TIFF 2013: Wałęsa. Man of Hope (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 2013)

At TIFF, we find Andrzej Wajda's Lech Wałęsa biopic to be a surprisingly lively, cogent take on (part of) the life and times of one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century.

Wałęsa. Man of Hope

Poland, 2013 -- Dir. Andrzej Wajda

More consistently than any other Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda has dedicated himself to presenting the social, cultural and political life of his country on screen. Despite the odd eccentric excursion into meta-moviedom (check out 1968's Everything for Sale and 2009's Sweet Rush for that) and prestige literary adaptation (the well-meaning but fumbled Pan Tadeusz(1999)) there's no denying that Wajda's most enduring work has been his dramatizations of Polish history and/or current events, from his seminal War Trilogy of the 1950s (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds) through Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981) to 2007's phenomenally successful Katyn.

Wałęsa. Man of Hope feels very much like the culmination of the now 87-year-old Wajda's project to document Poland's past. A biopic focusing on the pivotal figure in contemporary Polish history, the movie arrives with a considerable weight of expectation and, it's fair to say, a considerable amount of apprehension too. Wałęsa was indisputably an (inter-)national hero during his co-founding of Solidarity and presiding over Poland's transition from Communism to democracy. But more recent years have seen his popularity wane, to say the least, with his 1990-95 presidency dogged by controversy and his conservative pronouncements on abortion and homosexuality doing little to endear him to younger generations.

For the most part, Wajda's movie skirts around these controversies by focusing on the period -- 1970 to the early 1980s with a brief 1989 coda -- when Wałęsa's activism was at its height: when he was at his most persecuted by the authorities and at his most celebrated by the people. The film's subtitle tells all, in a way, positioning the film as a belated conclusion to the Man of... series (Wałęsa had a brief cameo in Man of Iron) and outlining its attitude to its subject right off the bat.

Actually, the latter element generates an interesting tension in the movie. For, throughout, one senses Wajda's concern to avoid accusations of hero-worshipping his subject: Wajda's Wałęsa (a very skillful, commanding performance from Robert Wieckiewicz) is glossed for us early on as a man "full of surprises and contradictions"; we see him being arrogant, tetchy and controlling, and he even handily announces at one point "I'm no saint!"

Yet, there's no getting around the fact that Wałęsa. Man of Hope is essentially a myth (re-)making exercise: an attempt to restore Wałęsa's tarnished reputation. At times one can practically hear Wajda and his screenwriter Janusz Głowacki whispering to the Polish audience: "Quit complaining about this guy! Remember all that he did for us!" And in one scene, Wałęsa is even given the gift of prophesy, foreseeing that "it's all downhill from here" and that the Polish people who are now praising him will turn on him in the end.

Structurally, Wałęsa. Man of Hope is conventional: the movie is based Wałęsa's interview with an Italian journo Oriana Fallaci (played by Marie Rosaria Omaggio here),which triggers flashbacks to pivotal events, from the 1970 unrest in Gdansk and its brutal repression onwards. If there's more than an element of box-ticking to this approach, it does at least allow for the development of a very clear narrative that shows, in Wajda's words, "how history was making Lech into the person he, eventually, became and how [he] was making history.” A portrait builds of a practical-minded man -- certainly no book-reader or intellectual -- who was able to channel his "great anger" at the inequities of the Communist system in a way that served as a conduit for the people's anger and desire for change. "When the crowd falls silent, I know what to say," Wałęsa comments. "I can find the right words."

The film's shortcomings aren't hard to spot, especially since Wajda's desire for clarity results in some spelling-it-out clunkiness. "He's a good speaker! People listen to him!" two students announce as Wałęsa delivers a rousing speech, telling us what the movie is showing us. And a slightly bizarre late scene finds Wałęsa's foes observing him at a moment of triumph and growling "We'll get him!"; here the movie appears to posit its subject's fall from grace as the result of some kind of Commie conspiracy. And while aspects such as Wałęsa's Catholicism aren't explored in depth, there's one blithe comment that might give some viewers pause: Wałęsa's jaunty statement that "I agree with everything the Pope says."

Still, Wajda is a film-maker I always find myself rooting for despite his little lapses and Wałęsa. Man of Hope is, I would argue, a more sustained and assured piece of work than was Katyn, which, despite its unforgettable opening and closing sequences, sometimes felt stolid and clumsy: more monument than movie overall. Here, by contrast, Wajda's approach is looser, freer and more fluid with confident shifts between dramatization and archive footage and many scenes shot handheld: a reference back to the rather grungy aesthetic of the previous Man of... films, perhaps. (In fact, a clip from Man of Iron gets neatly interpolated into the movie at one point.) Throughout, protest rock songs are used to punctuate the scenes; whatever the artistic merits of these tracks they give the movie an energy and spirit that's quite invigorating, and the film signs off with Johnny Cash's reverent rumble through Paul Henry Dallaire's "A Song for Lech Wałęsa" playing over the credits.

There's some fond domestic detail too. The movie doesn't do much to individualise Wałęsa's (many) kids but clearly shows the toll that his activism takes on his family life; in one great little scene the family gathers to watch Rich Man, Poor Man on TV only to be interrupted by some pressing political business. And playing Wałęsa's wife Danuta, Agnieszka Grochowska (reuniting with Wieckiewicz from Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness)is just great, delivering a simple, unaffected performance that cuts through the potential sentimentality of the characterisation.

Wałęsa. Man of Hope may not rank, ultimately, alongside Wajda's strongest, most complex pieces of work. But it's an honourable effort and seldom less than engrossing. The reception of the movie in Poland - where it opens next month - will surely be fascinating to witness.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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