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Critic as Programmer: Michał Oleszczyk on Poland’s Gdynia Film Festival

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By Paul Risker.

Last year saw The Gdynia Film Festival celebrate its 40th edition, the history and lifespan of which greatly dwarfs the brief involvement of its current Artistic Director Michał Oleszczyk, who has just completed his second year in the prestigious role.

When one contemplates film as a collaborative medium it is fitting to note that a festival similarly shaped by a series of collaborators. Although with a festival it remains a succession of collaborators who evolve and nurture it in order to allow it to endure. Under Oleszczyk’s guidance the  continued its growth through the Visions Apart programme, the intention of which Oleszczyk explained: “Was to create a spotlight for a selected group of films that are experimental and/or unconventional enough to set themselves apart from the mainstream Polish production, and that can be seen as a fascinating fringe where new trends and aesthetics are brewing.” But pursuing this idea of an enduring creative life span further, Gdynia featured a spark as the young met with the old in the main competition. Meanwhile Oleszczyk’s commitment to exhibiting Polish classics by expanding the festival’s vision to include a look to the pre-war period with the Treasures of Pre-War Cinema section, only served to create more deliberate contours between the past and the present.

Following the conclusion of the milestone edition of the festival Oleszczyk spoke with Film International and offered an insight into the intentions of this year’s festival, while reflecting on the experience of confronting a more familiar experience the second time around. During the course of our conversation and while taking us behind the scenes or pulling back the curtain for a peek at the thought process behind the 40th anniversary edition, Oleszczyk further reflected on film history, the indelible nature of film itself, the importance of the festival circuit and his optimistic yet cautious view of Polish cinema’s future on both the domestic and international stage.

You are in your second year of a three year term as Artistic Director of the Gdynia Film Festival. Can you take us behind the scenes and offer an overview of how the 40th Gdynia Film Festival was put together. Does each edition come with its own set of unique challenges?

This edition was particularly challenging and I like to say I am really happy it wasn’t my first one. In order to make it special, I came up with a number of accompanying events that were not here last year, such as the Diamond Lions, awarded by the public to the best Polish film, actor, actress and score of the past 40 years. The main intention was to make the history of Polish film in the past 40 years present at the festival. Hence the exhibitions such as Polish Roads to the Oscars and the digital restorations of classic films etc.

Looking back to 2014 how did the expectations compare to the realities and how did the experience inform and help to shape your approach to the festival this year?

I really look at my first year as a time of training and getting to know the mechanics of the festival, and also of getting to know my fantastic team. I cannot stress enough how fortunate I am to be working with this particular group of people, on whom I can always rely. Also, my immediate superior and the head of Pomeranian Film Foundation, Leszek Kopeć, has been a particular inspiration for me. He is my boss and my mentor, and his long experience at the festival has been my guiding light on many an occasion.

One of the things that struck me about the Gdynia Film Festival was the way in which you were able to merge the festival with the town, so that Gdynia becomes more than just a setting. In many ways the festival and the space are intertwined.

I am glad you are mentioning this aspect, since it’s been very much our intention – as well as something I think we haven’t worked hard enough on in the previous year. I see the festival as an event that should spill out and merge with the social and architectural tissue of the city: it’s not a good festival if it’s enclosed within the walls of festival objects. I feel we achieved a kind of synergy this year with the urban space being, as it were, lovingly invaded by the festival objects.

You have been responsible for introducing the Visions Apart section to the programme. What was your motivation for introducing this strand of films and has this been the initial success you had hoped, or does it take an introductory spell before a new section can find its feet within an established festival programme?

The Singing Napkin

The Singing Napkin

Creating Visions Apart was the single most controversial decision I took, and I believe it will still take some time before the section takes hold and becomes a natural part of the Gdynia Film Festival landscape. This year there were six such films, and I am very happy the section was incredibly well-attended by the festival audience, with Mariusz Grzegorzek’s The Singing Napkin (2015) scooping the main award.

The success of a festival rests upon the films. From your perspective what were the particular strengths of this year’s programme and were there any groups of films you thought contrasted well with one another either within the same section or across sections to create thematic contemplations?

This year’s Main Competition was incredibly varied. I believe its very diversity was its biggest strength. First-time directors of incredible power of visions such as Agnieszka Smoczyńska with The Lure (2015) competed against well-established masters such as Jerzy Skolimowski (11 Minutes (2015)) and Janusz Majewski (The Eccentrics (2015)).There were some huge films (Łukasz Barczyk’s Influenz (2015)) and some intently private ones (Marcin Bortkiewicz’s Walpurgis Night (2015)). Many films dealt with Poland’s troubled past and yet many seemed to be excitingly pushing forward toward the future. I think this year’s programme reflected the richness of Polish cinema and the possibilities of development that still lie ahead.

The Gdynia Film Festival showed a wealth of classic Polish cinema. How essential is it to take the time to celebrate cinema’s past?

For me, it’s absolutely crucial. I have continued the section Pure Classics which is focused on digital restorations of classic Polish films, and I have also introduced the Treasures of Pre-War Cinema section, in which we present digitally restored Polish films of the pre-war period. All of the Pure Classics screenings are followed by exclusive Q&A sessions that reunite the filmmakers, often for the very first time since the film was made. I believe only by rooting itself in the past may a festival like Gdynia flourish in the present.

Following on from the previous question, how important is it to create a focus on not only feature films, but short films as well?

Shorts are very much present thanks to the Young Cinema Competition (focusing on students’ graduation films) and Short Film Competition (focused on professional shorts). It is with particular care that I program the Young Cinema Competition alongside its excellent coordinator Maciej Dominiak, since I believe that it is incredibly important for a festival like Gdynia to show maximum support to the country’s budding filmmakers.

On the subject of short films what in your opinion is the place of the short in modern cinema?

I think shorts are more relevant than ever, given how, shall I say tablet-friendly and ADHD-friendly they are. It is much easier to watch a short on your mobile device on your commute to work than to devote full two hours to a new feature film. I eagerly await more platforms that would distribute Polish short films in Poland and abroad.

With television long form drama enjoying a golden age, could film be re-contextualised as a longer version of the short film – a short format in itself?

That’s an interesting concept, but I don’t think we’ve gotten that far. I think that, at present, we are witnessing a new adjustment of audience’s attention to a 50-minute TV drama that’s not entirely unlike the 60-or-so minute B-movies of the 1930s and 1940s, which were usually consumed in double-bills. The quality of course is much higher, but I believe that the two-hour format is really in retreat.

Ahead of the festival you said: “This year in Gdynia we will witness the meetings of acknowledged filmmakers and absolute beginners, old and first-timers, masters and apprentices – all of them united in celebrating Polish cinema, it’s tradition, it’s today and tomorrow.” Your words lead me to contemplate how cinema is a living breathing entity that grows through the practitioners of the craft as well as through the collaboration between the filmmakers and the audience. It is forever growing and I often enjoy speaking with filmmakers about whether it is they who shape cinema or cinema that shapes them? But your words paint film as its own world, which in itself is a wonderful celebration of the art form. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on my response to your quote?

Cinema is a living, breathing organism that is fiercely cannibalistic of its own past and forever indebted to other arts. I cannot answer your question in any definitive way, but I know that running a festival made me decisively more aware of how interconnected films are and how alive their interaction with an alert audience can become.

You have spoken of how film has enriched your life. While one sentiment expresses a film is just a film, at the opposite end of the spectrum we have Truffaut’s famous question: “Is the cinema more important than life?” How important is cinema as a cultural art form and as a personal interaction? If cinema were to cease to exist or had cinema never come into being what would be the impact on both a cultural and personal level?

Cinema’s impact lies in its radically modern nature. It is the first art in the history of mankind that makes us confront other ways of living and other people’s faces, values and cultures in a way that’s direct and overpowering. It is through that confrontation that we are forced to harness a new sense of our own identity, and that’s what forms the indelible impact cinema has had on world culture and on everyone’s lives and dreams.

How important is the festival circuit for filmmakers and distributors alike? If the festival circuit ceased to exist, what would be the impact on the landscape of modern cinema?

Festivals are crucial in that they create a network of support and communication,  and there’s no film culture or any other culture for that matter without communication. Festivals provide an environment for films’ reputation to grow and enter the public consciousness.

Reflecting on contemporary Polish cinema, are you optimistic about its future both at home and on the international stage?

I am both optimistic and careful. There is no doubt that, thanks chiefly to the incredible success of the Polish Film Institute, the Polish film industry is in very good shape and that new exciting things are happening. Still, there are some fields that desperately need improvement (I mean screenwriting and creating tax incentives primarily). So we are far from done in our work. The process continues and I am proud to be a part of it.

Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.

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