The closing ceremony and prize-giving of the 39th Gdynia Film Festival took place on Saturday night on the Main Stage of the city’s Musical Theatre, the site of many of the memorable screenings and premieres held across the festival’s jam-packed, exhilarating six days.
Punctuated beautifully by live orchestra performances of Wojciech Kilar film scores (as a tribute to the iconic composer who died last December), the slickly-staged two-hour event proved most delightful. Not all of the decisions made by the international jury were what I would have hoped for myself. But the results certainly reflected the panel’s intention to reward as wide a range of films as possible: an appropriate approach, perhaps, in a year which yielded no one masterpiece but rather a selection of diverse, interesting and sometimes provocative works, from the traditional to the wildly experimental.
Of the 13 features competing for the “Golden Lions” in the Main Competition, only four went without recognition of some kind. This unlucky quartet were Grzegorz Jaroszuk’s Kebab & Horoscope (the only one of the Main Competition films that I missed), Lech Majewski’s Field of Dogs (which polarised viewers but which I thought to be as close to a work of genius as anything I saw in the festival), Grzegorz Krolikiewicz’s bizarre Neighbours (Saisady), and Magdalena Piekorz’s risible Close-Ups (Zblizenia).
I was especially pleased to see the Best Directing Debut and Best Cinematography awards go to Krzysztof Skonieczny’s Hardkor Disko. Here’s hoping that this recognition will help ensure a wider distribution for this distinctive and disturbing first feature which, in addition, won Jasmina Polak the Best Acting Debut prize, an award shared this year with Sebastian Fabianski for his roles in Waterline and Miasto 44.
Awards for Best Sound and Special Effects to Miasto 44 and Best Costumes to Jack Strong (which also scooped the Best Director prize for Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s sterling, highly polished work), were also worthy choices. And while the self-conscious, jerky rhythms of Wojciech Smarzowski’s The Mighty Angel left me pretty cold, the picture’s calling-attention-to-itself construction evidently impressed the jury enough to give the film the Best Editing prize. In addition, Smarzowski’s film won one of the two “Silver Lions” prizes, the other going to Jerzy Stuhr’s well-liked (though not particularly by me) The Citizen.
Supporting Actor Prizes went, deservedly, to Elena Babenko for her intense and troubling turn as the mother in The Photographer, and to fest favourite Dawid Ogrodnik as the stepfather in The Word.
Some of the other choices I found more problematic. I was especially baffled to see the Best Screenplay award go to Gods, an uneven piece of writing to say the least, and the film’s scooping of the Golden Lion for Best Picture was also surprising. Clearly, this is a film with a lot of audience goodwill towards it, as evidenced by the wildly enthusiastic response that greeted Tomasz Kot’s more deserved winning of the Best Actor prize at the ceremony. But the film’s uncertainties of tone make it an unworthy winner, in my opinion.
If a more populist choice had to be made, I would have preferred the main prize to go to Miasto 44. It’s not a perfect picture by any means, but it has an undeniable force and a true sense of filmmaking excitement to it. In choosing the smaller-scaled (though still Polish-hero-celebrating) Gods over the mighty Miasto 44 it’s hard not to speculate that the jury were showing themselves to be unswayed by the awesome scale and spectacle of Komasa’s film, the most expensive in Polish cinema history.
That being said, there was a further surprise in the Best Actress category, won by Zofia Wichlacz for her performance as Biedronka in Komasa’s film. It’s hard to begrudge this young actress the prize for her committed, bravura display in this most intensely physical of movies, yet it might be felt that Jowita Budnik’s subtly modulated performance in Waterline was a worthier winner.
However, I was very happy to see the “Visions Apart” Audience Award go to Grzegorz Jankowski’s Polish Shit—a delightfully disreputable crowd-pleaser if ever there was one—while the Young Cinema Competition—a strand highlighted by new Artistic Director Michal Oleszczyk this year—was won by Vahram Mkhitaryan’s Milky Brother (Mleczny brat).
In summing up, jury president Ryszard Bugajski claimed that the quality of Polish film production was considerably higher now than it was when he last served on the jury at the festival: a year in which no film was considered strong enough to win a “Best Picture” prize. While, as noted above, no one movie emerged as a clear favourite this year (as happened last year with Pawel Pawlikowsi’s very-likely-Oscar-bound Ida) Gdynia 39 nonetheless demonstrated the vibrancy of contemporary Polish cinema, and boasted a significant number of works (both mainstream and avant garde) that deserve to find audiences beyond the country’s borders.
Next year, the festival turns 40. With several significant changes afoot, and the evolving vision of the excellent Oleszczyk at the helm, Gdynia 2015 will be a festival to excitedly anticipate.
A full list of all winners can be found at Gdynia Film Festival 2014 .
// Notes from the Road
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