The Amateurs

The Amateurs is about a theatre troupe of actors with learning disabilities who get the chance to perform on a professional stage. The theatre director is none too keen, and insists professional, able-bodied actors must be part of the production. He then further ham-strings them by insisting that it must be a Shakespearean performance.

Like, the dude is obviously setting them up to fail so they’ll get discouraged, bow out, and he won’t have to give them the stage in his theatre. But he hasn’t reckoned on Krzysiek, the troupe manager. Dogged and determined to do his best for his company, Krzysiek tries to plow through the myriad roadblocks in the film to ensure his actors get their chance on stage.

Really enjoyable film. I loved that it was a Shakespeare play, because, as much as I love Shakespeare, it really brought back what it was like to go through it in school, and have folk read what was effectively a foreign language given the centuries, in this deeply unnatural metre made for the 17th century English stage, and have to get a glossary explanation for every other word. You spent so much time just decoding it, just to be able to make literal sense of it, and then the teacher would ask you analyse the themes of it, and it was like, Whit?!

In the film, because the disabled actors are used to dealing with presumed incompetency and expected failure, they are there rehearsing every day, and practising their lines every night. Whereas the able-bodied professional actors turn up late, kvetch, and don’t put in a tenth of the same effort. Their doubt and worry about their rep is what pulls at the threads of the enterprise, leading to growing tension and conflict among the cast.

What I also liked about this film was no one was an out-and-out bad guy. The theatre director is ableist, but they don’t make out like he’s some monster. He does move from his initial position at the beginning of the film, not having some transformative Tiny Tim moment, or some other horrendous trope, but he does grow.

Everybody in this film is concerned with success – the play must be a success, Krzysiek must make this colab a success, the old thesp and the young actress looking for credibility each have their own idea of making this a success for their careers. A failure is seen as a disaster, and as the wheels start to come off the production as the film goes on, that is the source of the characters’ stress.

But what is success and failure within the context of an amateur play? For a professional production success means money, and failure means loss, but what happens when you take the commodification of art and performance out of it? What is a success then? That you have fun. That you create something new with your friends. That you show an audience something they haven’t seen before.

The journey of this film is a journey back to the core of creativity and human expression. Its about how much we pile on, only to find the burden precarious. And how liberating it is to let go.

Rust

Rust is a short documentary profiling the work of sculptor Mariola Wawrzusiak-Borcz. She uses scrap metal to create sculptures of animals, insects and the natural world.

Mariola is driven by a love of nature. She loves to go out camping, exploring the wilderness with her dogs. In recycling metal waste into art, there is an environmental purpose as well as an artistic one. Mariola wants to highlight that our constant cycle of consumption and waste is impacting our natural life systems. That we throw this rusted metal away, but there is no ‘away’.

The animals in her sculptures are typically alert, or frightened, perhaps going into a defensive stance. Again it reflects the intrusion of human impact, the reaction of the natural to the unnatural, these living beings made now from processed material.

It’s also a message about mortality. This metal is already rusted out, thrown away as worthless. We have taken all these resources out of the earth, all to produce an item which we are discarding in a few short years. It is a blink in the timescale of the ancient earth. And we, as people and a species, are also but a blink. What legacy do we want to leave? As we rust, rot and fade, do we want the mark we leave to be a world filled with junk, a permanently damaged biosphere?

Mariola considers there to be both a beauty and an ugliness in her sculptures, as there is in mankind. The least we can do with all the waste we are littering the world with is turn it into art. Leave it like the cave paintings when we are gone. I imagine her birds and wolves surrounded by green in our absence, like totems of old gods.

Really interesting film, short but substantive.

I Burn Easily

I Burn Easily is a feminist revenge story, told in 5 episodes that form a short film. It is about 3 friends who take a body positive topless selfie, only to have it be appropriated by a misogynistic website that displays it for online hate and pornography. The friends then decide how to handle to situation.

I Burn Easily is a lot of things. In horror, you get the rape-revenge subgenre, and this is it on a smaller scale in an online setting. It’s also a social commentary about women’s bodies being inherently politicised, and subject to violence. It’s also an experimental art piece, using filters and emojis to create an integrated online/offline sense of experience. It also features confessional-style videos, talking about love, or its lack, or its idea.

I found it interesting and ambitious. I liked the clear narrative still existing within an otherwise quite experimental and freeform film. It focuses on the online environment in which women find connection and solidarity, as well as violence and hatred. So by taking the situation in their own hands in I Burn Easily, the women are taking back their online space.

Really interesting short film.

Broken Head

Broken Head is a documentary which follows Andrzej, a prison inmate, who, coming off the back of a suicide attempt, decides to pursue therapy. We’re gonna put a pin in the ethics of that, and come back to it later.

Andrzej has spent his life in and out of prison, addicted to various drugs, mostly amphetamines. He chews his lips, and his mouth is marked with scabs. He’s trying to get clean for good, but he hasn’t got much experience on how to handle his emotions without getting high. He misses his girlfriend, who he is struggling to make tenuous contact with from inside.

The film begins with him having tried to slit his own throat. He is offered therapy, which he finds helpful, if overwhelming. The therapy is teaching him to identify his emotions, so he can anticipate them, and mitigate behaviour patterns that lead to negative outcomes. The first step is the hardest – to just identify what he is feeling. All he is able to grasp clearly is his anger, all other emotions are vague notions. On a social level, this is because we raise boys to consider expressing any emotion, other than anger, as unmasculine. So they lose the tools for necessary introspection and articulation. On a personal level, Andrzej grew up in an abusive household with an alcoholic father, so no one really gave a fuck what he felt. Meaning he grew to adulthood without ever really being given the tools to assess his emotional state, or believing it was a priority.

Andrzej finds therapy overwhelming, but hopeful. For the first time he feels he’s making progress to an envisionable future where he is not on drugs, and can maybe make a stable home with his girlfriend. He wants to have a child with her, make a family, create that safe and loving homelife he was denied.

But how is he going to react when another inmate points out to him that kids aren’t tools you use to fix your own issues? Or when his girlfriend starts to pull away? Or the therapy sessions schedule is interrupted?

This film is really good at getting you genuinely care about someone who might not pose the most sympathetic subject. Andrzej is in jail for a reason, he’s a violent drug addict, and he is the first to admit that he is there because of his own bad choices, his own bad behaviour. He doesn’t make any excuses, and is even touchy about being labelled an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, being defensive on his father’s behalf. He knows his own behaviour put him where he is, but he honestly doesn’t know how to change. The elation he feels when therapy provides him with that chance is easy to empathise with.

And the film feels very paired back, allowing you to feel what you want about what you are seeing. There’s no massive score trying to tell you how you should feel or saccharin stylistic manipulations. It’s just very intimate and very bald.

However, I am now going to take the pin out of the question of ethics. Because how ethical is it filming up close and personal someone who is literally suicidal? The opening shot is of him removing the bloody bandages from around his neck, showing the recently closed scar. Is this the moment, do you think, to point a camera in someone’s face? The whole rest of the film is made with him recovering in therapy. This is an incredibly vulnerable person at an incredibly critical time. There needs to be serious consideration about whether this film is right to make at all. And since it is made, how the filmmaker’s presence might influence this life-or-death process for someone so on the edge?

While I feel like it could definitely done with more overt self-reflection on the part of the documentary maker, Broken Head is a very well made, intimate, and raw portrait of a man searching for the tools to turn his life around.

If you like this…

Love

Love is a short film about a guy, Pawel, who gets in debt to gangsters, who threaten to kill his family if he doesn’t participate in a robbery. When someone is killed during the course of the crime, Pawel ends up sentenced to decades in prison. The one highlight is he and his lawyer have fallen in love and she has agreed to be his wife.

A tension runs throughout the film as almost everyone in it gives reason for mistrust. This is not a world in which pure emotions can be expected to prevail.

If you like this…

The Ghost of the Baltic Sea

The Ghost of the Baltic Sea is a documentary on discarded fishing nets made by the WWF.

Firstly, I’m not gonna get into anything about the nets until I say this, just coz it’s a WWF documentary, does that mean you need your logo in every fucking shot? The entire film is about a WWF project, half the talking heads are WWF workers, is it absolutely necessary to have everyone in their WWF branded gear? Making sure the logo’s visible on the back, front, and sides? Ugh WWF, you’re the worst. (They kinda are, if you ever hear calls to decolonise conservation, they usually top lists of well dodgy shit.)

Ok, on to the actual contents of the documentary. During the course of fishing, nets will occasionally snag, break, or get lost. Because they are made of plastic, they don’t biodegrade, and continue trapping marine life. Terrible for the environment, the WWF set up a project with Poland, Norway and others who have a coast in the Baltic Sea, to start mapping where these lost nets are, retrieving them and recycling them.

This might sound easier than it is. A net is deliberately made to be lightweight and close to undetectable in the water. After all, you want fish to swim into it, not go, Shit! Nearly swam into a massive thing in my way. So it can be difficult to show up on something like radar.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, we’re not looking for a few stray, errant nets. There’s about 800 tonnes of ghost nets in the Baltic Sea. And they tend to be concentrated around old shipwrecks, where there are a lot of sharp edges to snag and gather nets. So in one mission, they were able to pull up a 1 ton pyramid of nets.

With the nets being wrapped around shipwrecks, it means when this waste is retrieved, it is full of really valuable relics. So the project also works with a maritime antiquities expert, to see about preserving the items for museum use. Which is pretty cool, and gives a cultural history benefit to the project as well as an ecological one.

It’s obviously a good cause, so I wondered why it didn’t sit entirely right with me, apart from the obnoxiously ubiquitous branding. I suppose I just thought about what the sabs would say, that this is tidying up around the edges of the problem. That industrial fishing is part of the food system killing our planet, and enabling it shouldn’t be the goal. It had that feel that greenwashing ads have, where they boast that because they’ve made their practice eco-friendly, you can consume as much of it as you like. I’m always suspicious when the answer to a problem is ‘more’.

It is good to clear the Baltic Sea, and every sea, of dangerous plastics. And this is achieving its aims because it has buy-in from the fishing industry. And that wouldn’t be the case if you were just digging your heels in, instead of working with them. So it’s a good thing overall.

A interesting documentary, that shines a light on an overlooked problem, but isn’t given to a great deal of analysis.

If you like this…

The Prince and the Dybbuk

The Prince and the Dybbuk is more interesting in its first 15 minutes than some films manage to be in 2 hours. It is a biopic of early Hollywood director Michal Waszynski. He worked on blockbusters like Fall of the Roman Empire, The Barefoot Contessa, and Orson Welles’s Othello.

When Michal died, he was buried in the Dickmann family tomb in Rome. He was as good as family to them, and godfather to their children. Even today his godchildren speak of him as the best of men.

In fact, the film begins with everyone who knew him in his adult life talking about what a great man he was. Not only was he a man of talent in the field of cinema, he was a good man, generous and fair. He had an aristocratic elegance but was never haughty and always had time for everyone. He was the best boss, says his chauffeur. It makes you think, how good a man he must have been for even his employees to speak highly of him more than 50 years after his death.

But he was very private about his past and personal life. Even his godchildren, whom he was very close to, knew only that he was a Polish nobleman, a prince of some sort, before he came to Italy. The only photo they have of him as a young man they show to the filmmaker. It has on the back some handwriting which they cannot read.

And here a story begins that proves truth is stranger than fiction. They trace the stamp of the photo studio to Kovel, in Ukraine. They ask the elders of Kovel if they recognise the man in the photo, or can read the writing on the back, or know of a Michal Waszynski from the area. “Waszynski?,” ask one woman. “No, I don’t think it says that. It says Waks, not Waszynski.” An old man says, “That surname used to exist around here, but it doesn’t any more.”

You know what that means.

Michal Waszynski was originally born Mosze Waks. Far from a prince, he was born to a humble Jewish family in this small Ukrainian town. Very little can be traced of his past because the majority of his family appears to have been wiped out during the war. Only an old tombstone remains, broken to a fragment and lying unceremoniously in an unmarked patch of ground.

Although the filmmakers have Michal’s diaries, he writes of his past almost not at all, except to say that it does him no good to look back, and that he has locked all the doors behind him. But hints creep through, as he records his distressing dreams. He seems to have fallen for a yashiva boy, and been heartbroken when the boy shut down any connection they had. Michal, reeling from that, and perhaps reacting to the antisemitism of the time, converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Michal Waszynski.

When he left to make movies in Poland and Germany, he couldn’t have known what was to come. During this time he makes one of his most famous films, The Dybbuk, which is one of the few Yiddish language films made in Europe before the war. It is a story of unrequited love, when a young boy gives up his soul to be with a young girl who is to wed another, and this causes him to drop dead, and his soul possesses her body. Condemned by Goebbels, it was burned by the Nazis.

When the war came, Michal joined the Polish army under British leadership, and crossed Europe, finally ending up in Italy. It was here he took up with an elderly widowed countess, learning from her all the aristocratic mores he would affect in later life. She left him her money in her will.

He worked in the army film corp, and filmed the Battle of Monte Cassino. For his achievements during the war, he was given an honorary title of Chevalier Prince. And thus he transformed into the Polish prince, the aristocrat Michal Waszynski.

For the rest of his life, as he rubbed shoulders with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, he kept his sexuality discreet and his Jewish roots secret. While there is an obvious sadness, he seems to have been grateful to get a second chance at life, to be reborn after the heartache and horror of the war. He wanted to be washed of the memories of his past life, and focus on how blessed he was in his new one. He was rich, famous, admired, and loved. With the Dickmanns, he had a new family, including children he loved dearly. He was a great success in his career, and loved what he was doing.

The Prince and the Dybbuk is a fascinating documentary looking into a man whose life and identity were complicated. It includes some archival footage and footage from Waszynski’s own films. At first I wasn’t sure I liked how it transitioned between them, but it grew on me as the film went on. It paints a picture of glamour and fame, mixed with loneliness and sorrow. It shows deep bonds of family and love, and deep secrets. What was real? Both were real.

If you like this…

Under The Sky

An elderly Polish man feels the ebbing of memory in Under The Sky, but two things remain, his love of his wife and his love of flying.

A retired fighter pilot, he still stares out the window as planes pass across the sky. He still remembers the aircraft he flew and how to get prepped in his flight uniform, but he has forgotten his teammates and other officers. He struggles to answer his wife’s crossword puzzle clues, but he fiddles with the plane magnets on the fridge.

This film is bittersweet with the fog of old age, which is able can cloud everything for this man but the two great passions of his life. His eyes search for planes in the sky, and his hand always reaches for his wife. He holds her hand as they watch tv, and sitting with her at the breakfast table, and looking at old home movies. What memories might have slipped from him, he holds onto her, precious and constant.

Tender little film.

If you like this…

The Unicorn

The Unicorn is a short film profiling Kim Lee, a Vietnamese-Polish drag queen. Kim reflects on why she got into drag, what she gets out of it, and what it means to her. She also compares Vietnamese and Polish attitudes towards gender and sexuality, and facing homophobia in Poland.

For Kim, drag is a performance form that allows for creativity without limits. Anything you can imagine, you can make, and Kim shows off her huge collection of outfits, wigs, and costume jewellery. Even one mermaid piece.

The Unicorn is a nice short giving a little look into Polish drag.

It’s Okay To Panic

It’s Okay To Panic takes us on a tour of Poland by one of its most outspoken climate scientists, Szymon Malinowski. He tries to show using real world examples in the present and from the past how our future will look once climate change becomes unstoppable.

It’s Okay To Panic is a good title for this film, as it conveys the tone exactly. Malinowski has been a physicist for decades, and he’s dismayed at how politicians debate the existence of climate change when it is has been an observable and measurable reality in his field of research for almost 40 years. Like how long does something have to be a fact before people believe it? Coz almost half a century doesn’t seem to be enough.

Malinowski studied clouds, not thinking that a physicist studying cloud formation would end up being the Cassandra of climate change. It was a very sedate subject, although fascinating to him. But what he noticed, as the scientific community around him was noticing the same thing, was cloud formation was changing. You know those big expanses of cumulus clouds? You know, the ones we hate here in Scotland because it’s like someone wrapped the sky in a blanket, and we never see the sun? Well Malinowski talks about the coastal cumulus and how that cloud cover helps keep temperatures down. Once climate change causes major disruption to the water cycle, which its already beginning to do, that cloud cover will start to disappear, and when it does the temperature will rapidly shoot up 3-4%.

That’s the thing he wants most to convey, that once this hits a tipping point, it’s going have this snowball effect, where every effect of a temperature rise then becomes the cause of a temperature rise, and these few degrees we quibble about in conferences, will become an unstoppable change across the globe. Malinowski stresses again and again that we are running out of time.

The documentary presents the message of climate change through the lens of Malinowski, how he came to be an expert on the topic, the changes he’s seen personally in his lifetime, and his attempts to educate people and form some resistance. As he points out, in his lifetime Poland has went from one social system to another, radically different social system. Change is possible where there is a will to make it.

The shift in Poland from communism to capitalism also goes towards an explanation of why there is such resistance to attempts to introduce regulations or decrease consumption. Firstly because people feel like they’re making up for lost time. Secondly because people have a long history of skepticism of what they are told by authority figures.

But nonetheless there is a growing climate change activism movement in Poland. COP 24 being held there really provided a focal point for attention and organisation. Whether that translates into effective action has yet to be seen.

So yeah, if you are looking for a reassuring story, this is not the film for you. If you want a clear explanation of why time is running out for us as a species, it is. As the title says, it’s okay to panic.