The International Festival of Independent Cinema in Krakow, Poland—enigmatically named Off Plus Camera—is one of the youngest European festivals with probably the youngest festival director, 29-year-old Szymon Miszczak. This accounts for the energetic and enthusiastic atmosphere of the festival, now in its fourth year, and the adventurous choice of films.
There were sections on new Irish, German, and Asian cinema, the cream of this year’s Sundance (the two festivals enjoy a warm collaboration), and more new American indies in a section called From the Gut (“unique films that take bold risks with style and story”). These included Alistair Banks Griffin’s Bressonian Two Gates of Sleep, Mike Ott’s bittersweet Little Rock, and Cam Archer’s wild Shit Year.
Eleven first and second features were up for the main prize and the international critics’ award (Fipresci). The winner of the former was The Journals of Musan, a Korean film directed by Park Jung-bum, which had already won the Golden Tiger at Rotterdam. A touching story of a North Korean immigrant’s travails in South Korea, it seemed to me too reminiscent of the films of Lee Chang-dong, for whom Park was assistant director on Poetry.
The Fipresci jury, of which I was a member, considered Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Gun Hill Road, a convincing portrait of a macho father trying to come to terms with a transsexual son and vice versa, set in a Latino section of the Bronx; Pure, a Swedish film directed by Lisa Langseth, a vivid evocation of a young woman’s passionate obsession with an orchestra conductor; and Canadian Ed Gass-Donnelly’s perfectly formed Fargo-like Small Town Murder Songs. However, we opted for Suicide Room, a Polish film by 29-year-old Jan Komasa.
In a way, this cautionary tale forms a corollary to The Social Network by entering the mind of an 18-year-old boy, abused on Facebook, who retreats into the realm of cyberspace, losing all sense of the difference between the virtual world and reality. It is to Komasa’s credit, and to the extraordinary self-destructive performance by Jakbub Gierszal, that the film is able to lead a critic, whose adolescence is ancient history, and who detests social networking and the kind of music and animation that is depicted here, into abandoning his subjectivity and understanding the character’s tastes and fixations. There’s no reason why Suicide Room, plainly aimed at teenagers, shouldn’t find a wider audience outside Poland.
A bunch of festival guests were taken on a visit to the Alvernia Studios, a state-of-the-art film complex which looks like a space station. It houses two huge soundstages, one containing a mammoth blue screen, and the other a music scoring studio with variable acoustics, and the Dolby Premier-certified colour correction and film-dubbing theater. All this has been taken advantage of by Amy Heckerling, for the post-production of her film Vamps, yet another mainstream vampire movie. It will be the first Hollywood coproduction with the Polish studio, though this won’t affect the box office one way or another.
Despite a substantial American presence (director-screenwriter Jill Sprecher and erstwhile New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell were on the main jury), there was a Polish slant to the festival with a strong Polish film competition. And you could not escape the bulky shape of ex-boxer Jerzy Skolimowski (the head of the jury), now looming large again in world cinema, and the great 85-year-old Andrzej Wajda was present from the start, giving encouragement to the young, many of whom filled the small theaters. (Thankfully the festival decided to avoid multiplexes.)
Krakow has a population of 27,000 students, mostly at the Jagiellonian University—founded in 1364! I gave a lecture at a new building to about 50 students, all of whom claimed they wanted to be film critics, despite the discouraging title of my talk, “Film Criticism in Crisis,” and my explaining that everyone is a film critic now.
Special guests, who gave “master classes,” were actors Tim Roth and Richard Jenkins, and art director Roger Christian. Roth, who was given an Against the Current award, clowned around on stage especially when he was misnamed Tim Robbins by an embarrassed master of ceremonies, which led the actor to talk about his relationship with Susan Sarandon. However, Roth was very subdued on his return from a tour of Auschwitz, and refused any further interviews. Of course, the death camp is sadly a necessary site to visit when in Krakow, which acts as a sobering reminder of non-virtual reality.
This year’s Off Plus Camera, a.k.a. International Festival of Independent Cinema, ran from April 8 - 17.
Ronald Bergan, British film historian and critic, is a regular contributor to The Guardian. The latest of his many books is Film Isms…Understanding Cinema.