Maciej Stanecki, one of TVP’s newly appointed board members, voiced his disappointment over the decision.

“It’s a pity it happened,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “I was involved with Arte in my previous work in production. They were a good partner.”

He said no other international broadcasters have cancelled contracts.

The debate comes as Polish filmmakers and producers are ironically enjoying a higher profile at this year’s Berlinale. It’s as if the international film community gathering in Berlin wanted to show solidarity with Poland’s beleaguered filmmakers.

The film “United States of Love” by Polish filmmaker Tomasz Wasilewski is one of 18 films from around the world competing for the top award at the festival, which runs through Sunday.

Małgorzata Szumowska, a prominent Polish filmmaker who last year won Berlinale’s Silver Bear directing award for her film “Body” is on the jury.

The Polish Film Institute, which selects and funds domestic productions, is an official partner of the Berlinale Co-Production Market, the organizer of one of the groups meeting at the film festival.

And a number of the Polish film institute’s co-funded films are being screened in the German capital, including “I, Olga Hepnarova,” “Panamerican Machinery,” “The Right” and “Zud.”

Poland’s film industry is growing, and turns out about 40 feature films a year and more than 100 documentaries.

“The Polish Film institute has always been and still is totally free to select feature, documentary and animations projects.”

Magdelena Sroka, Polish Film Institute General Director

Most of them are funded by the nation’s film institute, which is supported by the television tax on broadcasters and administered by the government.

Around 80 percent of the film institute’s yearly production budget of around €30 million, or $34 million, comes from a 1.5-percent tax on revenue generated on public and private TV and radio broadcasters, cable companies, cinemas and digital platforms.

The remaining 20 percent comes from a Polish state lottery and the government’s Ministry of Culture. The budget covers up to 50 percent of the costs of a film, or a maxium of about €1.5 million.

Filmmakers can also dip into a €300,000 Polish-German Film Fund, provided by the Polish Film Institute, the Middle-German Media Fund, and the media board of the German states of Berlin and Brandenburg.

One of Poland’s biggest film successes to date is ”Ida,” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2015. The film was directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, the Polish-British filmmaker who was born in Warsaw to Polish intelligentsia and who left communist Poland for London with his mother when he was 14.

Set in Poland in 1961 during the Stalinist dictatorship, the 80-minute feature is about an odd couple— an orphaned Catholic and communist innocent girl about to take her vows to become a nun and hard-living political intellectual.

 

tomasz wasilewski
Director Tomasz Wasilewski is enjoying the attention in Beriln. Source: Marcin Oliva Soto

 

Ms. Smocynska, the director of “The Lure,” noted that Polish prime minister Beata Szydło was highly critical of Ida. Ms. Szydło had criticized the film for downplaying Germany’s role in the Holocaust.

Ida triggered a heated debate among nationalist organizations in the country, including the Polish Anti-Defamation League, which accused the film of being “anti-Polish” and possessing “serious flaws” of historical fact.

Other Polish filmmakers were uncomfortable speaking about the political situation in their country, preferring to keep off Warsaw’s radar screen.

“I was never into politics,” said Mr. Wasilewski of United States of Love, which received funding from the Polish film institute. The dark film is about four women in a small town in the early 1990s as Polish society is freeing itself from communist rule.

It’s the 35-year-old director’s third feature, following his 2013 production “Floating Skyscrapers,” which explored gay love in contemporary Poland and won awards at Polish and international festivals.

 

John Blau is senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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