Poland’s potential for those seeking a new life is explored in New World (Nowy świat) a portmanteau film comprised of three separate stories. In the first, “Żanna”, directed by Elżbieta Benkowska, the protagonist is a Belurusian woman (Olga Kavalay-Aksenova), who has moved to Warsaw with her daughter, leaving behind her husband, a musician who has been imprisoned by the authorities. Żanna is embarking on a new relationship when news from her homeland radically disrupts her plans.
In the second story, “Azzam”, directed by Michał Wawrzecki, the protagonist is an Afghan migrant (Hassan Akkouch) working at a Warsaw club (not insignificantly named “El Dorado”), and involved in a strange relationship with his boss, Łukasz (Darusz Chojnacki). It emerges that the two men met in Afghanistan where Azzam worked as interpreter for the Polish Army, and where he saved Łukasz’s life.
The final, longest story, “Wera,” by Łukasz Ostalski, dramatises an encounter between the title character (Karina Minaeva), a Ukrainian who has come to Poland for a sex change operation, and the young son she left behind, who is brought by his grandfather to visit.
Like most portmanteau films, New World is a mixed bag, and its first two episodes are a little sketchy in their design, though both have resonant moments. One is left wanting more of both Żanna and Azzam’s stories, and there’s enough material for each to be developed into an interesting feature.
“Wera” is much more substantial, however, evolving, thanks to its lengthier running time, into an involving piece that intelligently explores familial roles and identities undergoing profound renegotiation. Wera’s desire to connect with her son, and her difficult relationship with her bigoted and uncomprehending father, are sensitively presented, and the final scenes achieve a considerable emotional impact.
Ultimately, New World adds up to a promising work from these three young directors, and the movie is especially significant for its integration of queer and LGBT elements. Visually and tonally, the film manages to feel all-of-a-piece, even incorporating some brief moments of connection and crossed paths for the characters in each story in a manner of which Krzysztof Kieślowski would surely have approved.
Strange Heaven (Obce niebo)
The challenges of immigration are also examined in Dariusz Gajewski’s Strange Heaven (Obce niebo). Here Agnieszka Grochowska and Batłomej Topa play Basia and Marek, a Polish couple with a nine-year-old daughter Ula (Barbara Kubiak), who have relocated to Sweden to start a new life. Ula – renamed “Ursula” to avoid “confusion” at school – has learnt the language, but appears to be having some trouble adjusting. Meanwhile, Basia and Marek are also struggling in their new circumstances, and their marriage seems to be suffering.
A couple of misunderstandings lead the family to come under the scrutiny of a zealous social worker (Ewa Fröling) who, believing that Ula is being mistreated at home, acts to place her in temporary foster care. The couple is then faced with the difficult challenge of getting their daughter back, an endeavour which the Swedish system seems determined to thwart at every turn.
Strange Heaven is the kind of picture that plays on a primal fear: parents being unfairly deprived of access to their own child. As such, it catches the viewer in a vice, and it’s a taut and painful experience. The premise is straight out of a TV movie and some elements – including an unlikely escape attempt – are over-pitched.
Challenging the stereotype of Sweden as a relaxed, easy-going country, and critiquing laws which enable children to be so easily removed from the family home, there’s also the danger that the film may be read as mere scare-mongering: an illustration of the threats facing those who leave Poland for a new life elsewhere. (A turning point in Basia and Marek’s fortunes only comes when they consult a Polish lawyer.)
If the movie is not without some problematic aspects, it’s also gripping and moving throughout. Overlooking one minor (but significant) Ukrainian character, the film doesn’t do much to place the family’s experience in the wider context of immigration to Sweden (Basia’s observation of some arguing Africans across the way has no follow through). But other elements resonate.
In particular, Gajewski is perceptive on family dynamics, and in demonstrating how perfectly regular ups and downs of people’s lives may look strange or suspicious to outsiders. While there’s no question that Basia and Marek are innocent of the charges thrown at them by the officials, the couple aren’t sanctified as characters. Their relationship is volatile, and their movements between quarrels and playfulness are witnessed by their daughter, and this is an evident source of confusion for her. Grochowska and Topa are totally believable as the couple, and Grochowska – veering from stunned disbelief at the situation to full-tilt desperation and rage – was a deserved winner of this year’s Best Actress award at the Festival.
Strange Heaven is also subtly chilling in its demonstration of the ease with which replacement can occur. Installed, with her new “stable” family, in a nicer house, with a much loved dog, and even a substitute Grandmother figure, Ula is shown to settle quite quickly, even while believing the situation to be merely a temporary one. Barbara Kubiak — likeable but never cutesy, and a little bit opaque — is terrific, as the little girl.
It’s crucial that Ula has learnt Swedish, but that her parents haven’t, since it gives her a power and ease that they don’t have; speaking with the authorities, Basia and Marek must resort to the lingua franca of English. Soapy melodramatics aren’t entirely avoided as Gajewski heads the story to its climax, but for the most part, the movie earns its emotions and closes with a beautiful, elegantly sustained final shot.
The Here After (Intruz)
Magnus von Horn’s The Here After (Intruz), a surprise winner of both the Best Screenplay and Best Direction Awards at this year’s Festival, is also set in Sweden, and while it’s not about immigration directly, it has elements that suggest that it could be read as an allegory of that experience. For this film’s focus is also a difficult transition: the return of a teenager, John (Ulrik Munther), to his home after some years, following his incarceration in a young offenders institution for a violent crime.
Von Horn (who co-wrote the screenplay for The Word, seen at last year’s Gdynia Festival) makes his debut feature with The Here After, which also screened in this year’s Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes. Like The Word, the film is sensitive to the emotions and experiences of teenagers, and the writer-director shows supreme confidence here in drip-feeding information in a way that maintains tension and unease.
Expertly edited by Agnieszka Glińska, and lensed by the great Łukasz Żal (of Ida and Joanna), the film unfolds slowly, patiently and quietly, the scenes taking their time before exploding into some shocking violent encounters that disrupt the movie’s measured mood. The first of these takes place in a supermarket aisle, and heralds the film’s darker turn.
Like both New World and Strange Heaven, The Here After bears the influence of the Dardennes as a committed, humanist work of social realism. In its depiction of a town turned mob, the movie is also reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (2012) but it’s far more convincing and nuanced its developments. The identification of a (rather problematic) “motive” for John’s crime seems unnecessary, but the revelation doesn’t diminish the film’s intensity: the movie becomes raw and grueling as it progresses.
Graciously accepting the film’s awards at Saturday’s ceremony, von Horn highlighted the movie’s status as a (Swedish-Polish-French) co-production, stressing, pointedly, the importance of “collaboration” between countries: “especially these days. And especially in Europe.”