The World on Warsaw's Islands

A report on the 38th Warsaw International Film Festival

How do they manage it? The Warsaw International Film Festival had seven competitions: in addition to the International Competition, there is the "Crème de la Crème", the "1-2 Competition", the "Free Spirit Competition" as well as a documentary and a short film competition. There are also other sections from Classics to Discoveries. And this year, the Odessa International Film Festival was also a guest in Warsaw because of the war in Ukraine. There are correspondingly many juries, guests and interested viewers, over 160 films. At the same time, the physical proximity of two cinemas in walking distance to each other keeps everything manageable and almost familiar, including the parties and informal meeting places. Festival director Stefan Laudyn shared his personal recommendations on which places are worth visiting in a small brochure. Yet Warsaw is a sprawling, lively big city, albeit rather an archipelago of smaller islands of varying attractiveness, as Stefan Laudyn notes. The fact that you can meet film celebrities like Volker Schlöndorff and Agnieszka Holland on these islands shows the attractiveness of the city and its festival.

The ecumenical jury - wonderfully supported by a good local organisation - focuses its selection on the international competition. Because the Chinese entry HUANG YUAN / WHERE NOTHING GROWS (director: Peter Zhiguo Zuo) was not allowed to be shown at short notice due to a lack of Chinese permission, there were still 14 films competing here, as so often of varying quality.

For me, the most stylistically confident and, in terms of professional standards, probably most consistent film was KYSSET / THE KISS (Denmark 2022), Bille August's congenial adaptation of the novel "Beware of Pity" by Stefan Zweig. The story of cavalry officer Anton, who has to find out the nature of his feelings for Baroness Edith, who has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident, is exciting and entertaining. The exploration of closeness and distance, social conditions and expectations is wonderfully lightly staged despite all the drama. Although Bille August moves the action from an imperial and royal provincial garrison to Denmark, it remains very close to the novel in many details. And although the time immediately before and at the beginning of the First World War is so different from our own, what is at stake there is ultimately timeless.

All the greater is the drop to a film like APAG / FEAST (Hong Kong 2022), in which Brillante Mendoza, once celebrated at Cannes, once again fails to build on earlier successes. His story of an only seemingly happy reconciliation remains too powerless and incomprehensible. After a fatal car accident, the perpetrators initially want to avoid responsibility, but ultimately support the widow and her family. She is "allowed" to work as a servant in their household and at the end of the film provides the titular banquet, which she herself, however, cannot attend - the social hierarchies are obviously too great. We learn a lot about the food preferences in the Philippines, but not about the social background.

In the film ADEMOKA / ADEMOKA'S EDUCATION (Kazakhstan/France 2022), Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov tries to symbolically abstract the concrete social conditions of a young illegal migrant and, precisely by doing so, make them comprehensible. In a bizarre production, sometimes reminiscent of Fellini or Buñuel, we experience this young woman's search for an appropriate education. All the scenes, from passport control to school exams, take place on the street, the open field or in the stadium. It is only at the very end, when she has actually secured an entrance permit to the university, that Ademoka enters a building and thus a life beyond the space ascribed to her. The film won the NETPAC Award.

Other films are also about how people face the limitations imposed on them and try to overcome them. The director's prize of the international jury went to Latvian director Viesturs Kairišs for his autobiographically based re-enactment of the Barricade Days in Riga in January 1991. JANVARIS / JANUARY (Latvia/Lithuania/Poland 2022) has the 19-year-old Jazis document the resistance of the Latvian population against a Soviet takeover together with other budding filmmakers. Found footage, reenacted Super 8 shots and other film images are mixed together to create an impressive contemporary document. Above all, however, it is the story of a coming of age under special historical circumstances that shaped an entire generation, not only in Latvia.

Equally close to historical events - albeit in a completely different way - is the winner of the Warsaw Grand Prize, PRAZNIK RADA / MAY LABOR DAY (Bosnia-Herzegovina/ Croatia/ Northern Macedonia/ Serbia/ Montenegro 2022) by Bosnian director Pjer Žalica. There are only the imagined, partly denied and partly fiercely discussed memories of the unbearably painful past that will not go away. Armin, a Bosnian, comes home after ten years of absence in Germany to introduce his wife to his father. However, the father has just been arrested for a wartime crime. It is actually more of a chamber play than a film: the village sits and talks, argues and remains silent about what turned neighbours into enemies and still has painful repercussions. Entanglements of guilt that cannot simply be resolved. Even if the events recalled and their backgrounds are not always obvious to the uninitiated, the deep sadness associated with them has an effect.

Extremely cheerful and refreshing is BETLÉMSKÉ SVĚTLO / BETHLEHEM LIGHT (Czech Republic/UK 2022), in which Czech director Jan Svěrák (Oscar and Golden Globe for KOLYA 1997) lets appear his no less famous father Zdeněk Svěrák (who also wrote the screenplay). He plays an ageing writer whose protagonists increasingly encroach on his life and haggle over changes to their imagined or yet-to-be-developed lives. It's a film adaptation of three short stories, but they come together well. So there are really wonderful, grandiose scenes and ideas that touch on existential questions with all their lightness and don't even stop at death, on the contrary: when the writer climbs into his own coffin and makes himself comfortable in it, it is an unforgettable and hilarious moment.

The prize of the Ecumenical Jury went to a film that also succeeds brilliantly in combining lightness and depth, fun and seriousness. Director Anna Maliszewska, who is best known in Poland as a director of music videos, develops an idea from her own video clip into her first feature film. TATA / DAD (Poland/Ukraine 2022) tells the story of a father who suddenly finds himself not only with two young girls, but also with a Ukrainian woman working illegally in Poland and now dead there. From this, a road movie develops in the course of which there is room for conversations about life and death as well as for Ukrainian rap, for bitter tears as well as hearty laughter. While the father reluctantly but resolutely faces up to his responsibility, the other characters also develop multi-dimensionally. Perhaps in the end there are too many things in this complex story, but the believable characters and their wonderful actors make up for it.

And yet another film manages to pose the question of responsibility and appropriate action very impressively; it was awarded a special prize by the international jury. STRZĘPY / SHREDS (Poland 2022) by Beata Dzianowicz is about how a man takes his increasingly demented and thus aggressive father in at his home, despite the opposition of his wife and daughter, at the very moment when he no longer recognises him. The process of deterioration is impressively portrayed by the actors. However, the film reduces the phenomenon of Alzheimer's more and more to a threat that is to be eliminated at any costs. It ends in a double sacrifice that doesn't really make sense and provokes contradiction.

A festival in times of war. I have already mentioned that the Odessa International Film Festival was included in Warsaw. Unfortunately, it is not possible to see all of these films. I would like to mention one as a representative. The documentary A RISING FURY (Ukraine/Norway/USA 2022) by Lesya Kalynska and Ruslan Batytskyi follows a Ukrainian fighter from the east of the country and his girlfriend (and later wife) over a period of eight years, from the Maidan protests in 2013 to the beginning of the current war. In retrospect, it becomes clear how long the Russian preparations for war go back and in what way they were engineered. It is to be hoped that the film will be made accessible to a German audience at the Berlinale.