Reel Life: Polish cinema wakes up to capitalism | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Reel Life: Polish cinema wakes up to capitalism

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"Under communism, filmmaking was kind of a dream," says Christopher Kamyszew. "No matter what you did, you were successful. If you were a party favorite, you had a number of prints of your films, you had almost unlimited money for promotion, entry to international film festivals. On the other hand, if you were in the opposition, you were a hero to society because of your political choices."

But like communism, the dream is over. Kamyszew founded the Polish Film Festival here in September 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and for nine years it's charted the slow awakening of the Polish filmmaking community as the state-supported movie industry collapsed and filmmakers made the uneasy transition to an open market. "Under the communists, the film producer or the studios got the money from the state or public television," Kamyszew says. "It was still kind of public money. Today when you get the money from the state and television, it's your money, you make decisions. Some of these producers have a profound misunderstanding of the Western market. They don't understand about the need for promoting films--making available English-subtitled prints, press information, videocassettes."

Kamyszew comes to the festival with a wide range of experience on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Poland, he began traveling from Warsaw to the United States after his parents divorced and his mother, a graduate of theater school, moved to Chicago. As a young man Kamyszew found theater work in London and Hollywood, then began to make a name for himself here as a director. His career was interrupted when he went back to Poland in 1983, after martial law had been imposed. He says he was arrested for "editing publications of my friends from the West, intellectuals and writers. I was pretty discouraged by what I saw in the underground movement." Because of his dual citizenship Kamyszew became a cause celebre on Voice of America, and he was released after serving six months in a Warsaw prison.

He returned to Chicago and served as director of the Polish Museum, a position he accepted with some skepticism. "I had quite negative attitudes to all Polish circles in the States," he says. "I associated them with polka and pierogi." The museum launched the film festival in collaboration with the School of the Art Institute, hoping to raise public awareness of Polish directors whose work wasn't distributed in America. "When we started there were only two directors who were really known here," he recalls, "Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda. During our screenings, there were premieres of films by Krzysztof Kieslowski--A Short Film About Killing, A Short Film About Love--before he was even recognized in the States." Drawing on Chicago's vast Polish community, the festival was an instant success: more than 30,000 attended, and Kamyszew estimates that since its inception the festival has brought in some 350 Polish films.

Those films show a Poland undergoing immense social and political upheaval, and a postwar cinema of moral anxiety struggling to adapt to a new cultural climate. Kieslowski is dead. Agnieszka Holland, who will accept a career achievement award this year, works in France and America; her most recent film adapts a Henry James novel, Washington Square. Jerzy Skolimowski (Barrier) has been inactive since 1993. Zanussi's last film, Our God's Brother, was in English. Kamyszew thinks the old lions of the Polish art cinema are having a tough time adjusting to the loss of their red nemesis. "When Wajda made a film, it used to be a national celebration," he points out. Yet Wajda's latest effort, Miss Nobody, was a flop in Poland. "He said it would probably be his last film. I think now Polish filmmakers are trying to find their new language. Not a language necessarily replete with metaphors and hidden codes."

The aesthetic dilemmas are also linked to the brave new world of capitalism. With the drop in state funding, international coproductions have become more common. Kieslowski, for one, found a way to circumvent the resulting difficulties--the loss of identity, the absence of roots--by weaving them into the fabric of his films. But most directors have had trouble just getting money. Hollywood movies have displaced the national cinema, and Poland is trying desperately to catch up. "The change of perspective of Polish filmmakers created a new admiration for Hollywood films," Kamyszew says, "and our films became replicas of Hollywood movies in Polish realities."

Five years ago Kamyszew and some associates reactivated an organization called the Society for Arts to help gain exposure for European artists, filmmakers, and photographers, and now the society orchestrates the Polish Film Festival. The organization has initiated a program with Columbia College that brings European filmmakers to Chicago (the first, last spring, was Polish director Feliks Falks), and it plans to sponsor scholarships for European students to study here. "We want people, especially Polish-Americans, to get out of their ghetto and participate," says Kamyszew. "We have an ambition to activate this community."

The Polish Film Festival begins Saturday at 6:45 PM at the Gateway Theatre of the Copernicus Foundation, 5216 W. Lawrence. The gala opening is $15; it features a concert by violinist Zbigniew Paleta and screenings of Piotr Kielar's Dad From America and Radoslaw Piwowarski's The Dark Side of Venus. Most of the other programs are $7. For more information, see the sidebar in Section Two or call 773-486-9612. --Patrick Z. McGavin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Christopher Kamyszew photo by JB Spector.

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