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11th LA Polish Fest conects with Hollywood

by Alex Deleon

The Los Angeles film festival calendar is so crowded that three of them have currently been running in overlapping juxtaposition. The LA Indian film festival and the LA Polish film festival both started on the same day, April 20, but the Indian one only lasted six days leaving another six days to catch up with the second half of the Polish action. There is also an Asian festival going on simultaneously in Koreatown, but since it is physically impossible to be everywhere at once, let's just talk Polish today.

Vladek Juszkiewicz, festival founder and director, has, in one short decade, built this outsourced East European film event up from a niche curiosity into what is now possibly the highest profile foreign language film festival in the city of Angels -- which is to say Hollywood, film capitol of the world. For weeks leading up to the opening long banners suspended from lamp posts lining the road were to be seen on just about every major street on the west side of town, Beverley Hills, and certain suburbs, announcing the festival, while the screening venues are now strategically located at the Laemmle-5 complex on the Sunset Strip and the classic landmark EGYPTIAN Theater on the glitziest stretch of Hollywood Boulevard.

Exploiting the Hollywood connection with Polish film in recent years Pola Negi awards were presented to well known actors Ed Harris and Hugh Grant for their participation in Polish themed films: Grant for his portrayal of Chopin in the 1991 biopic "Impromptu", and Harris for his marvelous Beethoven resurrection in Polish director Agnieszka Holland's "Copying Beethoven", 2006. In addition a real surprise was the recruitment of legendary child star Margaret O'Brien to serve on the feature film jury. Ms. O'Brien, born in 1937, was one of the most highly regarded child actors in cinema history, notably during the war years from 1941 to 1945.
This incredibly precocious and talented moppet made her screen debut at age four in "Babes on Broadway" (1941) and was already a star at five in "Journey for Margaret" the very next year. One of her her memorable roles was "Meet Me in St. Louis" opposite Judy Garland at age seven. Her career fizzled when she hit puberty and she was written up in the book series "Whatever became of..." in 1968. Here four decades later she has been rediscovered, so to speak, by Mr. Juszkiewicz, at the sprighlty age of 73!
Pola Negi, incidentally, who was born in Poland became one of the biggest female stars and sex symbols of the silent era and was romantically linked with Valentino, but her career also fizzled when sound came in because of her heavy Polish accent.

As for the films screened, this years selection is a brilliant mix of old and new with a sparkling set of documentaries. The older films shown were three films centering on Chopin in commemoration of the centenary of the prodigious Polish composer's birth. "Impromptu", mentioned above, featured British star Hugh Grant in a role counter to his usual screen image in an English language version of the composer's life; a 2002 Polish version entitled "Pragnenie Milosc" (Thirst for love) centered on the intense rivalry between George Sand and her teenage daughter, Solange, for the affections of the Tubercular, fast fading composer, but the big surprise was a rarely resurrected print of the lush 1945 technicolor extravaganza "A Song To Remember", featuring Cornell Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand, and directed by Hungarian Charles Vidor, which turned a well-known Chopin piano composition into an American "Hit Parade" topper entitled "Till The End of time" ... and La-dee-dah!.

Most of the Polish features were from 2008 and 2009 cropped from the annual Polish feature film survey in Gdynia. A very interesting picture was Waldemar Krzystek's latest offering, "Little Moscow" which takes up the still touchy subject of the stationing of Russian troops on Polish soil during the Cold War years, which amounted almost to a military occupation. The Little Moscow in question was a large Russian garrison near the city of Legnica which was totally off limits to the local Poles, therefore they called it "Mala Moskwa". Numerous scenes demonstrate the disdain the Russians had for their Polish "allies" and the hatred the Poles had for the Russians, knowing that they were covering up atrocities like the massacre of 18,000 Polish POWs in the Katryn forest by the KGB during WWII, and generally regarding Poland as an inferior puppet state.

The focus of the story however, based in part on memories of stories told to the director during his youth, is the illicit love affair between the pregnant wife of a diffident long suffering Russian officer and a gallant handsome young Polish cadet. In a flash forward, after the fall of Communism, the now grey haired Russian returns with his grown up daughter some twenty years later to visit the grave of the mother she never knew. At the very end the aging Pole also majes a shadowy entrance and we suspect that he may actually have been her father.This is a very carefully woven psychological study of four intertwined lives, and actor Leslaw Zurek, now just thirty, who played the Polish officer is one of the leading stars of the new generation of Polish actors. Mr. Zurek appeared in two other films shown here and was present at all screenings to field questions after each -- in fairly good if somewhat halting English! He is definitely an actor to watch.

The unquestioned highlight of the week, however, was Pawel Borowski's debut feature entitled simply "Zero". This a daisy chain of linked stories, crime, betrayals, accidents and incidents, set in an unnamed big city, something like the French classic "La Ronde" or more recently, Andersen's "Magnolia", but yet off in a direction all of its own that could well start a whole new trend in Polish cinema. Borowski uses bright crystal clear photography to contrastively tell an extremely dark, noirish tale with a lingering rhythm that stops to take a good look at people along the way without slowing down the stream of events -- slow and fast at the same time! There are no glamorous actors in this film and yet they are all grippingly real. The camera work of Arkadius Tomiak announces the arrival of a new Pawel Edelman. To do this film justice would take several pages at least. Suffice it to say that "Zero" is a minor masterpiece that people in Poland will be talking about for a long time to come. Director Borowski says that it was well received but far from a box office hit back home, however it is beginning to draw lots of attention on the film festival circuit where just a few days ago it was declared the best film at the Washington, D.C. film festival. In any case, Bravo Borowski!

Among many excellent documentaries one standout was a 52 minute documentary on the brilliant career of Krzystof Komeda, a truly legendary figure in the annals of mid-century Polish film and jazz. Komeda was a highly regarded jazz musician, pianist, and the composer of some 65 film soundtracks, working with all the best young directors of the time, Polanski, Skolimowski, and Wajda among others The title of the film is "Komeda -A Soundtrack For a Life". In Poland under communism, especially in the Stalinist years, American style jazz was not only a form of social protest but literally a crime, and Komeda with an immense musical talent was one of the leading musical criminals. He was a contemporary and close friend of Roman Polanski and did the music for all of Polanski's Polish films, shorts as well as the renowned first feature "Knife in the Water", which became Polanski's ticket to the West. When Polanski was beginning to make it in Hollywood he invited Komeda to do the music for "Rosemary's Baby", one of the big hits of the year 1968. At this point Komeda was on the verge of carving out his own Hollywood career but, during a drinking bout with dissident Polish writer Marek Hlasko he fell down and sustained a serious blow to the head. He immediately returned to Poland for treatment but died of a brain hemorrage three days later at the age of 37. A terrible loss for Poland and the music world in general. In the film many colleagues such as Polanski and director Jerzy Skolimowski comment at length on their work and friendship with the genial young musician. Very well made but a doc that makes you sad to see such a talent cut off too early on the verge of international fame. Director, Claudia Buthenhoff-Duffy of Germany, produced by Wojciech Szczudlo of Warsaw.

Other interesting docs: "Agnieszka Holland --Director" a three tiered study of the stormy career of the ace Polish woman director of many many superbly crafted films both inside and outside of Poland ("Europa Europa", Copying Beethoven", etc.) -- her Polish Period, her French period, and her Hollywood period. She was a prominent member of the artistic brain drain that Poland suffered under Communism but now travels freely back and forth. With lots of interesting footage of the top Polish director of the century, Andrzej Wajda and many other contemporaries (Zanussi, Falk, Kieslowski, etc.) this 57 minute doc is practically a capsule history of Polish cinema in the era before and after the Solidarity movement which ultimately led to the demise of Communism and artistic freedom in Poland.

"Fall of the Empire" (Upadek Imperium, 2009, 52 minutes), by Andrzel Titkow, traces the events leading up to the fall of Communism in a variety of Soviet Bloc countries, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Byelorus --with testimonials by leading political figures of all of these countries plus British journalist and East Europe expert Timothy Garton Ash. The screen is loaded (but never overloaded) with multiple overlapping images in a way that makes it look like a vast puzzle is being solved before the viewers eyes. Overall an excellent capsule history of the unexpected and sudden dropping away of the Iron Curtain. Still relevant recent European History served up in a most appetizing form.

A mere glance through the catalogue listing all the other titles makes me wince at the thought that I had to miss more than half of this sparkling film lineup because I was busy covering the Indian film festival only half a mile down the road. There are altogether six Polish film festivals in the United States and Chicago, the original one, was once the Big Daddy, but it looks like Mr. Juszkiewicz has now moved L.A. to the top of the offshore Polish heap with a delicate balance between new features, the cream of documentaries, shorts, animations and special events, not to mention the presence of a goodly turnout of filmmakers, actors, and other film connected personalities such as surviving members of the family of Krzystof Komeda, now living in the States, and representatives of Polish TV Warsaw. Commendable indeed.

Alex, L.A. May 2, 2010

PS: "Polish Eaglets Over Pakistan"; Dir. Anna Teresa Pietraszek, 2009, RT
50 minutes, was the very last film screened on the final evening of the festival and turned out to be the icing on a very rich Polish torta. This film documents the key role played by a group of seventeen Polish pilots in the founding of the new Pakistan Royal Air Force in 1947. The Islamic state of Pakistan had just come into being after the partition of India and needed an air force to defend its newborn borders but had no corps of pilots to speak of, and turned to England, the recent masters of the sub-continent, for help. The magnificent Himalayan eagle was adopted as the symbol of the air force in the making, and the 17 Polish Eaglets in question were all seasoned veterans of the Battle of Britain where ex-pat Polish pilots had played a crucial role in driving the German Luftwaffe from the skies over England in 1940.
At the end of the war in 1945 the Polish air force in exile became redundant in England and could not return to their native Poland because they would have been regarded as enemies of the state by the newly established communist regime there. When Pakistan offered the fliers not only a continuation of their suspended military flying careers but a respectable living and even Pakistanian citizenship, they accepted with alacrity.
The film especially centers on the life of one young Polish officer named Turowicz who was the leader of the group and settled with his wife, also a pilot (!), permanently in Pakistan. Various today high ranking Pakistani officers testify as to the personal integrity, likeability, and above all efficiency as a trainer, of Turowicz, and of his wife who formed a group of Pakistani woman pilots and paratroopers. Turowicz, a highly respected figure in Pakistani military circles died there and his wife continues to live in Karachi. It took a long time to reconstruct the Turowicz story because the early part resides in classified RAF files and Pakistan these days is, in general, not the easiest place to access sensitive information especially when it has to do with the military.
Anna Pietraszek,who is a one man team in filmmaking (direction, writing, camera, sound), attended the Polish Academy of national Defense and has made over fifty films in Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. She obviously knows the territory and this is a film which, considering the vital geopolitical importance of Pakistan today, deserves to be more widely seen.
A surprise guest at the lively post screening discussion was Mr. Munir Azam., now a San Diego resident and a former Pakistani air force fighter pilot who not only knew Turowicz personally but even confesses that he "had a crush" on one of the Polish Flier's daughters.

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