What to watch at Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2024

An animated period epic and an urgent refugee crisis drama bookend this year’s vibrant celebration of Polish cinema.

29 February 2024

By Alex Ramon

Scarborn (2023)

On stage to collect a lifetime achievement award at the Polish Film Festival (FPFF) in Gdynia in September 2021, Agnieszka Holland took the opportunity to highlight the dire situation at the Poland-Belarus border. Refugees fleeing war zones, lured by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s ruse of easy passage into the EU, were being forced back and forth between Poland and Belarus, trying to survive in the Białowieża Forest.

Holland’s concern went far beyond a comment in her speech. Two years on, she completed a major film on the crisis: Green Border, which premiered at Venice last year and now opens the 22nd Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London.

Holland’s film quickly became contentious in Poland, though its condemnation by the government perhaps helped turn it into a huge box office hit. And deservedly so: shot in atmospheric black and white by Tomasz Naumiuk, the film conveys with visceral immediacy the ordeal of the asylum seekers (Behi Djanati Atai is particularly moving as the teacher Leila, who recalls her brother fighting alongside Polish troops in Afghanistan). Later sections broadening out to encompass various Polish perspectives are less consistently assured, but Green Border remains an essential piece of work, and an exceptionally powerful opening to Kinoteka 2024.

Green Border (2023)

Closing this year’s festival is another recent high profile Polish release. The Peasants finds DK and Hugh Welchman applying the same painstaking process of hand-drawn animation to live action footage used in their Loving Vincent (2017) to an adaptation of Władysław Reymont’s epic novel of 19th century village life. Among the strongest elements of the film is its exhilarating score, and the festival screening at BFI IMAX will be accompanied by live music from rapper and composer Łukasz Rostkowski (aka L.U.C.).

The Peasants (2023)

Winner of the top prize at FPFF, Paweł Maślona’s Scarborn also seeks to bring freshness to Polish historical drama, adding some contemporary edge to its account of the return to Poland from the American War of Independence of General Tadeusz Kościuszko. With the freed slave Domingo, Kościuszko is intent on mobilising the Polish peasantry and gentry against their Russian invaders.

Compared – rather superficially – to the Tarantino of Django Unchained (2012), Scarborn is bold in drawing parallels between the experiences of African slaves and Polish peasants, and incorporates some Shakespearean elements too. With Jacek Braciak’s Kościuszko’s deliberately muted presence, the film’s greatest pleasures in terms of performance come from the juicy work of its supporting cast: Robert Więckiewicz as the Russian cavalry captain; Jason Mitchell as Domingo; and a barnstorming Piotr Pacek as a sadistic sibling.

Other highlights of the New Polish Cinema section include Woman Of…, which finds Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert reteaming on an ambitious, decades-spanning portrait of a transwoman, Aniela (excellent Malgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik), in the context of Poland’s political transition.

Adrian Apanel’s Horror Story, an unpredictable black comedy of Gen Z job-seeking and cohabitation woes, raises some big laughs as it puts its protagonist (Jakub Zając) through an ever-escalating series of humiliations. A male character in flight is at the centre of Klaudiusz Chrostowski’s intimate drama Ultima Thule, with Jakub Gierszał’s Bartek escaping to the isolated Shetland island of Foula. Chrostowski’s confident debut feature is quietly restorative, and, incidentally, a great contemporary companion piece to Michael Powell’s Foula-filmed The Edge of the World (1937).

Gierszał also stars in Jan Holoubek’s stylish spy drama Doppelganger, which parallels the experiences of two protagonists on either side of the Iron Curtain, unknown to each other yet closely linked.

Family audiences are catered for at the festival with Magdalena Nieć’s The Dog Who Travelled by Train, a sweet updating of Roman Pisarski’s much-loved 1967 children’s book, while the Cinema Classics selection includes screenings of Michał Waszyński’s The Great Way (1946), Walerian Borowczyk’s The Story of Sin (1975) and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979).

The Dog Who Travelled by Train (2023)

Documentaries and shorts also remain an important part of the programme. Maciek Hamela’s acclaimed In the Rearview is set almost entirely in the filmmaker’s minibus as he helps take Ukrainians to safety following the Russian invasion of 2022 and gives them space to tell their stories. Vita Maria Drygas’s Danger Zone intelligently spotlights the bizarre phenomenon of ‘war zone tourism,’ which offers visits to the frontlines of conflicts.

Screening on International Women’s Day, A Short Story of Women comprises nine short films made by female animators, while Rave: Recharge combines a shorts programme exploring links between 1990s Polish rave culture and contemporary art with a late-night house and techno party at the Southbank Centre. Such events, along with filmmaker Q&As at many screenings and a dynamic programme of VR, AR and AI works, enhance another vital edition of Kinoteka, which once again honours Polish cinema’s past and celebrates its sometimes undersung present.

Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2024 runs from 6 to 28 March across venues in London.