New institute highlights Polish cinema surge

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Prospects for Polish cinema are looking brighter as a new national film institute with an annual production support budget of $23 million (€17 million) begins to have an impact two years after its launch.

Approved by a hard-won parliamentary vote in May 2005 following strong opposition from commercial television and the advertising industry -- who pay for much of its budget through a special levy -- the Polish Film Institute launched that September and began channeling grants worth up to $1.35 million per project early last year.

After a rocky period when moviegoing slumped across the board, Polish film production figures clearly reflect the institute's impact: national boxoffice in 2004 totaled $127 million for 207 releases, 12 of them domestic productions. In 2005, grosses slumped to $103 million despite a rise in releases to 224 that included 24 Polish films. Last year, the industry rebounded with $153 million from 248 releases, including 26 Polish films.

The nation's resurgence will be celebrated May 22 with a Polish Day as part of the World Cinema sidebar that will allow visitors a chance to see the latest in Polish film.

Agnieszka Odorowicz, the former deputy culture minister who pushed the film institute law through parliament before being appointed its first head, does not hesitate to take some of the credit.

"The film industry situation in Poland was unsteady and production of Polish films not big," he says. "This changed a lot immediately following the first year of the institute's activity. The difference is easily seen in the popularity of Polish films with audiences: One Polish film made it into the top 10 boxoffice hits in 2004, none the next year and only two in 2006. So far this year all top four spots are taken by Polish films."

The current top film, "Testosteron," directed by Andrzej Saramonowicz and Tomasz Konecki, took in $1.6 million within six weeks of its release in early March. It's a wickedly funny comedy of manners revolving around a bride abandoned at her wedding that stars seven top Polish screen actors.

Compared with 2006 overall charts -- when 20th Century Fox global hit "Ice Age: The Meltdown" topped out with $9.1 million, forcing Ryszard Zatorski's romantic comedy "Just Love Me" into second place with $8.2 million -- it is clear that domestic movies in Poland are off to a good start in 2007.

"This year, with a production support budget of about €16.8 million ($22.7 million) we're looking forward to seeing more Polish film in cinemas at home and abroad," Odorowicz says. "Last year the institute supported eight international co-productions including 'These Times' by Ken Loach and 'Night Watching' by Peter Greenaway. That may not sound impressive, but in the past Poland rarely made more than two co-productions a year."
 
Odorowicz adds that last year the institute helped organize more than 700 screenings of Polish films around the world, with local films winning 75 international awards.

One Polish film that is likely to cause a buzz at Cannes -- although not in competition or in any sidebar -- is legendary director Andrzej Wajda's latest work, "Katyn."

Perhaps the most personal film ever made by the 81-year-old director, "Katyn" (until a few weeks ago known by its working title, "Post Mortem") tells the story of the murder of the Polish officer corps by Stalin's NKVD secret police in the Katyn forest near Smolensk in the summer of 1940.

Wajda's film -- the first feature about a subject that remains largely unexplored in Poland -- is being shown to distributors at Cannes in special invitation-only screenings ahead of its September world premiere in Warsaw.

"Katyn is strongly rooted in the Polish conscience as a sin committed by Poland's western allies during World War II," Wajda said. "It is time that this conspiracy of silence is broken by my film."

For those unable to see his film at the closed industry-only screenings, fans of the director will get another chance when "Kanal," his 1957 classic film of the Warsaw uprising, is shown May 21 as part of the festival's 60th anniversary screenings of past festival winners.
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