The biggest in the world International Documentary Festival Amsterdam - IDFA - starts this Wednesday. In the competitions and sidebar's sections 7 Polish films will be screened. Read the reviews of some of them by Anna Bielak.

ZHALANASH –  EMPTY SHORE, dir. Marcin Sauter - international premiere at IDFA Competition for Short Documentary 

You can hear every rustle, every whisper; the steady clopping of horse hooves, people sighing. An open space is in the foreground. The steppe stretches as far as the horizon. The wind blows from time to time, bringing only sand and dust. It's calm – as if before a storm or that the place portrayed in the documentary “Zhalanash – an Empty Shore” had fallen victim to a quiet apocalypse. “There's nothing there now, just dust. They have taken everything from us,” – says one of its protagonists. Marcin Sauter portrays a place that is slowly dying. The partially dried Aral Sea, where Zhalanash is located, does not hold out much hope for things to go the right way. In Kazakhstan, there are many places that are miles from anywhere. There is a lot of steppe, which at first glance gives a sense of freedom, but if one were to surrender to its allure, it would turn out that they go hand in hand only with limitations. The steppe is ruled by its own laws. It imposes a rhythm and a lifestyle. Those who try to oppose it put their lives at stake. Even if there's someone who dares to rebel here and there, Sauter has no place for them in his frames. He is not looking for sensation. His protagonists endure all. They will survive everything. The people who live by the titular empty shore probably don't have much to look forward to in life. Every day passes in stagnation, sometimes boredom. However, there is something genuinely touching in their attachment to the land where they were born. Zhalanash is a haven where modernity is dominated by tradition – but not the one we often tend to talk about – oppressive, questioning individual freedom, and arguably imposing a code of conduct. It's a tradition that tells people to love their land. A beautiful one.

CALL ME TONY, dir. Klaudiusz Chrostowski - IDFA Competition for Student Documentary

In one of the scenes in the documentary “Call Me Tony”, a remark is made that “emotions cannot be played out, you have to allow yourself to feel them.” This sentence is of great importance for the hero portrayed by Klaudiusz Chrostowski, as he himself is looking for a role, wondering who he could play in life. The director examines him, and we see the true drama unfold – Konrad's search is sincere and passionate, but each of the characters played by the young boy is lacking something. Konrad also feels that he's not finding himself; he repeats that he probably never will, but he does not stop searching. He's doing it desperately and devotes himself to the cause – whatever it may be. And this means that we just can’t take our eyes off him. We start with a fascination of Sylvester Stallone, but it soon emerges that it's not about his legendary acting, but rather bodybuilding. Konrad starts training and wants to find the time for a competition for debuting bodybuilders somewhere between his high-school prom and final exams. His mum doesn't like it, but he sticks to his guns, believing that he has talent. What would it mean for an 18-year-old to stand on the podium? How could defeat affect his psyche? Is his passion strong enough to try again in case of failure? Or perhaps his dreams will come true not through bodybuilding, but acting? You could ask Konrad a lot of questions. None of them will be answered. It isn't the right time. Chrostowski manages to tell the story of a man who struggles for something, confronts something, and goes somewhere in every scene. He makes a great effort to prove his uniqueness, although he does not have to do so, as it can be seen at first glance that there is something peculiar about him - from which, with a little honesty towards oneself, true individuality can flow.



THE PRINCE AND THE DYBBUK by Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski - presented at BESTS OF FESTS

Michał Waszyński lived in a dream, because cinema is a dream. Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski recapture this dream – its phenomenal form and original, extraordinary contents. In the documentary “The Prince and the Dybbuk” – which received the award for Best Documentary on Cinema during the 74. International Film Festival in Venice – they tell the story of one of cinema's most mysterious heroes. Moshe Waks – later known as Prince Michał Waszyński – created himself just like the best film characters are created. He was born to a Jewish family, confronted life's adversities, made some right decisions, underwent change, and began his life anew – first in Warsaw and then on an international scene. He was not selfish in pursuing his fantasies – he discovered talent in Poland, and learned and worked in the company of cinema masters across Europe. Niewiera and Rosołowski's documentary is full of stories, photographs, and archival materials of outstanding quality. A narration built from fragments of Waszyński's diary adds depth to them. It reveals an artist who faces loss, nostalgia, and being torn apart. Thanks to him, questions about identity start to be asked. Is it possible to forget where one comes from or knowingly ignore it? Was “Dybbuk”, shot by Waszyński in Yiddish, made because the director could not free himself from his guilt about forgetting his roots? The oneiric nature of editing and emotions – joy and melancholy, films and realities – makes Waszyński's portrait simultaneously seem complete and woven out of fragments; filled with secrets that are forever hidden between the lines. As with Waszyński, the film is torn apart in an oddly beautiful way.  There is also incredible charisma in it, perhaps exactly the same kind with which Waks used to charm all those he met.

THE UGLIEST CAR, dir. Grzegorz Szczepaniak - international premiere at IDFA  Competiotion for Mid-Length Documentary 

They aren’t a couple, although at first sight, they behave like an old, happily married pair. Kazimiera is the mother. She is 94. Bogdan, 70, is her son. Their Wartburg car just celebrated its 51st birthday and proudly bears the title of the 2015 Ugliest Car in Poland. ‘Charm is found in ugliness!’ says Bogdan fondly. What is most charming in Grzegorz Szczepaniak’s film, however, is not really the worn out car, but above all the relationship between mother and son. The camera, attached inside the car to the windscreen, doesn’t show us where we’re headed. We don’t know whether the road is straight or full of turns. Wherever it leads, the view is turned to the driver and his passenger. Kazimiera scolds her son; Bogdan doesn’t care much about his mother’s reproaches, but their relationship is not as neglected as the car, barely rolling through the city streets and international roads. The son lovingly takes care of his mother. He takes her on a trip from Warsaw to Magdeburg, where she worked during the Second World War. Her husband, Bogdan’s father, was imprisoned in Majdanek at that time. The mother and son reminisce all the time but they don’t live in the past; don’t stay in a room full of dusted photographs, don’t reconstruct the course of events based on archives. Szczepaniak manages to masterfully connect the reflection on history and the trauma of war with a finely sketched portrait of a couple of protagonists who constantly head somewhere. Special nostalgic circus music accompanies them on their journey, which is an excellent composition. Thanks to it, Bogdan and Kazimiera seem humorous – they even have a clownish trait to them; but the apparently light narrative about them progressively assumes growing gravity. Sadness, and a bit of regret, emerge since there comes a time of reflection on what has been lost and of longing for what has never been possible to achieve.

Anna Bielak

source" Focus on Poland Magazine 5 (1/2017) and 6 (2/2017)