April 2017

Visitors to the Ekran site may be keen to know that Toronto is hosting a festival with films from Poland’s southern neighbor, the Czech Republic. Running from April 27 until May 1 at the Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles, the ‘Czech That Film’ touring program showcases standout new Czech titles and features tales of murder, family strife, the corruption of power, and even the supernatural.


Of particular interest to fans of Polish cinema might be Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda’s award-winning I, Olga Hepnarová, which dramatizes the true story of the last person to be given the death sentence in former Czechoslovakia, a young woman who in 1973 ran over and killed eight people in a truck. This film was a co-production with Poland and stars up-and-coming Polish actress and singer Michalina Olszańska as the murderer of the title.


I, Olga Hepnarova (dir. Tomás Weinreb, Petr Kazda)

But beyond this specific interest, I, Olga Hepnarová

is also one of the most stunning films of 2016 and something of a shock from Czech cinema, better known for its good-natured, slice-of-life comedies. Using stark black-and-white imagery, this is a bleak, compelling account of the life that led up to Hepnarová’s horrific crime. After a bullied and abused upbringing that is partly spent in a psychiatric institution, Olga drifts through a lonely existence of manual work and passing sexual encounters. A slight young woman in a world of male laborers and a lesbian in a conservative communist society, Olga fails to find love, acceptance or a meaningful place in life, which feeds her growing alienation and a desperate need for vengeance.


In its cool, detached way, the film evokes a remarkable degree of understanding for its subject – something due in no small part to Olszańska’s exceptional and intense lead performance. Though dubbed into Czech, Olszańska’s performance is a matter of physical expression rather than words: she seems to concentrate Olga’s whole disturbed relation to the world into her hunched body language and unnerving gaze.

Another big draw at this season is the Canadian gala premiere of Jan Hřebejk’s much-acclaimed The Teacher, which will be accompanied by a Q and A with Hřebejk himself. Hřebejk is one of the most successful and well-known post-communist Czech directors, noted especially for his Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall (2000). He specializes in polished, sometimes comic dramas about the way ordinary individuals deal with authoritarian regimes and the moral dilemmas they bring. The Teacher is no exception, a finely acted 1980s period piece about a corrupt school instructor who exploits her Communist Party connections.

The Teacher

The Teacher (dir. Jan Hřebejk)

The other titles featured at ‘Czech That Film’ are The Devil’s Mistress, another dark real-life tale that tells the story of Lída Baarová, a Nazi-era Czech film star who became the lover of Joseph Goebbels; two treatments of troubled relationships, the dramatic The Snake Brothers and the more comic Tiger Theory; and a rare Czech venture into horror, The Noonday Witch, a creepy tale based on Slavic folklore that has earned comparison with hit Australian chiller The Babadook.


There’s something here for nearly every taste, so why not do as the title says and Czech That Film?


Find more information here: http://www.czechthatfilm.com/program.html


Written by Jonathan Owen

Among Hot Docs’ short offerings this year is a group of eye-catching and affecting works by filmmakers from Poland. These are shorts whose subjects take us from Ireland to Georgia, from the dramas of domestic life to the romance of living wild. Along the way these films tell us much about the pains of memory, the need to escape the modern world, and the importance of creating bonds with other beings – animals as well as humans.


The subject of Marcin Lesisz’s Goran the Camel Man is a man of craggy appearance and wild ‘tribal’ dress who lives out of an old-fashioned wooden caravan. This nomadic Swiss-born ‘gipsy’ – as the film’s captions describe him – seems to live a life of peace, solitude and natural harmony. Early scenes show him dwelling amidst the rolling landscapes of rural Georgia and enjoying the companionship of his beloved menagerie of animals – dogs, goats, and a camel.

Goran the Camel Man

Goran the Camel Man


But Goran’s life is not untainted by modern ‘civilization’. Passing motorists stop along a nearby highway to observe and take photos of Goran and his camel as though they were tourist attractions. This brings the sour note of conflict into Goran’s harmonious existence.


Goran the Camel Man is a film of beautiful found imagery and of great respect for those individuals who persevere in following their own paths – literally in this case, as Goran’s aim is to follow the route of the original Silk Road through Europe and Asia.

Paweł Ziemilski’s Urban Cowboys begins with the sight of young men and teenagers riding horses through housing estates and onto large city roads – a striking apparition of nature and pre-modern transport in a grey urban setting. Like Goran the Camel Man, this is a portrait of escapism and of the comforts found in four-legged companions, though it is a harsher, sadder story than Lesisz’s film.


Urban Cowboys

Urban Cowboys

Urban Cowboys deals with the youths of Clondalkin, Dublin who catch and tame horses. This practice is illegal in Ireland, but Ziemilski presents the boys’ interest in horses as something that brings purpose and even redemption to these deprived youths who would otherwise face lives of drug addiction or more serious crime. The film’s central figure is 14-year-old Dylan, whose intense attachment to his horse Shelly is stoked by family bereavement.


This is an uncomfortable film at times – as in one spiky scene when Dylan gets angry with the filmmaker for asking whether he mistreats his horse. But while the film does not lack for social-realist grittiness, its moving shots of galloping horses have a lyrical beauty – a perfect expression of the freedom and solace these urban cowboys find in their steeds.


The French-produced Gusła or the Spirits is a dreamy and magical animation from Adrienne Nowak. A young woman based in France, also called Adrienne, is visiting her relatives in Poland. She hears reminiscences about Poland’s communist past and receives some valuable lessons from her grandmother, who trades in homely recipes for calming angry spirits and conquering our greatest fears.

Gusla or the Spirits

Gusla or the Spirits

This is a story about the ghosts and demons of the political past, which threaten to break through into the present and turn a breezy family afternoon into a nightmare. The film’s shifts in tone are served by Nowak’s stunning animation, which mixes delicate, bright-coloured crayon drawing with intrusions of photographic and computer-generated images. Nowak has crafted an original and ultimately soothing tale that blends Lenin and pierogi, politics and folk wisdom, the vivid imagination of the child and the world-weary humour of the survivors of communism.


Two other Polish films at Hot Docs – Volte (Monika Kotecka and Karolina Poryzala) and Close Ties (Zofia Kowalewska) – also come highly recommended.


Reviewed by Jonathan Owen


Goran & the Camel Man premiers Tuesday May 2 at 530pm. For tickets and other showtimes click here. 

Urban Cowboys premiers Tuesday May 2 at 530pm. For tickets and other showtimes click here. 

Gusła or the Spirits premiers Friday April 28 at 915pm.  For tickets and other showtimes click here. 

Communion  (Komunia, 2016, Anna Zamęcka)

Ola leads a busier life than most 14-year-olds. Forced to keep her household afloat in the absence of capable adults, she assumes a daunting range of responsibilities that include caring for an alcoholic father and an autistic 13-year-old brother. The tensions, frustrations and dreams of this real-life Polish family, mundane and yet exceptional, are the subject of Anna Zamęcka’s quietly devastating debut feature Communion, which has garnered its share of international awards and critical raves as well as a Best Documentary prize from the Polish Film Academy.

Zamęcka’s film developed out of a chance encounter with father Marek, which led to her getting to know the two children. She was drawn to the family’s poignant situation, especially that of Ola, and inspired by the trio’s ‘strong faces’ and the cinematic potential of their flat, a space in disarray yet radiant with natural light. Her approach to the film was highly controlled: she insists this was a film ‘scripted’ at the outset. This degree of control, together with Zamęcka’s thorough and deeply empathetic immersion in the family’s lives, makes for a film of great expressiveness and discipline, able to give shape to the flow of real incidents and to concentrate much insight into a single motif or detail.komunia2

A good example of this economy is the impending first communion of Ola’s brother Nikodem, which (as the title suggests) gives the film its dramatic and symbolic centre. This event brings Ola’s deepest longings to the surface, for her tireless efforts coaching Nikodem for the communion – which include catechism drills and a run-through for the Eucharist with banana slices – are underpinned by the hope that this ceremony will bring back mother Magda, now living with a new partner and baby.

If Nikodem’s religious communion is the vehicle for a desired family ‘communion’, this ceremony is also one that marks coming of age, and thus it crystallizes the film’s theme of troubled initiation into adulthood. Adulthood brings risks and pitfalls that Ola’s parents have not escaped; in another sense her parents have sadly failed to attain true adulthood, while Ola has attained it prematurely. Zamęcka extends the motif of communion by including a home-movie ‘flashback’ of Ola’s mother getting dressed for her own communion as a child. The video allows us to reflect on how this determined, expectant, open-faced girl became the unhappy adult woman who has evidently exchanged one dysfunctional family for another.

Though Zamęcka and cinematographer Małgorzata Szylak make unshowy use of the camera, observing their protagonists in contemplative, often-still shots, the film adds further telkomunialing commentary through subtle visual choices. Careful framing emphasizes the family members’ isolation and apartness from a world that doesn’t try too hard to help or understand them, while the cramped space of the family flat – to which Zamęcka consciously limited as much of the film’s action as she could – encapsulates the restricted state of Ola in particular, her personal leisure and study time crowded out by family duty. Scenes that take place elsewhere, like Ola’s boisterous school disco, are experienced all the more as moments of snatched, fleeting liberation.

Zamęcka resists any temptation to sentimentalize or demonize her subjects. Ola’s everyday heroism emerges with little explicit underlining, often revealed in crucial ‘stray’ details like her discernible tiredness. The depiction of Nikodem is an even greater feat, with Zamęcka skirting possible ethical problems in her representation of autism. Nikodem is certainly the source of much of the film’s welcome humour – as when listing gluttony as one of the three Christian virtues to his communion priest – but Zamęcka avoids any tinge of superior mockery due to the sincere engagement she makes with Nikodem’s rich imaginative world. She has even identified Nikodem as a narrator figure who comments on the action with his cryptic, at times uncannily sophisticated exclamations.

‘Reality becomes fiction’, Nikodem declares in one such remarkable utterance. Here his commentary can be applied with great relevance to the film itself. Zamęcka has crafted a docume ntary that doubtless stays true to the real lives it portrays while also presenting them with the dramatic and emotional qualities of the best fiction.

To read an interview with Anna Zamęcka about the making of Communion, follow the link: http://filmmakermagazine.com/101722-truefalse-anna-zameck-on-her-transcendent-documentary-debut-communion/#.WO7n9lN96b8

Communion is part of the “World Showcase” at Hot Docs and is a Co-presentation between Hot Docs & Ekran.  

The film will make it’s Canadian debut at  6:45 PM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  And will be screening again on Saturday April 29th at 1:15 PM at the Scotiabank Theatre.  For tickets click here. 

Reviewed by Jonathan Owen