Iron Curtain Butterfly

. November 1, 2014.
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In the foreground: a battered, wooden, upside-down Christ sways back and forth in a ruined church. In the background: a young couple commiserates before, if you look closely, an emaciated white horse said to represent post-war Russian-occupied Poland. 

The brief clip from Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds kicks off the preview of a retrospective of Polish film sponsored by Martin Scorsese and playing at the Michigan Theater on Monday nights through December. The director of Raging Bull says that Polish movies taught him “not just how films are made but why.”

But Polish movies are hardly a mothball fleet; the country continues to produce some of the most powerful and iconoclastic films in contemporary cinema. Since 1994, the Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival has been giving locals and visitors a unique chance to see some of the nation’s best and bravest.

A2 Festival History

“Polish movies show relentless seeking of the truth,” says Festival President Danuta Podgorska, “There’s a streak of non-conformity and also a unique sense of humor. You don’t have that obstruction of glamour that you find in so many Hollywood movies.” She has been with the festival since 2005. What began as a showcase for four full-length features has expanded to include shorts, animation, and documentaries. “We offer the documentaries for free,” says Podgorska. “They deal with the issues that people are facing right now. You might see several on the same subject; what’s exciting is that all the points of view will be unique.” And she’s thrilled that the Festival has recently added a jury-awarded prize, named for the late documentarian Ewa Pieta. “Even to get a small cash award and to have been chosen as the top film in an American Film Festival can be huge to a struggling filmmaker.”

Pieta, who died of cancer at age 38, is a particularly inspired choice. As a special Festival guest in 2005, she presented her film Like a Butterfly. It tells of a child born quadriplegic who, after years unable to communicate, learned to communicate by blinking. The story may ring a bell with Cinetopia attendees; after seeing it, Polish director Maciej Pieprzyca created a feature version, Life Feels Good.

Other special guests have included the director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”) and legendary animator Zbigniew Rybczynski, whose Oscar winning short, Tango, begins with a static shot of a room that slowly fills with looped film of different people who enter the space, oblivious of all others. Kids play, a mom changes a diaper, a couple makes love, and a man falls off a table and yells in pain. Made in 1980, long before any type of digital technology and without using blue screen, the film continues to startle with its extraordinary technical prowess and cheeky silent commentary on modern life. (A local aside: Rybczynski hit it off so well with the volunteer chauffeur who picked him up from the Detroit airport that he married her.)

Legacy of Polish Film

Throughout history, Polish filmmakers have called the political landscape as they’ve seen it, even when their films could not be shown in their own country. This Festival showcases a number of artists who, despite crushing obstacles, continue to contribute deep films full of wit. Podgorska recalls Agnieszka Holland fielding the question, “Why do you keep making movies about the war?” with the answer, “Why do some directors keep making the same romantic comedy?” Statements and substance are what matters. “We’re not geared for profit,” says Podgorska. “We simply believe in the importance of getting these great films out there. We’d love to have as big of an audience as we can get so we can keep making the festival better.”

In a recent NPR interview, Scorsese referred to
“a strong tragic sense in Polish cinema…in balance with very, very strong strains of a spiritual resilience and also a dark comedy." The Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival provides a unique opportunity to dive into this vibrant artistic tradition.

November 7-9. 603 E Liberty St, Ann Arbor (734) 668-8463. Organized by the Polish Cultural Fund of Ann Arbor in cooperation with the Polish-American Congress Ann Arbor Chapter, the University of Michigan's Polish Club, and the University of Michigan.
Details—including showings at the Michigan Theater and a reception at Amadeus Restaurant—are available at
annarborpolonia.org/filmfestival