for this week’s TRIBUNE : report from the Wrocław Film Festival (‘Era New Horizons’), Poland

“I don’t like travelling much,” said Jean-Luc Godard in 2001. “It’s heavy going to arrive at the hotel and be obliged to sign the famous visitors’ guest book, to be given official receptions. There would have to be a clear objective.”
   Nine years later, the Swiss-French writer/director/provocateur hasn’t grown any fonder of leaving his home on Lake Geneva. Now nearly 80, he was a late no-show at Cannes in May where his latest, Film: Socialisme was unveiled to the predictable full spectrum of critical reactions.
   In a characteristically gnomic communiqué, Godard announced that “following Greek-type problems, I unfortunately cannot be at your disposal at Cannes.” And it was a similar story a couple of months later when Godard pulled out of the 10th ERA New Horizons International Film Festival (ENH) in Poland’s fourth-biggest city, Wrocław.
   Founded by influential producer/distributor Roman Gutek, ENH moved to Wrocław (from another city in the country’s south-west, Cieszyn) in 2006 – warmly welcomed by the city’s culture-friendly mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz, whose conurbation of 600,000 residents has been Poland’s most dynamic city since Soviet domination came to and end: it will host matches in the 2012 European Football Championships, and hopes to become 2016’s European Capital of Culture.

   The rise of ENH can only help in the latter regard. Since moving to Wrocław it’s steadily eclipsed the bigger, glitzier Warsaw event (which Gutek also helped to set up in the 1980s) in terms of international reputation. That’s partly because of its stated intention to showcase films of an edgier stripe – the sort associated more with the envelope-pushing festivals of Rotterdam, Vienna and Lisbon, for example, rather than the paparazzi-magnets of Berlin, Cannes and Venice (though numerous titles from each of the latter trio’s more adventurous fringes are included.)
   In addition, ENH – which attracts very healthy attendances, especially from the twentysomethings of this historic university city – also presents exhaustive retrospectives. This year there was a tribute to Wojciech Jerzy Has (1925-2000), part of that remarkable wave of post-war Polish talent that also included directors Polanski, Wajda, Skolimowski, Borowczyk, Holland, Żuławski and Borowczyk, plus a slew of outstanding cinematographers.
   But the massive centrepiece of the programme was the 92-film Godard extravaganza – features, shorts and video-works – from oft-screened favourites like Breathless (1960) and Alphaville (1965) to more seldom-shown, experimental material from more recent decades. While Godard was ubiquitous in the ENH programme, the fact that he wasn’t physically present somehow only added to his mystique. As Ralph Ellison famously says of a character in Invisible Man, “He was in our minds at all times – and that was power, of a kind.”
  I split my own schedule between old and new titles, and of the half-dozen Godards I tried, the only one I got much out of was 1960’s Little Soldier, a nippy, surprisingly topical thriller about terrorism in sleepy Switzerland starring Michel Subor (who’d make a spectacular comeback four decades later in Claire Denis’s The Intruder).
   Looking through the selections of newer material, I was heartened to spot several strong pictures which I’d already seen on my festival rounds, and have chronicled in these pages – unconventional documentaries such as Pietro Marcello’s The Mouth of the Wolf (from Berlin), Anna Sanmartí’s The Land Inhabited (Rotterdam) and Príncipe & Martins’ Traces of a Diary (Lisbon).
   In terms of new discoveries among the features, however, I could find only two worthy of such company. The latest from Hungary’s Kornél Mundruczó – a 35-year-old writer/director/actor who moves freely between cinema, TV and theatre – Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project is a loose updating of Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic to modern-day, snow-blanketed Budapest.

snow joke: Tender Son - The Frankenstein Project

   Instead of a science-fictional “monster,” the agent of terror is a hoodie-wearing teenager raised in an orphanage, seeking his birth-mother in a crumbling, condemned apartment-building where a director (Mundruczó himself) is holding auditions for his next movie. Though largely dismissed by critics when competing at Cannes, Tender Son turns out to be a bold, engrossingly sombre and visually striking re-engagement with Shelley (rather than previous big-screen adaptations which invariably take extreme liberties with her text), sensitively dramatising its tormented protagonist’s existential plight.
   Though he’s yet to have a feature released in the UK – the Frankenstein connection can only help in that regard – Mundruczó is well-established as a “name” on the international film scene, very much a darling of the Cannes programmers. My own, self-imposed “clear objective” in Wrocław was to unearth unknown talents, preferably of the home-grown variety. But negative word-of-mouth among international visitors regarding new Polish features – and my own experience of the deeply flawed Ewa by Adam Sikora (winner of the Best New Polish Film prize at ENH’s closing ceremony) – led me to concentrate on the shorts. Here I came across a trio of miniature gems – each of them, as it happened, documentaries on olde-worlde rural life in far-flung locales.
   Via Piotr Złotorowicz (Charcoal Burners, which does exactly what it says on the tin), Marta Minorowicz (bucolic grandfather-and-grandson two-hander Piece of July, a.k.a. Piece of Summer) and, in particular, Mateusz Skalski (The End of the World, a briskly economic snapshot of a hamlet in the grip of winter), it’s clear that the venerable tradition of Polish non-fiction – epitomised by Marcel Łoziński – remains encouragingly vibrant.  Each of this trio were born between 1979 and 1982, the period when the trade-union Solidarność (‘Solidarity’) under Lech Wałęsa was putting Poland very much in the international spotlight. Ditto Norman Leto, the multi-media artist born Łukasz Banach in 1980, and whose debut feature Sailor – world-premiering with minimal fanfare at ENH – turned out to be the festival’s most unexpected highlight.
    According to autodidact Leto, “the budget of this movie was below $5,000, spent straight from my pocket. It’s unbelieveable what you can do just with your desktop computer in our times.” Indeed so. The kind of defiantly uncommercial, conceptual bizarrerie that staid funding-bodies would surely have run a mile from, Sailor is a 100-minute experimental feature (there is a “plot” of sorts, though somewhat hidden) about an egotistical physics tutor, chiefly comprising three extended, illustrated lectures on various sociological, philosophical and anthropological issues. The result is a bit like Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation.), Stanislaw Lem (Solaris) and Michel Houellebecq (Atomised ) collaborating on an 1970s Open University spoof: a range of computer graphics – from the basic monochromes of the pre-Spectrum era to the more painterly abstractions of the present day – guide us through rather gracefully through our very unreliable narrator / protagonist’s spiky, brainiac preoccupations.
   By turns challenging, infuriating, stimulating and exasperating, Sailor – reportedly part of a wider project that will include an upcoming novel – is narrowly saved from pretentious self-indulgence by a streak of wicked humour (you’ll certainly never look at Geraldine Chaplin the same light again) and, if nothing else, deserves full marks for originality and chutzpah.
For reasons best known to themselves, the ENH organisers tucked it away in a relatively obscure sidebar of avant-garde material – when it really should really have been in the national (or perhaps even the international) competition. That incorrigible intellectual prankster and envelope-pusher Jean-Luc Godard surely would have loved it – if he’d turned up, that is…

Neil Young
1st August, 2010
written for the 11th August edition of Tribune magazine
[full list of films seen, with ratings]

further reading : JL’s exclusive interview with Sailor‘s Norman Leto