Pole position

After years of dormancy, a much-needed funding scheme and a new generation of filmmakers are revitalizing the Polish production sector.

For the first time in years, Polish filmmakers are beginning to look beyond their borders for inspiration. After years during which locally produced cinema focused almost exclusively on uniquely Polish themes and subject matter, a number of up-and-coming filmmakers are challenging the status quo with ambitious projects that can be enjoyed without a comprehensive understanding of Polish history or culture.

This year, for the first time in a decade, not one but two Polish features -- both debuts -- were official selections at the Festival de Cannes. Slawomir Fabicki's "Z odzysku" (Retrieval) -- Poland's official foreign-language feature submission for this year's Academy Awards -- and Adam Guzinski's "Chlopiec na galopujacym koniu" (The Boy on a Galloping Horse) were both warmly received by international cineastes. Since May, Piotr Uklanski's "Summer Love" and Grzegorz Lewandowski's "Hyena" both played at the Venice Film Festival, and "Retrieval" and Konrad Niewolski's "Palimpsest" screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Lukasz Karwowski's "Poludnie-polnoc" (South by North) played at South Korea's Pusan International Film Festival, suggesting that Poland's revitalized presence on the world stage is more than an isolated phenomenon.

As Toronto fest director and CEO Piers Handling noted in the catalog entry for "Palimpsest," "Polish cinema is slowly showing signs of reawakening after nearly 15 years of neglect and underfinancing. The rebirth is appropriate and eagerly awaited, for Poland has boasted one of the strongest national cinemas of the post-(World War II) world, producing many brilliant filmmakers and technicians."

It might be too early to make firm predictions, but the adoption of a new film law and the launch of a new Polish Film Institute late last year -- partially funded by a controversial 1.5% levy imposed on TV, cinema and telecom operators -- are poised to change the face the Polish film industry, where funding constraints have forced many producers into years of doldrums.

"We've been functioning for nearly a year now and have awarded grants averaging PLN 500,000 ($167,514) to 165 films, including 38 features, of which 19 are international co-productions," the institute's director Agnieszka Odorowicz says.

Foreign co-productions that have received institutional financing include Czech director Petr Zelenka's "The Brothers Karamazov," Peter Greenaway's "Nightwatching" and Ken Loach's "These Times."

Additionally, veteran Polish helmer Andrzej Wajda's historical drama "Post mortem -- opowiesc katnyksa" (Post Mortem -- The Katyn Story), about the Soviet massacre of the cream of the Polish officer corps at a forest near the Polish town of Katyn during World War II, was given nearly PLN 2 million ($670,115) toward its PLN 6 million ($2 million) budget as a "film considered of national importance," according to Odorowicz.

Although the institute, which has an annual budget of PLN 25 million ($8.4 million), is not designed to replace the role of private financing in Polish film production, it is evident that grants made this year already are serving as a boon to the local industry.

"We are becoming the basis for the film industry," Odorowicz says. "Of course, it is a process, and the concrete results will not be seen for another year, but today, we can see that the (new film) law and institute are really needed and are successful."

"The system for accessing money for your film has changed, and already it is clear there is more money available for making films in Poland," adds Ewa Puszczynska, head of development at Lodz- and Warsaw-based Opus Film, which produced "Retrieval" and "Boy on a Galloping Horse."

But with a cap of PLN 1 million ($335,077) in funding available from the film institute -- which by law cannot provide more than half of a movie's budget -- securing financing remains a sizable challenge.

"Private equity has not yet appeared in the Polish film market, and even with access to European funds such as the (Media Plus Program of the European Union), money often does not physically arrive in our bank accounts until after a film is made," Puszcyznska says.

Still, the availability of new and increased sources of seed money and the emergence of a new generation of young directors are encouraging signs. One current project, "Mr. Kuka's Lessons," directed by Dariusz Gajewski -- whose second feature, the 2003 production "Warszawa," was the controversial winner of Poland's Gdynia Film Festival in 2003 -- is a comedy co-produced with Austria that takes an irreverent look at Eastern and Western stereotypes.

But Puszcyznska is concerned that increased funding could swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, luring filmmakers into producing Hollywood-style fare that abandons a national identity.

"I do hope that Poland will go its own way and not try to copy big American movies, for which we don't have the money," she says. "We need to find the balance between art cinema and films that will be accepted by Polish audiences."

Dariusz Jablonski, founder of Warsaw's Apple Film Production, is another producer who is cautiously optimistic about Poland's prospects for returning to the attention of the international film community. Like many producers during the lean funding years of the past decade or so, Jablonski worked in television, making successful dramas like pubcaster TVP's gritty homicide cop drama "Glina." He believes that the film institute's new money will help increase the annual volume of Polish features distributed in that country from its current number, about 18, to 25 or 28 next year.

But the real challenge, he says, is to find ways to increase feature-film funding from its current average of PLN 700,000 ($234,541) per production -- a sum he believes condemns most Polish features to the cost-cutting world of light shooting schedules and low-quality sets.

"Increased funding availability means there will be more films, but they won't be big films," he says. "Television is putting less money into film, and although it is possible to gain half your budget from the film institute, it is still difficult to find the other half."

Jablonski's directorial debut, "Galician Tales," was completed as a co-production with Slovakia that used funding from both the film institute and Eurimages (the Council of Europe's fund for the co-production, distribution and exhibition of European cinematographic works) for its PLN 1.3 million ($435,769) budget.

"Only such budgets allow producers to use good actors and equipment," he says.

Odorowicz adds that she is aware of the difficulties facing producers but says the film institute's strategy this year has been to fund a wide range of projects to determine what the market is prepared to support. If necessary, funding priorities could change next year.

"In the future, we may make higher grants to fewer projects, but for now, we must check how many of the projects we funded manage to find the other half of their budget," she says.

Whatever obstacles Polish filmmakers confront in getting their projects made, there are signs that Poland is returning to the cinematic world stage, even if some in its filmmaking community think it premature to trumpet the country's creative renaissance too loudly.

Warsaw International Film Festival director Stefan Laudyn agrees that Polish filmmaking has raised its profile over the last year, but he expresses doubts about a long-lasting recovery.

"Polish cinema disappeared from the international market a decade ago -- with Krzysztof Kieslowski's death," he says. "Some name 2006 the year of Poland's triumphal return. To be honest, I doubt it."