Gdynia Film Festival 2015: New Polish Cinema Overview + ‘Karbala’

The 40th Gdynia Film Festival, the most prestigious film event in Poland, has the fortune to be taking place in a hugely significant and successful year for Polish cinema.

The 12 months since last year’s memorable Gdynia Film Festival have been hugely successful ones for Polish cinema, especially on the international stage. The awarding of the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film BAFTA and Oscars to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (the latter a win predicted here last year), plus documentary Oscar nominations for Aneta Kopaz’s Joanna and Tomasz Śliwiński’s Our Curse, must count as the most significant events.

In addition, the recent scooping of the Best Direction prize by Andrzej Zuławski for his long-awaited Witold Gombrowicz adaptation, Kosmos at Locarno and the awarding of the Silver Bear to Małgorzata Szumowska for Body/Ciało at Berlin also testify to a renewed interest in Polish cinematography abroad. So, too, does the extended Kinoteka Festival held in London over April and May.

Meanwhile, the massive commercial success of Jan Komasa’s Warsaw 44 and of Łukasz Palkowski’s Gods (Bogowie) – last year’s Best Film winner here at Gdynia – has led to exceptionally healthy domestic box office during this period. It should also be noted that the Polish Film Institute, established in 2005 to support the development and distribution of Polish productions, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, its accomplishments clearly demonstrated by some of the strides and successes outlined above.

The overall result, then, is a most auspicious, vibrant atmosphere for this year’s Gdynia – the Festival’s 40th edition, no less – to take place. Needless to say, this significant anniversary for the Festival, which remains the primary showcase for Polish film, is certainly not going uncelebrated. Not only does this year’s programme present a bumper crop of new movies across its six days, as well as opportunities to revisit old favourites and undervalued gems in the “Pure Classics” and “Pre-War Cinema Treasures” strands, but the Festival’s jubilee is also being marked through a range of other events, from bespoke documentaries and exhibitions to the commemorative publication “A Film With a View to the Sea: 40 Years of the Gdynia Film Festival”. The Festival also benefits from a swanky new venue in Gdynia Film Centre.

Moreover, should you feel like venturing outside the bounds of national cinema while at the Festival, then that opportunity is there, too. Miguel Gomes’s Cannes-adored Arabian Nights Trilogy is among the films being presented in the “On the Horizon” strand, while HBO’s continued position as a Festival partner has facilitated screenings of Paul Haggis’s new series Show Me a Hero, plus a Masterclass with the show’s writer, David Simon (The Wire).

For most folks in attendance, though, immersion in “kino Polska” is what Gdynia is all about. The beguiling beauty of the Festival’s location may mean that playing hooky and heading for the beach is always a temptation, but the richness of the programming ensures otherwise. For Artistic Director Michał Oleszczyk, the “uniting theme” of this year’s Festival is “the continuity and the tradition of Polish cinema”, and the first film I saw attests to that, in a sense. The traumatic experience of World War II remains a topic of great concern to contemporary Polish filmmakers of various generations (witness Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, Komasa’s Warsaw 44 and of course, Ida, to name but three).

Krzysztof Łukaszewicz’s forceful (though finally disappointing) Karbala, which is screening in this year’s Main Competition, marks a departure from this historical interest by plunging the viewer headlong into a more contemporary conflict: the Iraq War in which some 2,000 Polish soldiers were deployed in the invasion against Saddam Hussein’s government.

The movie unfolds in the Polish stabilization zone in Spring of 2004, where the militia of Shiite cleric Muktada As-Sadr begins a jihadist-supported uprising. The US command demands that the Polish contingent holds the City Hall, seat of the local authorities loyal to the stabilization forces. But this proves a more complicated, exacting task than could have been foreseen.

It’s probably the unavoidable fate of Karbala to end up being labelled “the Polish Hurt Locker“, but I for one found Łukaszewicz’s movie to be a more thoughtful, complex effort than Bigelow’s, at least for its first half. To be sure, the director draws wholesale on many of the established tropes of contemporary war films: shaky hand-held camera-work being the most obvious example. However, such familiar aspects appear to be in the service of an interestingly nuanced take on the Iraq conflict, as the movie presents the interactions of the Polish soldiers with the US command, with Bulgarian troops also engaged in the fighting and, of course, with Iraqis both hostile to and supportive of the invasion.

In addition, by including the story of one Kamil Grad (played by Antoni Królikowski), a Polish medic accused of failing to aid a comrade during a skirmish and now facing court-martial, the movie shows the Polish campaign to be dogged by internal disagreement and stymied by bureaucracy.

The movie’s moral intelligence and even-handedness start to falter as its agenda becomes clearer, however. It turns out that Karbala is, after all, all about celebrating Polish heroism and sacrifice in Iraq and, what’s more, about leading the disgraced Kamil to a big “Backdraft moment” in which his courage can be demonstrated without question. In its final, crudely tension-ratcheting stages, Karbala becomes a bit too blunt and blatant in hammering that perspective home.

Related to this endeavour is an insistence upon demonstrating that Polish efforts in Iraq did not receive the acclaim that they merited on the world stage. Whether that’s a valid complaint or not (and it seems to fit a bit too cosily into Poland’s view of itself as a perennial underdog), this point is also made too emphatically. Well-acted and technically accomplished, Karbala is seldom less than gripping, and its presentation of a fresh perspective on this war is valuable. But the movie — dedicated to “the soldiers of Iraq and their families” — finally succumbs to well-intentioned worthiness, sacrificing the more challenging, critical and insightful approach that its early scenes seemed to promise.