Kinoteka: in conversation with Agnieszka Holland

The 14th edition of the Polish film festival Kinoteka is currently taking place in London. It is organised every spring by the Polish Cultural Institute and aims to familiarise the international audience with Polish film- both classic and modern. This year the programme includes a particularly great selection of films and the directors, Jerzy Skolimowski and Agnieszka Holland made an appearance as well.

For those not familiar with the work of Agnieszka Holland, I will simply say that one does not receive a Golden Globe (for the film “Europa, Europa”) and three Oscar nominations (“The Angry Harvest”, “Europa, Europa” and “In Darkness”) without good reason, and I recommend to spend the next rainy day with a cuppa watching the films. Holland has also directed a few episodes of “House of Cards” and “The Wire”- both tv series are definitely worth recommending.

This year, Agnieszka Holland took part in three Kinoteka events: an introduction to “Europa, Europa”, a discussion after “A Woman Alone”, which premiered in a digitally restored version with a few additional minutes of footage which had previously been removed by censorship; she also took part in a conversation with Mark Lawson of the Guardian. With great pleasure, we took part in the two latter events.

Agnieszka Holland, A Woman Alone

A Woman Alone is a film about people who are cast out of the social system. Holland refers to these people as unable to express themselves which leaves them defenceless and deprived of the control over their own fate. The film is set in the tragic and socio-politically dynamic year 1981 just before the imposition of the martial law by the authoritarian communist party of the People’s Republic of Poland.

The woman alone here, beautifully portrayed by the – at the time – little known stage actress Maria Chwalibóg, is a single mother raising her little boy, a love child, on the fringes of the city and at the same time in the edge of society. Her weak social and financial rank make her vulnerable to attacks of aggression, violence and extreme opportunism from people and institutions she encounters along the way.

The social interactions of our poor single mother expose the hypocrisy and cold indifference of her counterparts: her family and neighbours, marginally better off, but also that of social organisations such as the Catholic Church and the ruling party that likes to think of itself as presiding over the people’s republic, and even the new social Solidarity movement.

For everyone, our woman alone is a nobody. Yet at the same time she is keeping up her dignity and a specific beauty features that remind us of her humanity and at the same time drastically express the lack of it in society. Our woman alone is an anti-hero, a symbolic character and so universal. In the 80s she is a representative of the proletariat, and today she could belong to the fast-growing masses of the precariat.

Agnieszka Holland directs our attention towards an unattractive, often willingly avoided or erased world – a social-hinterland. With her movie, Agnieszka Holland allows a Woman Alone to stand side-by-side with the Man of Iron, which Andrzej Wajda created in the same year, and who was a part of that same society in the same moment in history.

About feminism

The conversation with Mark Lawson started with a question about the discrimination faced by female film directors, and the suggestion that it is even harder for a woman to direct films in Poland. Holland described the role of women in the Polish society as schizophrenic: on the one hand, women play a very important role, on the other, even active and intelligent women frequently hide behind men. However, there are no particular obstacles female directors face in Poland. Personally, her family history and political views were big obstacles in her early career, whereas gender far less so. While fighting with the regime, she received a lot of support from her male colleagues.

Holland noticed that nowadays in many countries we see superficial egalitarianism, but the producers doubt that a woman can direct a blockbuster, and critics – even the female ones – are particularly harsh towards female directors; it is far easier for a man to receive another chance after directing an unsuccessful film. While teaching at film schools, Holland sees that female students are at least as talented as male students. However, it does not correlate with their professional success and female directors frequently vanish within a few years of graduation. At the same time, Holland thinks that what happens on the screen, particularly in the case of American TV series, affects the political reality.  She suggested that similarly to the way in which “24” accustomed the Americans to the idea of a black president, a TV series depicting a female president may affect the results of future elections. Fans of “House of Cards” can only be guessing if this series co-directed by Holland is going to be the one.

Looking retrospectively, Holland would describe her diploma film ‘God’s Sin’ as feminist, even though at the time of making it she would not have described herself as a feminist as she thought the totalitarian regime was the enemy and all other fights were secondary.

About totalitarian regimes

Holland was not afraid of the regime, though. She thought about it as an unpleasant, risky and cruel game in which the people who created the regime did not really believe in its ideology. At the same time, she did not expect that during her life freedom would return, and was ecstatic when it happened. According to her, after regaining freedom, mistakes had been made, but everything went in the right direction overall. In response to a question from the audience about the recent changes in Polish politics and their influence on artistic freedom, she said that the current changes in the nature of democracy are chilling and “it is difficult to be very optimistic”. Poland is not an exception and she is “afraid it is a brown wave that is growing everywhere”. When in turn asked if living in such eventful times helps to create art, she said it is more fortunate to live in a country without such interesting history and that “humanity has a big inclination to evil”. At the same time, she admitted that lack of life experience is a big problem for a director, and that the generation of directors who grew up during WW2- Fellini, Wajda- was the greatest generation of film-makers.

Holland also talked about the events of the year 1968 and 1969 in Czechoslovakia. At the time, she was studying at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. After some problems with receiving her passport back (the passports were stored at militia’s offices back then), she managed to return to the university a couple of weeks after the dramatic self-immolation of her peer Jan Palach, who was protesting against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies. Holland also recalled how the consecutive self-immolations were largely ignored and how the self-sacrifice of Jan Palach in some way accelerated the acceptation of the invasion: many people felt that if the fight for freedom required such great sacrifices, they prefer to resign from freedom.

About Europe, American TV and her new film

As the Chairwoman of the European Film Academy, Agnieszka Holland was also asked what should be the role of the academy in the process of protecting European integrity. Holland sees more similarities than differences within Europe, and even though French cinema is different than, for example, German, European cinema has certain unique features which make it stand out from American productions- although not always in a good way. She stated that her personal mission will always be to promote unity.

There was also a brief discussion on Agnieszka Holland’s work on American TV series. In the US, television gained in importance, frequently offering a more dynamic and interesting platform of expression than cinema. The pilot episode of “Treme” which was directed by Agnieszka Holland has been acclaimed by both critics (in a form of an Emmy nomination) and the local community, who trusted that this white Pole would with great understanding depict the life of primarily black communities in New Orleans.

Agnieszka Holland is sceptical when it comes to big budget productions, saying that money and artistic freedom are sometimes inversely correlated. Currently, she is working on the film version of Olga Tokarczuk’s book  entitled ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’, and is wondering whether there is much interest in more intellectually demanding cinema in Poland at the moment, and what kind of audience the film will attract.

While listening to Agnieszka Holland, one can feel that she lived in interesting times, has seen a lot, and has a rare gift of noticing nuances and approaching people without judgement. One could listen to her for hours and fill many pages with the subsequent thoughts and reflections.

Here is a photo with which you can see how happy we were that we could meet Agnieszka Holland.

Katarzyna Kozdon, Magdalena Szabert, Joanna Gos

Agnieszka Holland and KOD UK team

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