The far-eastern Polish city of Białystok («Bi-awy-stok»), birthplace of Esperanto-inventor Ludwik Zamenhof, also claims footnote in cinema history: the fabulous Kaufman boys—Denis (i.e. Man With a Movie Camera‘s visionary creator Dziga Vertov), Boris (who won the cinematography Oscar for On the Waterfront) and Mikhail (likewise a notable DoP)—all called it home. Mel Brooks, some of whose family reportedly came from this historically-contested area, now located on the border with Belarus, named one of his most outlandish creations in its honour: Max “Bialystock” (sic), the magnificently deluded impresario played by Zero Mostel in 1967 comedy classic The Producers.
Half a century later, Białystok’s main current contribution to cinema culture is the film-festival ŻubrOFFka, a vibrant showcase of shorts whose 14th edition took place from 4-8 December 2019. The main prize of the international jury, the «Grand Prix» worth 10,000 złoty (€2,350), went to one of the very longest productions on view. Rafał Łysak’s 40-minute Unconditional Love (Miłość Bezwarunkowa), also took first place in the audience voting, thus landing a further 6,000 złoty (€1,400). The public’s prize is the «Wild Bison Award,» in honour of the emblematic fauna of this «Podlaskie» region. «Żubr» in Polish, the beast lends its name to the famous vodka (Żubrówka) after which the ŻubrOFFka festival—otherwise no connection with the alcohol company—is punningly named.
This double-whammy for Unconditional Love came as no surprise: Łysak’s film was far from new, having premiered at Krakow back in May 2018, but it was nevertheless one of the most piercingly topical projects in the whole festival. It sensitively, intelligently and, at times, humorously explores matters of homophobia, prejudice, and religion-inspired intolerance via the relationship between Łysak himself and his devout, octogenarian grandmother Teresa.
Lonely widow Teresa, who takes her bible very seriously, frets continually about Łysak’s love life, evidently concerned that her grandson’s sexual orientation will result in painful solitude—in a running «gag,» she’s always trying to optimistically matchmake him with his female collaborators. Volatile and unpredictable, Teresa gradually, grudgingly comes to terms with the 21st century in a film that takes an accessible and even-handed approach to the potentially incendiary subject matter.
The status and rights of LGBT+ people in majority-catholic Poland, a nation governed since 2015 by the Christian-populist-conservative Law & Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or «PiS» for short), has provoked considerable controversy within and without its borders.
One significant flashpoint occurred in Białystok itself on 20 July, when the city’s first equality march (often dubbed a «pride march» or a «gay pride» event) was violently attacked by far-right protestors, most of them football «ultras» from elsewhere in the country—the nucleus being the male, young fans of local team Jagiellonia Białystok. The ugly scenes were beamed around Poland and far beyond, strengthening the general perception of Białystok and Podlaskie being the «bible belt of Poland» and a «stronghold» for PiS.
The status and rights of LGBT+ people in majority-catholic Poland… has provoked considerable controversy within and without its borders.
The situation is somewhat more complicated: while rural Podlaskie is indeed PiS-dominated (16 of the county’s 32 council-seats), the organisation is less popular in Białystok, where the opposition Civic Coalition is in charge and the mayor Tadeusz Truskolaski—elected for a fourth term in 2018—is an independent. It’s a pattern visible across Europe on the regional and national level: sparsely populated rural areas vote conservative, even far-right; cities tend to favour the centre-left. Podlaskie has the lowest population density of any Polish province; Bialystok is the second-most densely populated city, behind only the capital Warsaw.
Invariably targeted for funding-cuts by reactionary politicians, cultural events have a vital role in stemming the encroaching tide of intolerance. ŻubrOFFka’s organisers, who have successfully fostered a fresh, hip vibe over the past decade-plus, are well aware of this: «we can’t… walk idly by violence, pervasive hate speech, lack of tolerance or racism. The events which took place in Białystok in July of this year touched us deeply…», they wrote in conjunction with a special sidebar, Short Films About Hate.
Tolerance-aware programming was evident across all sections, perhaps most touchingly via Emilia Śniegoska’s 24-minute 19¦91 , another contender in the main competition. A world premiere at Krakow one year after Unconditional Love, this is an observational character-study of 19-year-old German student Jette, who spends a summer in Warsaw with 91-year-old Zsofia while still grieving the unexpected death of her father. Jette’s sojourn is part of a programme bringing together Germans and Poles, to heal the deep wounds of the Second World War. The aftermath of this trauma is deeply felt in places such as Białystok: atrocities there include one astoundingly vile incident in June 1941, when Nazi forces ordered 2,000 Jewish citizens into the Great Synagogue on Suraska Street before locking the doors and burning the building down.
Warsaw also famously saw much more than its share of horrors; in Śniegoska’s film, it’s a relaxed, modern, European city, which from many angles looks rather like present-day Berlin. This is the backdrop for a delicate, charming story of female friendship and solidarity spanning both ends of the age spectrum. It’s debatable whether Śniegoska’s camera is an intrusive presence for the moving finale, as Jette and Zsofia exchange their tearful farewells, but 19¦91 is nevertheless overall hard to resist as a persuasive paean to simple, enduring humanist values.
Featured Image: Unconditional Love, a film by Rafał Łysak.