Polish Cinema For Beginners: Journalist Adam Kruk On Culture & Social Change


A scene from Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds

Just a few hours drive from Krakow sits an idyllic city dating back to the 10th century. With its rich mix of natives, students and expats from all over the world and global companies like IBM, Volvo and Google, Wrocław (Vrohts-wav) is less well-known than the tourist-laden capital of Poland, but its flourishing arts scene has nonetheless positioned the country’s fourth largest city as the European Cultural Capital of 2016. 

Engaging in Polish culture wasn’t always possible for non-Polish speakers. Four years ago, there was a big void for the foreigners already trickling into Wrocław when Adam Kruk and Lech Moliński enthusiastically put together the idea for what would become the popular film series Polish Cinema for Beginners. Showcasing important works, some of which were previously unavailable with English subtitles, each screening includes an introduction followed by a discussion led by guest speakers.

The films, selected by Adam, who serves as host and events programmer, are theme-oriented and chosen for their socio-historical context. The current program, Polish Beats, focuses on music in film, and includes Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (2015), an erotic, blood-thirsty musical about two mermaids caught in a love triangle, and Leszek Dawid's You are God (2012), a documentary on one of Poland's pioneer hip-hop collectives.

The idea for the program evolved out of a simple desire for inclusion, a situation Adam, a journalist and film critic, understands well from his own experiences as a student living in Italy. His time abroad taught him what it was like to be an outsider, while also forcing him to find ways to participate in the culture. There were no events to help newcomers integrate easily in Wrocław, so he and his friends decided to create one. “While it was possible to see Hollywood movies with Polish subtitles,” Adam explains, “Polish movies had no English subtitles. No one thought of making Polish culture accessible for non-Polish speakers. We wanted to change it.”

Adam Kruk with director Agnieszka Holland

Polish filmmaking dates back to the late 19th century, and its illustrious history has influenced luminaries like Martin Scorsese. Since its first season in 2012, which included screenings of Roman Polański’s Knife in the Water (1961), Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential killing (2010), Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał (1956) and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Love (1991), Polish Cinema for Beginners has grown in size and scope, attracting esteemed filmmakers Wiesław Saniewski (Custody, 1983), Kazimierz Kutz (Nobody’s Calling, 1960) and Polish New Wave auteur Agnieszka Holland (director of 1990's Europa, Europa and 1995's Total Eclipse, starring Leo DiCaprio as Arthur Rimbaud).

Adam describes Holland, who presented her film In Darkness (2011) last year, as the consummate entertainer. “It’s a Holocaust movie full of sex, and one person said, ‘It was the first Holocaust movie I saw that was so... hot... and so full of sexual energy.’ Agnieszka replied, ‘During the war, people always fucked. It was instinct.’ She has this energy to entertain people and to be very open. She also talked about the political situation in Poland because she’s quite involved in it. She was back from the States, where she had been shooting some episodes of House of Cards. She said, ‘I’m not going to do it anymore. Everyone is so professional. Everything is so set up. I don’t feel like I’m needed there. It’s too easy for me.’”

Polish Cinema for Beginners is not just about films. “We are trying to show valuable movies that are talking about difficult things in our history and present day.” Part of the purpose of the series is “to open ourselves to dialogue and conversations with people from different countries, different cultures, religions and backgrounds.” One notable lecture was given by Reverend Marek Lis, an author and professor of Theology, at the screening of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991).

At a recent screening of Polish Cinema for Beginners

“It was risky. The reverend wrote a book on Kieślowski, who was very deep in Christian culture, but at the same time critical of the Catholic Church. An outsider, he never considered himself a real Catholic, a real communist, or really part of the solidarity movement so he was always really critical about any institution. Then you have a member of the institution [Rev. Marek] who is not speaking as a member of the institution, but as a big admirer, a humanist and an expert on Kieślowski. He welcomed the audience in five different languages. It was great.” 

Polish Cinema for Beginners has gained popularity among Poles and international audiences alike, inspiring similar projects in Warsaw, for example. “I don’t mind people taking this idea and making it grow in different environments. Just a week ago, I got an email from a girl living in Szczecin, wanting a program like Polish Cinema for Beginners there, so I gave her tips on how to organize and get funds. I would love to see these projects grow, not just in big cities but in tiny ones. It would be great. It’s happening with Polish theatre and culture in general. It’s becoming accessible.” Adam feels that the arts “should connect people of different cultures, not divide them. That’s the idea.”

What’s really cool about the series is that even though the topic is Polish cinema, audience members have pointed out the similarities in films from their own countries. The power of storytelling lies in its ability to reflect universal truths that connect people regardless of where they come from. Does Polish Cinema for Beginners hold within it a greater mission, a social movement? “I would love it to work like that,” says Adam. “I never wanted it to be about showing how great we Poles are in Wrocław or whatever. I think in today’s Europe this is very important. We have a lot of newcomers, refugees and people who are searching for shelter. It’s important to include them in the culture and not be afraid of the ones who are new. It’s about social change and opening people up. I hope so.”

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