What to watch at Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2023

Confident new work by debuting directors and a comprehensive Jerzy Skolimowski retrospective are among the highlights of this year’s programme. 

Fucking Bornholm (2022)

The 21st edition of Kinoteka Polish Film Festival takes place across various venues between 9 March and 27 April this year, offering British viewers the opportunity to see Polish classics, rarities and a selection of new features. This year’s screenings are supplemented by a carefully curated programme of intros, Q&As and workshops, as well as a showcase of innovative XR works, culminating in an immersive closing gala event based around Feliks Falk’s 1978 film Top Dog. 

Given the generally poor UK distribution of Polish cinema these days, Kinoteka’s showcasing of new productions remains especially welcome. Several films that have already benefited from exposure at international festivals are among the highlights of this year’s event, here receiving their British premieres. 

The opening night gala film, Damian Kocur’s Bread and Salt, was the winner of the special jury prize in Venice’s Orrizonti competition. Based on real events, Kocur’s debut feature follows the return of a young student pianist, Tymek (Tymoteusz Bies), from Warsaw to his hometown for the holidays. There he falls back, somewhat uneasily, into his peer group, observing the interactions of his friends with the Arab owners of the town’s new kebab joint, which gradually spiral into destructive tensions.

Shot mainly in a coolly observational style that’s reminiscent of Michael Haneke (a scene of racist harassment on a night bus suggests a direct homage to the famed subway sequence in Code Unknown), Bread and Salt is a remarkably confident first feature. Though the film would be richer with further development of its migrant characters, Kocur proves extremely skilful in indicating the shifts in Tymek’s perceptions of his peers, which are complicated by his position as both insider and outsider, and by repressed queer desire. 

Bread and Salt (2022)

Counterpointing Bread and Salt’s perceptive portrait of Polish youth, Anna Jadowska’s Woman on the Roof offers an absorbing account of an older woman’s travails. Dorota Pomykała plays Mira, a midwife whom we meet shortly before she undertakes a botched bank robbery. Gradually revealing the life of quiet desperation that led to that out-of-character act, the film moves Mira through various social spaces, towards liberation of a kind. The journey is enhanced by Pomykała’s superb performance, which won the best actress prizes at Tribeca and Gdynia.  

Jadowska’s drama leads a hearteningly strong showing of new work by female filmmakers across this year’s festival. These include Marta Minorowicz’s chilly, compelling Illusion, in which Agata Buzek plays a mother attempting to track down her missing daughter; Anna Maliszewska’s Dad, a spirited father/daughter road movie made particularly poignant by its focus on a journey from Poland to Ukraine; and Beata Dzianowska’s Shreds, which brings a distinctive intimacy to its portrayal of a family dealing with a grandfather’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Meanwhile, echoes of Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) and Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014) are evident in Anna Kazejak’s whipsmart, Karlovy Vary-honoured Fucking Bornholm, in which relationships unravel on a vacation. 

The work of female forebears is spotlighted in a rare showcasing of the short films of the late avant-garde feminist artist Natalia LL at Whitechapel Gallery, while, at the Barbican, two fine adaptations by Agnieszka Holland will be screened: her evergreen take on The Secret Garden (1993), and Spoor (2017), her Silver Bear-winning film of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. Spoor can be fruitfully compared with Complicité’s new theatrical adaptation of Tokarczuk’s text, which is currently being performed on the main Barbican stage. 

This year’s documentary strand is modest but worthwhile, and retains the humanist focus of the fiction features. A festival favourite since its premiere at CPH:DOX, Łukasz Kowalski’s The Pawnshop focuses on a flamboyant elderly couple who run Poland’s largest pawnshop, while life, theatre and cinema are arrestingly fused in Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski’s The Hamlet Syndrome, which highlights the work of director Roza Sarkisian, who brought together young Ukrainian actors affected by war in Donbas. 

Barrier (1966)

Finally, Outsiders and Exiles, a timely Jerzy Skolimowski retrospective curated by Michael Brooke, showcases the idiosyncrasies of the veteran director’s output, and the provocative, often playful drive to experiment that connects his diverse filmography.

The retrospective ranges from Skolimowski’s debut Identification Marks: None (1964) and other key Polish works, including Barrier (1966) and Hands Up! (1967), through the films he made in exile in England, The Shout (1978) and Moonlighting (1982), his return to Poland with Four Nights with Anna (2008), Essential Killing (2010) and the supreme city symphony 11 Minutes (2015), up to his Cannes-honoured, Oscar-nominated latest, EO (2022), a by turns trippy, tough and tender donkey’s eye-view of contemporary Europe. 

On 28 March, BFI Southbank hosts Skolimowski in conversation with Brooke – an opportunity to see the ever-eloquent, witty filmmaker interviewed by an exceptionally well-informed interlocutor.

The 21st Kinoteka Polish Film Festival runs from 9 March to 27 April 2023.

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