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 …
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