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Szolnok Conference 04: Trans-Europa Express
Screenwriting in Crisis: Myth or Truth?
By Mariola Wiktor

Poland joined the European Union (EU) without a new act on cinema and subsequently without a stable financing system. Only a new act will place Polish cinema on the media market, and make film production profitable in Poland. However, if Polish films are to be attractive again, appreciated and watched as much at home as by European and international audiences, it is not the cost of a film that we should be concerned about, but its sense. Meaningful cinema is born out of ideas, not out of money.

At the same time, although it may sound like a truism, there are no good films without good screenplays. With a good script one can make an excellent or an average film, with a poor script only a mediocre one. Hitchcock already said that the most important thing in a film is firstly the screenplay, secondly the screenplay and thirdly the screenplay.

In April, on the eve of our accession to the EU, a conference held in Poland, entitled "Screenwriting in the Polish Cinema — Expectations, Requirements, Sources of Financing", has caused an enormous stir within filmmakers' circles. Is it actually the case that there is a distinct lack of good screenplays on the Polish film market? Is the screenwriting crisis myth or truth? In Poland, the views on this topic have been, and still are, divided. The President of the Polish Filmmakers' Association, Jacek Bromski, says, when talking about screenwriting, we should first find answers to a few basic questions: What about? How? For whom? And from whose money?

What about?

One of the best-known Polish directors worldwide, Andrzej Wajda, tried to provide an answer to the question "What about?". He feels that prior to 1989, he and other contemporary authors, stood for the voice of a generation deprived of representatives — people who rebelled, who were outraged with government manipulations, people who fought the communist system. Filmmakers lived their lives, feeling responsible for the things happening around them. After 1989, people came to terms with the surrounding world. No one needs a film director defending people against the system and the past any longer. At the same time, everyone wants to be noticed and have his or her personal experiences told on the screen by a director. But Andrzej Wajda said publicly that he feels powerless facing the problems of today's reality. Wajda was criticised for creating myths, on the ground that people today no longer want to watch films about our history.

On the other hand, the initiator of the Polish conference, Feliks Falk, also a director, thinks that a market dominated by the pressure of box ratings does not encourage original writing. The majority of producers are afraid of interesting scripts, if their realisation is associated with a financial risk. In Falk's opinion, many Polish screenplays are blighted by their non-originality, superficiality and slackness. If a film based on such a script achieves commercial success, successive copies are produced.

According to Agnieszka Holland, a director working abroad now, a screenwriter in Poland is very lonesome nowadays, since there are no longer such places as the former film teams, where screenplays were discussed in a circle of more experienced filmmakers. Agnieszka Holland also appealed for the creation of film workshops in Poland, modelled on the Sundance Laboratory, where meetings between the authors of film projects, groups of consultants and experts could take place. The director stressed that it is not only Polish cinema that faces problems with screenwriting. In her opinion, those European films that enjoy international success at the moment, are simply. fairy tales.

European Fairy Tales

They are told in a very personal manner and with a certain cinematic talent, but they are fairy tales. As an example she quotes Talk To Her (Hable con ella) by Pedro Almodóvar, where the main character is a sort of 'Simple Simon' who in the end proves to be a much deeper and fairer person than the other characters. The same is the case with such films as Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet or The Man Without A Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä) by Aki Kaurismäki, where the hero has to loose his identity to be able to become "a good and positive character". The film Edi by Piotr Trzaskalski, one of the most successful films of the young Polish cinema, represents a similar style. Its hero is a scrap metal collector, a man at the margins of society, who in the end generates goodness and proves to be better than other people.

Ronald Harwood, the outstanding British scriptwriter and dramatist, Oscar winner for the screenplay of Roman Polanski's The Pianist and visitor of the Polish conference as well, thinks that Polish screenwriters have an exceptional opportunity to write about Poland. However, he did not see many Polish films that told him something about the struggle of the authors with present reality, something about their defeats, their victories.

The comments of young Polish filmmakers on the powerlessness of middle-aged and older directors, in the face of the present, are very interesting. Marcin Pieczonka, for example, feels that the mistake made by the older generation of colleagues, brought up in the communist era, is the fact that they still search for the old formula, the formula that was lost after 1989. The new world reality cannot be generalised. In 1989, after Poland regained its independence, someone asked Kieslowski: "What to do now?" And Kieslowski replied: "We should learn to polish our shoes now". But no one has heard that. However, we should polish our shoes until we can see our faces in them. Faces without the masks of historical necessities. According to Adrian Pank, another young filmmaker, a system that would describe today's world does not exist. There is no governing sense of righteousness and correctness. One cannot speak about common civilisation awareness, or common generation awareness, because it does not exist. There are only individual voices, speaking for various values.

Scripts Need More Support

In the view of Jacek Bromski, chairman of the Polish Association of Filmmakers, the reason for so very few films with personal statements being made in this soulless capitalist world, is the fact that most of the Polish screenplays are made on order. The public demands television soap operas, or something that has recently achieved success. In the present situation and with the absence of a cinema law, it is not possible for a person, trying to create a non-commercial, personal author's film, to secure any help from the State. The more ambitious Polish scripts need more concrete financing and stronger support from public television. Although, for many years now, Polish screenwriters and directors can use such EU funds as Media Plus or Eurimages, they cannot afford to make their own financial contributions, which is one of the conditions of these funds. That is why the creation of the Screenwriting Fund of Andrzej Munk, aimed at supporting new feature films and documentaries by supplying additional funds during work on a script, and help with finding means for its realisation, is such a valuable and needed initiative.

In my opinion, those young Polish filmmakers who make 'off' movies, or those who try to find their fulfilment in the independent cinema, are becoming much better at dealing with the difficult, capitalist market. Much, much better than their older, lost colleagues. The people who grew up before 1989 remind us somewhat of the directors of the "cinema of moral concern", opposing the governing ideology. Someone like Przemyslaw Wojcieszek, who wants to distribute his own films in order to control their reach. Or someone like Malgorzata Szumowska who is clearing the European paths and obtaining funds for her new project. Or Andrzej Jakimowski whose film Squint Your Eyes (Zmruz oczy) hit for a short period the top ten box office records and who talks about how much he has learnt about his audiences from the distributor, and how much it helps him to think about a next project.

Although they do not like to think of themselves as a generation, they are the generation of filmmakers that thinks about the Polish cinema without complexes. Films such as Changes by Lukasz Barczyk, Edi by Piotr Trzaskalski, Louder Than Bombs and Down Along Colourful Hill by Przemyslaw Wojecieszak, Double Portrait by Mariusz Front, Symmetry by Konrad Niewolski, or Touch Me by Anna Jodowska and Ewa Stankiewicz, are all very personal statements about the world. Their scripts are not based on imaginary but real life, and they are deeply experienced and thought about. They do not come from books, internet or television. A lot of these talented young filmmakers were educated at or are still students of the Polish National Film School in Lodz. In their films they talk about a bad, toxic family, about an attempt to find freedom, about a good and wise man pushed to the social margins, about the confrontation between parents of the communist generation and the children of the new, free Poland, and finally, about the opportunity to find internal freedom in this materialistic world. In times of erosion of moral values there is a cinema of capitalist disillusion in Poland. A cinema that searches for meaning. That is the beginning of the Polish European cinema.

Time For New Heroes

The Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski thinks that this disillusion would be a turning point for a new Polish cinema. However, this change and a new way of thinking will be really fresh and constructive only under one condition: when Polish filmmakers go far beyond traditional Polish complaints against tragic history, fate, policy, state structure, etcetera.

"The new hero" has appeared in two films I mentioned earlier on. In Edi by Piotr Trzaskalski and even more so in Squint Your Eyes by Andrzej Jakimowski. In both films Polish reality is also dark and unfamiliar, but something important has happened with its main characters. Edi and Jasiek, the main characters of these films, have their own, inner freedom. In some sense they are independent from society. We haven't got a lot of similar characters in Polish cinema, yet. It focused rather on lost, unsuccessful, tragic heroes. Never mind: rebels or conformists.

Jasiek from Squint Your Eyes, a former teacher who lives in a small village, out of civilization, watching for farmer stores, looks like a men from the margins of society. He will never be free from his limitations, but at the same time, these limitations will never dominate his life. Jasiek is far from being a successful man in the sense that he is earning a lot of money, or that he develops a professional career. However, he is a wise, intelligent and sensitive man, not lost in the end. In his reality, evil is still present and money rules the world, but disagreement is possible. His rebellion has nothing to do with a desperate and hopeless fight.

I truly expect to see more of such new characters and scripts in Polish cinema (like The Striped by Magdalena Piekorz, Nikifor by Krzysztof Krauze and The Tulips by Jacek Borcuch) after the latest edition of the Gdynia Polish Film Festival, which every year starts around mid September. I'm also strongly convinced that new Polish cinema will be attractive to European as well as international audiences. The general frequency of cinema going in Poland is on the increase: in the first six months of 2004 18.8 million spectators visited the cinema. As a comparison: in the first half of 2003 there were 12.3 million tickets sold. Among the five films that drew over one million spectators there was the Polish romantic comedy Never Again by Ryszard Zatarski, which sold 1.6 million tickets. Even if this growth in the cinema market and a positive trend have not always been associated with the Polish domestic productions or co-productions yet, it can be a good sign for the future.

Mariola Wiktor
© FIPRESCI 2004

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Szolnok 04

Hans-Günther Dicks
Danko Jesic
Angel Comas
Thomas Kurelec
Mariola Wiktor
Dana Duma
Daniela Bisogni
Tibor Hirsch
Balázs Varga