Gdynia Film Festival 2015: Festival Review + '10 Years of Emotions'

The 40th Gdynia Film Festival, rich in inspiring and original cinema yet marred by an unexpected tragedy, felt like experiencing "ten years of emotions" in six days.

Certain incidents you just don't see coming, and they make our everyday anxieties and worries look trivial, indeed. The news of the death of the director Marcin Wrona at Gdynia, occurring on the Saturday morning of the closing gala of the Festival's 40th anniversary, shocked and deeply saddened everyone in attendance and, of course, in the wider Polish film community and beyond. Relaying the awful news to a critic friend at TIFF, I learned that he had, just days before, met and interviewed Wrona in Toronto, where the director had presented his new film, Demon, before bringing it to Gdynia, where the movie received further acclaim and was judged by some to be the best film of the Festival.

The organisers nonetheless took the difficult decision not to cancel any of Saturday’s screenings, and a shortened and subdued version of the closing ceremony took place in the evening. The event was handled with the utmost tact and sensitivity. Opening with a touching and understated musical performance by Stanisława Celińska that paid tribute to the 42-year-old director, the following ceremony had a warm and loving tone. Some poignant statements were made, as when producer Marcin Malatyński, collecting the “Visions Apart” “Golden Claw” prize for The Singing Napkin, referred to the importance of thinking of film beyond market and industry value, and rather to consider fellow filmmakers as a community "of family, of friends”.

The full list of winners can be read here, and my own personal Top 10 of films screened at the Festival appears at the end of this article. Instead of analysing the awards as I did last year , however, I would like to close my coverage of Gdynia 2015 with some remarks about the last movie I saw at the Festival: 10 Years of Emotions (10 Lat Emocji). This documentary, directed by Jerzy Sładkowski, focuses on the Polish Film Institute (PISF), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the same year in which Gdynia Festival celebrates its 40th.

10 Years of Emotions (10 Lat Emocji)

Combining interviews, film clips and behind-the-scenes production footage, Sładkowski's charming film offered an insightful and affectionate portrait of the PISF, tracing the Institute from its relatively humble beginnings to its now central role in Polish cinematography. It soon became clear that, as outgoing PISF General Director Agnieszka Odorowicz notes, the Institute has “changed the face of Polish cinema”, supporting the production of more than 230 features, over 350 documentaries and 120 animation films, and generally working diligently to “protect and promote Polish film”. Among the filmmakers featured was Pawel Pawlikowski, who testified that, without PISF funding, Ida would never have been made.

What also became clear was the importance of artistic freedom, an issue that Polish filmmakers aren’t likely to take lightly following so many years of Communist control and censorship. Incisive interviews with Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Wajda returned frequently to this topic, with Holland emphasising the importance of “the artist’s right to freedom, to expression, to not be driven by conformism.” “Perhaps some kind of authoritarian ghost stalks these corridors,” Holland said. “We need to exorcise it to ensure that censorship doesn’t occur again.” The PISF’s importance in such an “exorcism” was made evident in this film, as was the Institute’s commitment to individual voices and “to keeping the politicians out of it.” As one commentator succinctly put it, “The idea of the Institute is to fight for art cinema.”

The documentary’s tone was warm and celebratory without succumbing to either self-congratulation or complacency. At just fifty minutes (and with some awkward integration of clips), several aspects of the Institute were only briefly sketched. Still, if the film is more overview than detailed examination ultimately, it does a good job of summing up the accomplishments of Polish cinema in the last decade and in suggesting the challenges ahead. Perhaps the most touching comment came from Wajda who noted: “It started with all of us loving cinema and we felt, if we loved cinema, that we could do something good in life.”

The film's title, which alludes to the PISF’s slogan for its anniversary, could scarcely have been more appropriate. In its combination of the joy of inspirational cinema and the grief and shock of unexpected death, the 40th Gdynia Film Festival felt very much like experiencing "ten years of emotions" telescoped into six days. One left the Festival at once saddened and elated, reassured as to the vibrant condition of contemporary Polish cinema, and also reminded of one of the primary resources that we have in finding healing, solidarity and connection after a shocking event: namely, film itself.

My Gdynia Film Festival 2015 Top 10

1. 11 Minutes (11 Minut)

2. Body/Ciało

3. These Daughters of Mine (Moje córki krowy)

4. Baby Bump

5. Damaged (Panie Dulskie)

6. The Lure (Córki Dancingu)

7. Strange Heaven (Obce niebo)

8. 10 Years of Emotions (10 Lat Emocji)

9. The Here After (Intruz)

10. New World (Nowy Świat)

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