During my 2-month stay in Rochester in the fall of 2012, I taught a course, “Polish Cinema,” which included the key subjects of the past and contemporary Polish cinema. We discussed the most important trends in Polish cinema (Polish Film School and Cinema of Moral Concern being the foremost among them). We also talked about the most acclaimed directors (the beginning of Roman Polański’s career, the work of Jerzy Skolimowski and Krzysztof Kieślowski). In addition to discussing feature films, we covered subjects concerning documentary cinema (e.g. Black Series of Polish Documentary Films, Fidyk’s School and Łoziński’s School). Finally, the condition of contemporary Polish cinema was discussed – its financial and organizational situation. The lectures on the new cinema also featured such directors as Wojciech Smarzowski, Bartosz Konopka, Leszek Dawid and Małgorzata Szumowska.
An interesting aspect of my stay was the Polish Film Festival in November 2012. I took part in meetings with various guests and could observe the audience’s reactions to the latest achievements of Polish cinema.
What did I learn during my stay at University of Rochester? What conclusions did I draw?
Firstly: A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE IN LOOKING AT EUROPE, OUR CULTURE, AND MOST OF ALL, OUR CINEMA.
I had to face a situation in which nothing was obvious. The students knew a few names of Polish directors, but here our common experience ended, which was an extraordinary challenge for both me and them. I believe, though, that we coped very well. The students broadened their knowledge of Polish films, and I returned home with the ability to look at the history of Polish cinema, which had seemed to me to be something set and obvious before, in a fresh and unconventional way. The students provided me with a new perspective toward the products of culture that used to seem fossilized to me. They showed me the universality of Polish cinematography, which does not have to be read in the context of history and politics. Therefore, contrary to my initial fears, the students had fun watching excerpts from Munk’s comedies, or Piwowski’s “The Cruise.” The latter, seemingly impossible to understand outside Poland, made the students roar with laughter. It turned out that the absurd is still in place, and even the inability to understand or explain some of the subtleties of the times of communism in Poland does not interfere with the pleasure of watching the film.
Secondly: I AM NOT GOING TO BE A LESS STRICT TEACHER
The experience of meeting up with a totally different reality than the one I am used to in Poland also changed my view on the relations with students. Passion, genuine curiosity and engagement with which American students approach subjects that are absolutely foreign to them taught me that I can, and should, demand more from my students in Poznań. They lack this curiosity that would urge them to develop and get engaged in projects that sometimes seem to be strange and unnecessary. The American students took a risk, they chose an unfamiliar and (probably) weird subject which, as I assume from the good results of the final test, gave them an impulse to explore more and to go deeper into the subject.
Thirdly: THERE IS NOTHING TO BE EMBARRASSED ABOUT
Poles have always had a lot of insecurities, which have been placed by researchers in the broad context of Eastern Europeans’ inferiority complex towards Western culture. This complex was called by Danilo Kiš European nostalgia, a dream of being accepted an adopted. An expression that I often hear from my colleagues or students fits into this formula: “It is quite a good film, taking into account that it is Polish.” The phrase “taking into account” implies that we are talking about something handicapped, underdeveloped, which should be rated in a different, less strict way. The criteria must be less stringent, as we are dealing with some kind of disability. The clear inferiority complex towards the cinematography of Western Europe and the USA can be probably explained on a number of levels. The most important of them are the historical experience and the eternal financial problems that Polish cinema has experienced. But we should remember that we are most productive when in crisis, at least in Poland. The greatest achievements of Polish cinema come from the period right after WW II (Polish film school, the debuts from the 1960’s) and the times when censorship tried to gag artists - by threat and duress (like in the case of “The Cruise” and the cinema of moral concern.) Probably because of that, the worst films ever made are the ones produced shortly after Poland regained its freedom. The 1990’s (with a few exceptions) are the worst period in the history of Polish cinema. The situation started to change at the end of the 1990’s. Since the beginning of the 2000’s, there have been films that in most cases do not stand out from the standards of well-made European films. More money and numerous co-productions with producers from abroad allow for more artistic freedom and independence. The students from the University of Rochester confirmed the value of the latest Polish films. They were particularly impressed by animated films, which they rated very highly, both because of the workmanship of their creators and the featured subjects (among them Tomasz Baginski’s films and “Crulic - The Path to Beyond” by Anca Damian). They also did not remain indifferent to the wild and emotional documentaries that ask ultimate questions and push and cross all boundaries (Marcin Koszałka’s films). The enthusiastic and interested reaction of the audience of the Polish Film Festival has also demonstrated that the projects of young Polish filmmakers are welcome outside Poland. “Suicide Room,” “Ki,” or “The Courage” are just some of the films screened during the festival. As it turns out, Polish cinema is entering a phase when it can forget all of its insecurities. It freely takes up all the current, universal subjects without losing the spirit of Polish tradition.
Dr. Anna Śliwińska was visiting professor in the Skalny Center in Fall 2012. She is associate professor at the Department of Film, Television and Media, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.
1Danilo Kiš, Wariacje na tematy środkowoeuropejskie, „Res Publica” 1989, issue 1.