Polish Film Festival Begins with a Masterful Wałęsa Biopic
The formal opening of the 25th Polish Film Festival in America at the Muvico theater in Rosemont, Illinois, November 9, played to a packed house. Dignitaries, filmmakers, and sponsors from Chicagoland’s Polish community and from Poland lent an air of glamour to opening night, as movie fans eagerly awaited the screening of legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s Wałęsa. Man of Hope. The master himself was given the festivals “Wings” award for lifetime achievement in cinema, and he sent a video greeting that served as the perfect introduction to the film.
An Oscar winner and frequent nominee in the foreign language film category, 87-year-old Wajda said that his latest film completes a trilogy begun in 1977 with Man of Marble and continued in 1981 with Man of Iron. An unfiltered portrayal of Lech Wałęsa, the Polish shipyard worker whose leadership led to the fall of the Soviet Union, the two-hour film stars Robert Wieckiewicz, who transforms himself into a startlingly convincing representation of the leader of the Solidarity movement. Wajda masterfully mixes news footage from the period with the fictionalized version of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s life and times. This is a compelling film that neither idolizes nor demonizes Walesa, who ultimately became president of Poland but soon fell from grace. It is the story of a man who fulfilled his destiny and changed the world through determination and a gift for tough, direct speech.
The festival opening got off to a slow start and ran an hour and a half longer than scheduled, much to the dismay of many in the audience who were forced to sit through a series of drawn-out presentations, introductions, thank-yous, mini-histories, previews, advertisements, technical glitches, and a charming but unnecessary musical interlude by Alizma, singing and violin-playing triplets Aleksandra, Izabela, and Monika Okapiec, who brought their talent and loveliness from Poland to open the show.
Festival organizers did better when they stuck to the films, as they did before a packed house at Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque November 8 at a pre-opening night screening of two festival films, My Name Is Asia and The Fourth Partition. The short film My Name Is Asia is about an adorable Polish girl’s miserable first day in an American school at the hands of two bullying “mean girls.” Director Balbinka Korzeniowska said the film was based on her own experience as a young girl in Chicago. The documentary Fourth Partition used historical footage and excerpts from some 30 hours of interviews with historians to recreate Chicago during the great Polish migration, from the late 19th century to the end of World War I when Poles created new communities and new lives in their adopted land. Wisely, Polish-American director Adrian Prawica said the filmmakers decided to end the documentary with Poland becoming a free nation in 1918 after more than 100 years erased from the map of Europe. Getting into World War II, he said, would constitute a whole other film.
The Polish Film Festival in America, the largest Polish film festival in the world outside of Poland, continues through November 24 at three venues–Rosemont, Facets, and the Gallery Theater at the Society for Arts on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. Consult the PFFA website for details and a schedule of screenings.