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The 1998 International and National Short Film Festivals of Kraków, Poland

By Don Fredericksen

A black-and-white photo of a boy's face from 'Kisangani Diary.'

The Krakow 35th International Short Film Festival ran from May 29 to June 2, 1998; in the same theatre, at the same time, ran the 31st National Short Film Festival. Confusing? Not really: one is International; the other National. The site for the five days of screening was the Kijow Cinema, a technically sophisticated house equipped for several video formats and projection in all standard film formats. Excellent simultaneous translation was provided for the non-subtitled films, into English, French and Polish. Next to the theatre was The Hotel Cracovia, where a majority of the Festivals' guests stayed. And a mere ten­ minute walk away was Krakow's beautiful and culturally rich "Old City." Foreign visitors to Poland rarely encounter any significant language problems; and for the Festivals, Polish and English were the official languages.

The international and national components of the Festival are organized by the Polish State film institu­tion known as Panstwowa Instytucja Filmowa "Apollo Film." The Festival's new and able director (appointed after the recent death of Wit Dudek) is Janusz Solarz. Along with the international and national competitions, the Festival contin­ued the practice begun three years ago of an "Off-Festival" screening schedule, comprised of films excluded from the competition, Polish animation, student films from Moscow and Bratislava, and a retrospective of major European docu­mentaries from the 1960s, e.g., works by Ivens, Marker, Reichenbach and Jacopetti. The world famous Polish Film School­ the Lodz Film, Television and Drama College—celebrated its 50th anniversary with an evening's screening of thesis films by former students. Across the street from the Kijow Cinema, a small film fair was taking place throughout the Festival. And to signal the cultural importance of the short film within Poland, Prof. Marek Hendrykowski's The Art of the Short Film was published in a Polish/English edition to coincide with the Festival.

In addition to the individual juries for the international and national competitions, there were prizes from the International FIPRESCI film critics and the International FICC federation of film clubs.

For the international competition, 58 films were selected from the 676 entries. Poland, Germany, the U.K. and Russia offered the most competitors. In the national competition, there were 28 films selected. Only a few of these can be mentioned here.

In both competitions, there were several themes, most of these from the social changes occurring throughout Eastern Europe and Russia—no longer communist, but not yet fully or willingly capitalist; the toll this transition is taking, especially upon children and the poor; and interpretations of selected traumas from the past and the present.

The Parade Step (Krok, Poland, 28 min., 1997), directed by veteran Polish documentarist Marek Piwowski, is a fictional take on a cultural dilemma in a delightful and absurd way: as the Polish military anxiously prepares for membership in NATO, it learns that the parade step used by its marching soldiers is not acceptable to NATO authorities! There are a series of suggestions, both hilarious and poignant, to "bring Poland into step" with Western Europe. Here is an extremely clever faux-documentary about a country on the threshold of cultural transition, confronting its own integrity and identity.

Krok was awarded a Bronze Dragon ("The Special Prize"), an honor it shared with Turn Me Into a Long Snake (Zamień mnie w długiego węża, Poland, 29 min., 1997), a documentary directed by Maria Zmarz—Koczanovicz and Michal' Arabudzki. The title refers to one young girl's poignant fantasy about the way she can return to her mother in Romania, after a life of begging with other, often abandoned, children in Warsaw. A heart-tugging portrayal of the apparently worsening gap between the have's and have—not's in Eastern Europe, this film found some echoes in But That Was Me (To Jednak Bylam Ja, Poland, 22 min., 1997), directed by Hanna Kramarczuk. Here a homeless woman, after finding friendship and sym­pathy among her compatriots on the streets, escapes poverty by becoming a nurse. There are further echoe in the National Festival's Bezprizarni (Poland, 55 min., 1997), directed by Natalia Koryncka-Gruz, in which none of the hundred thousand abandoned Russian children ("bezprizoni") living in St. Petersburg's underground tunnels is given much hope of seeing adulthood—the scene of children sniffing glue to over­ come their fear of rats in the tunnels is a horrifying metaphor of the more general trap in which they live.

This sense of trapped children was also seen in the winner of the Golden Dragon ("The Grand Prix") in the International Festival: Sinner (Griesznyj Czielowiek, Russia, 28 min., 1997), directed by Yiktor Afanasievicz Serow. In Russia, boys under the age of ten from orphanages are sent to military cadet schools where their young souls and any sense of individual worth are stripped away. "I am a sinner," one boy tells his superiors after an innocent infraction: it rends the heart to hear him say so.

The National Festival's Golden Hobby Horse of Kraków ("The Grand Prix") went to Arizona (Poland, 46 min., 1997), directed by Ewa Borzecka. Again the gap between the have's and have not's, this time from the perspective of families left to fend for them selves, former employees of a defunct, thoroughly stripped collective farm. (One family eats its only pig before it can be stolen.) A kind of slowmotion warfare is fought between old communists and those pseudo-believers in a capitalist future (which is nowhere to be seen), all of this in endless drunken ness, the result of a commu­nal love affair with a cheap wine carrying the film's title—of course, there's also an ironic association with the Arizona in the U .S., at least one version of capitalist paradise, referred in song as a place where "the sky is always blue, there are flowers in the summer, and it's a life fit for a king."

A more visually lyric—less traumatic­—image of Polish farm life is Silence (Cisza, Poland, 13 min., 1997), directed by Malgorzata Szumovska, a 4th-year student at the Łódź Film, Television and Theatre School. One long take of a young girl falling asleep in an unstable sitting position on a bed, during a languid summer afternoon—so simple, so undramatic and so universally resonant­ exemplifies the filmmaker's humane and keen eye for quiet observation.

Three documentaries represented adroit handling of collective traumas from the past. The Architect (Great Britain, 27 min. 1997), directed by Luke Watson, attempts a fictionalized psychological analysis of the Nazi icon Albert Speer through abstracted actions—e.g., Speer laying a string fence along his prison's walking ground, and taking an ironic "long­ distance" walk there while remaining incapable of taking even a small step toward acknowledging the crimes for which he is imprisoned.

In Amateur Photographer (Fotoamator, Poland, 56 min., 1998), director Oariusz Jablonski moves between recently discov­ered colored slides of the Jewish ghetto in Łódź (shot by the Nazi's chief accountant there) and the present-day city, as a way of discovering the truth of the deadly past and its traces to the present. Echoes of both the Canadian Film Board's City of Gold and Resnais's Night and Fog move through this poignant chronicle of eventual genocide.

Great Leaders (Woidy, Russian, 38 min., 1997), directed by Galina Jevtuszenko, takes an imaginative approach in analyzing the meaning of Lenin himself for most Russians: the director asked several actors who portrayed Lenin in Soviet films to say what he meant and means to them. In this process, the ambiguities of Soviet history, of filmed history, and of acting the life of the "Father" of the Revolution are given rich and thought—provoking nuances. Especially effective is her "psychoanalytic" tactic of placing the actors in the former venues where Lenin worked and lived, where the actors fluctuate between becoming Lenin and being themselves.

Trauma on an individual scale, and its role in forming or deforming a man's character and destiny, is the focus of King of Les Ecrehous (Great Britain , 25 min., 1997), directed by Saskia Wilson. The eccentricity of an aging man is seen in his response to an earlier charge of sexual assault and rape which he did not commit. Vindicated after a self-imposed and solitary 14-year exile on a small, treeless island, Alphonse Le Gastelois embodies not only the irrepressible drive for personal integrity and dignity but also the price for our values in less than favorable conditions.

By and large, the merits of the live­ action fiction films lagged well behind those of their documentary and animation competitors. There were happy exceptions, among which The Book Junkie (Asino Chi Legge, Italy, 23 min., 1997) was the most delightful. Director Pietro Reggiani's mock-documentary about a man addicted to the apparently corrupt act of reading dishes up a wacky plate indeed, e.g., dogs trained to sniff out the cellulose of hidden books, an "AA" for bookaholics, an attempt to cure addicts by confining their reading to Hungarian comic books, and death by overdose (from reading Proust!).

In an entirely different register, The Shower (Hamiklajat, Israel, 35 mins., 1997), directed by Jorge Gurvich, imagines with relative unsentimentality the dynamics between an aging father and his adult son. Scenes such as the one in which the son displays his ambiva­lence toward his naked father's request for helpin taking a shower, move the story in a very human way into territory commercial narrative films seldom traverse.

Photographer (Fotograf, Russian , 10 min., 1997), directed by Aleksandr Kott, narrates the gem-like story of an old photographer's last day of work with beguiling simplicity and grace. The International jury gave the film a special award, the "Professor Bronistaw Chromy Award."

Another three films exhibited individuating cinematic merits. The Long Journey (Dotgoje Putieszestwie, Russia, 20 min., 1996), directed by Andriej Krzanowski, animates the world and the people from the drawings of Federico Fellini while whimsically placing the Maestro into two conflicts: moving toward and from his wife, actress Giulietta Masina, and a struggle between socialist realism and "following the scent of your desires." The film 's narrative rhythm is set by the movement to and from Giulietta. The stylistic struggle allows "Fellini's ship of desires" to confront victoriously the Soviet Bauleship Potemkin—and then "sail on." Along the way appear animated citations to Fellini's major films. Celebrated by this film is the bounty of that unfettered imagination anathematized by socialist realism and contemporary forms of political correctness.

The Silver Dragon ("The Main Prize") was awarded to Flatworld (Great Britain, 30 min., 1997), the Festival's most outstanding anima­tion. Daniel Greaves, the director, mixes computer-generated imagery with traditional animation techniques such as pixilation, to create an utterly cinematic and "post-modern" space-time, of varying dimensions and virtuality. The story narrates the adventures of a man, his always-hungry cat and his malicious pet fish, moving alternatively from "reality" into television's virtual space-times. Homages to slapstick, Keaton, Chaplin—also Sergio Leone­ are rendered with today's image­ making technology, and the visual riffing and gags move the viewer through the film with laughter and surprised delight.

Finally, there was the chilling and riveting Kisangani Diary (France-Austria, 43 min., 1998), director Hubert Sauper's journey into a genocidal hell in Zaire. It reminded me of that func­tion cited by film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, what he called "Athena's Shield"—film's capacity to allow us a mediated view of horror that would otherwise freeze us into terror and despair. Sauper's claim that his film crew was the first to enter this militarily­ forbidden and geographically-isolated area, where Zairnan rebel soldiers were apparently-massacring both Hutu and Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, offers an aura of danger, the sense that with no warning, one is about to confront the unspeakable. And we do. The film's fragmentary, diaristic form—judged by some to be artless—is an appropriate structure for registering the filmmakers' incapacity to comprehend such shattering horrors. The film was awarded an honorary diploma by the FICC jury.

Kraków is an increasingly popular tourist destination—those planning to attend the Short Film Festivals are cautioned to make early plans. This will especially be the case in the year 2000, when Kraków shares with Prague the prestigious accolade of "European Cities of Culture"; the Film Festival 's leaders fully intend to make film culture part of that celebratory year.

DON FREDERICKSEN has taught film at Cornell University since 1971, with a special interest in the documentary film. He served on this year's jury for Kraków's International Short Film Festival.