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Report from the 24th Polish Film Festival in America

December 21, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

Robin Dluzen

Scene from Mitja Okorn’s “Letters to Santa”

Chicago is home to over a million people who claim Polish ancestry, one of the reasons, perhaps, why the Polish Film Festival in America is now in its 24th year. A non-profit venture sponsored by Polish businesses and government bodies as well as plenty of Chicago companies, the PFFA does an excellent job in reaching the Polish-speaking population. I occasionally struggled as I navigated the festival, being one of the only non-Polish speaking festival attendees at any event. While this lends an air of authenticity to the festival, a feeling as though one is uncovering a gem rather than feeling as though it has been catered to one’s American comfort level, I wondered if the festival is as torn as its many, many filmmakers as to the intended target audience.
Polish film certainly fights a prejudice that the exuberant filmmaker Mitja Okorn has no qualms in articulating: “Polish films are depressing,” in reference to the war and tragedy that dominate much of the films that have come out of the country. Okorn, who shot his hit comedy Letters to Santa and several seasons of a hit television show in Poland, originally hails from Slovenia. Finding Poland a more welcoming, capitalistic environment in which to make his work, Okorn left his communist country after making his first feature film there at 19. With an outsider’s perspective, an American co-writer and unabashedly commercial goals, Okorn describes Letters to Santa as a “Slovenian-American-Polish film.” Billed as a Love Actually-style story of intertwining plots and coincidental love triangles, Letters to Santa features a trio of angelic children who, through a series of knowing antics, teach the adult characters what’s important at the holidays. Though it’s shot in Warsaw and the characters speak Polish, Letters to Santa seems as though it could take place in many major city, and with its humor and a feel-good, secular holiday message, it translates just about anywhere.

The ‘mockumentary,’ “Man with the Plastic Bag”

Though the comedies at PFFA were few and far between, another laugh-out-loud, crowd favorite was Man with the Plastic Bag directed by Jakub Polakowski. Listed under the “documentary” category, Man with the Plastic Bag is actually a “mockumentary” telling the story of Adam, a Polish man with a life-long devotion to plastic shopping bags. Fabricated interviews with Adam’s loved ones and ex-girlfriends, and real interviews with fashion stylists discuss the ways in which his plastic bags have kept him from leading a normal life, and how terribly cliche and unstylish the bags are, respectively. A love affair with plastic bags is a pretty funny premise in itself, but the background of these objects supplements the silliness with a distinct, cultural phenomenon. Poles in the audience are of the age that still remember a time when Polish vacationers would bring back empty beer cans, chocolate wrappers and these plastic shopping bags that were then toted about with pride — the residue of the Western wares that were still mostly out of reach.

Drama still dominated the film festival, and Big Love, directed by Barbara Białowąs, laid it on thick. Big Love follows the tumultuous love story of an underage girl, Emilia, and her older lover, Maciej, over the course of several years. For better or worse, the story is surprisingly narrow, leaving out possible subplots (like Emilia’s less-than-ideal relationship with her actress mother or Emilia’s burgeoning music career) and instead tunneling through the life of their love as told by Maciej to a police detective. Emilia and Maciej are dangerously obsessed with one another and the audience is subject to their tremendously sexual relationship through an equally restricted cinematic experience. While we watch Emilia grow from a giggly teenager to a hopeful coed and finally a charismatic frontwoman, Maciej is static, a dynamic that foresees the ultimately tragic conclusion. Big Love is not traditional storytelling, and while it makes for a bit of an unresolved film, it also embodies in its medium the essence of its characters’ emotions.

While venues like Muvico Rosemont hosted many of the blockbuster films like Letters to Santa, Manhunt and Yuma (a film I discuss in my CIFF recap), I found that Gallery Theatre was home to a number of shorts and historical films that do a great service to providing a lengthier context for a viewer new to Polish film. Gallery Theatre is a cozy, temporary screening theatre nestled within The Society for Arts, a pristine space adjacent to Chicago’s Polish Triangle that’s also home to top-notch fine arts programming. It was here that I witnessed a bit of what I assume Mitja Okorn was claiming with his statement about the gloom of the genre. I saw the war, oppression, and doomed heroism played out in Korczak, a rich, true narrative of Janusz Korczak: a Jewish-Polish doctor who fought to protect his orphanage of Jewish children during the Holocaust. While Korczak perhaps embodies the best of the films that have established this melancholy canon, I saw films like Kotan’s Children that attempted to capture that human struggle, but whose story of recovering heroin addicts failed to reach the same depths of meaning. The majority of films I watched were truly great, from 3 Days of Freedom (a short film documenting a life-sentenced man’s first days away from prison) to The Pensioner (a 1987 film that started out like a cliche of an avant-garde film, but ended up being the most supremely strange thing I have ever seen). While you’ll often be greeted first in Polish and come across the occasional non-English-subtitled film, the Polish Film Festival in America is a showcase of some of the best filmmaking in the world, no matter what language you speak.

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