Remember the Promise of a Better Tomorrow

Remember the Promise of a Better Tomorrow is a memoir of Agata Zbylut’s artistic career told in mockumentary format. I wasn’t so sure about this when it started, but it’s actually really fun. Agata lampoons the self-indulgence of such an exercise, playing the 3 talking heads being interviewed who fawn over her genius at first, then slowly lament her degradation into a cliched has-been.

You don’t have to know anything about Agata Zbylut to enjoy watching this movie. The film itself shows her artwork and explores her motivations with each piece. She’s a Polish feminist artist who works mostly in photography and self-portrait. Her work explores the constant tension around the social pressure to fit into what society expects of women, the destiny decided by our biology, and the attempts to rebel against it, which still make it the central point of our focus. Agata’s work kinda explores the inescapability of that narrative, or her feelings of it being inescapable, even when you try to resist or subvert it.

The supposed documentary starts with an art critic and curator, Joanna, lauding Agata’s work and place in history. It also features her lifelong friend Bella talking about what impressive achievements she’s made, and Joachim, an ex-lover and gallery worker, who talks about her eternal beauty and artistic spirit. At first they narrate between them Agata’s entrance into the world of art, her attempts to find her voice as an artist, and her joyful confidence in her first exhibitions.

Then little by little, they start to drop in comments which show her to be callous, inconsiderate, and more than a little self-obsessed. While still ostensibly praising her, their portrait of her as a person starts to melt into that of a neurotic, someone defiantly feminist in their work, but a hot mess in person.

Bella especially starts to lean in to differences between her and Agata, as Bella has married a well-to-do guy, fulfilling her role as wife, looking beautiful and relying on her husband’s money. While they were similar when they were younger, running round with a bunch of men, regrettably, according to Bella, Agata’s need to be the smartest person in room means she scorned settled married life, and decided to project a feminist image of herself, as if she was somehow above the petty concerns effecting other women’s lives. Referencing her work Still Nature, where single Agata takes couples shots with her dog, Bella sighs, “It’s pathetic.”

Joachim plays a discarded lover, who moves around the country to her exhibitions so he can work hanging her photos in galleries. She lifts and lays him, despite him being obviously lovesick for her. When she then seems to have a life crisis in the run-up to 30, she marries and divorces 4 times in quick succession over 2 years. Joachim is heartbroken.

As she starts to enter her 40s, Agata’s work begins to look into aging, and she takes photos of herself using neck tape on her body. Instead of using it to pin back her neck, she uses it to bring together her tummy, or create yonic shapes on her elbows and armpits. Joanna the art critic sighs, finding this exhibition of an aging woman tiresome, a desperate plea for attention devoid of artistic merit. Bella shares gossip with the camera, laughing that although Agata likes to make a show of making a feminist stance on aging, she’s actually had Botox, which was paid for by Bella’s husband. Joachim is just sad, saying Agata put the work up on Instagram for the likes, but got less followers that she thought.

The whole thing is really funny, obviously because it turns one of these artist’s retrospectives into an absolute character assassination instead of the kiss-ass fest they usually are. Given that none of the character’s are real, and Agata herself is playing each role, gives it just a brutal black humour to their takedown of her. And the whole film itself is effectively a film version of what Agata does with her photographs, producing a self-portrait, which reveals insecurity as much as it projects an ideal. An artistic memoir is by its nature self-indulgent, so Agata’s is one where she overtly uses her characters to criticise how self-indulgent she is.

If you are rolling your eyes at the meta, give it a chance. It’s actually really funny and entertaining.

Hope Dies Last

Hope Dies Last is a documentary profiling young climate change activists in Poland. It shows the firece drive and motivation they share, a single purpose no less important than the survival of their species.

When folk ask why weans these days are all cracking up, show them this film. The activists range from 16 to 20 and have all been politically active for years. They’ve sacrificed their childhood to bring the call that we as a society desperately need to change our self-destructive path.

They have educated themselves thoroughly in the depressing statistics that so many skim over, and have a clear vision of just how little time is left before our climate and our world changes forever. Then all the hand-wringing and composting in the world won’t do a damned thing. They feel like a generation of people who can see clearly the cliff we are all headed for, while those driving us towards the edge are blindfolded. No wonder they are cracking up.

They’d all love nothing more than to be kids, to have someone responsible worry about this for them, but that’s not happening. They don’t simply need to protest once, but to constantly keep protesting to keep the issue talked out. Without their demonstrations and strikes, as a topic it simply fades from political discussion.

And it’s not as if, because they are consumed with this life-or-death crusade, they get any kind of break on all the rest of the stress of this time of life. They still have exams, they still have to get into uni, they still have the normal ups and downs of teenage life. But on top of that you have the constant sense of panic that your time is running out.

All the activists spoke of their work in terms of a sense of duty. Duty to the planet, duty to the people, duty to the powerless who will be worst affected. But for some, it has a tangible presence, a sense of duty to their younger siblings, watching people they care about be brought into the world which only has 10 more years to halt an imminent disaster.

And on top of all that you have the pure abuse they are taking for their activism. The police, of course, are bastards, and hassle and harass them. Try to disrupt their demos and action, drum up false charges, and sic the social on their families. But go temporarily blind when these kids are themselves attacked by adults who believe climate change is a hoax. With everything I know about the world it shouldn’t surprise me, but it always does, to see grown adults attacking children. They’re kids. And the activists describe being hurled with sexist and homophobic abuse, spat on, beaten, sexually assaulted, and given death threats.

What the fuck is wrong with people?

So yeah, a lot of them report mental health issues, with anxiety being a big one. Turns out spending your entire lifetime lurching from one global crisis to the next isn’t that great for your mental health.

And of course most of this is shot across the pandemic, which is still ongoing, because hey, climate change causes global crises. And there is such a level of frustration the activists feel, that we are literally living through one of the consequences of climate change – how our food systems and environmental mismanagement have led to more and more exposure to various viruses – but no one is even talking about it or recognising it as such. That people continue to deny it, even as they’re dying of it.

The hopelessness and burnout you would not expect in activists still so young is evident. Yet they persist. Because there is only so much time left for their actions to matter. And after that, it will be too late for all of us.

With COP26 just over here in Glasgow – another talking shop full of hot air – you see how the COP24 in Poland really politicised an entire generation. Hopefully we’ll see similar effects here.

But as one activist points out, during the pandemic, people literally sat in their house doing nothing and emissions only dropped by 8%. The atomisation of this problem down to the level of personal responsibility completely ignores the reality of these decisions being in the hands of the few who are powerful. We must make ourselves unignorable.

Hope Dies Last is a film in which disappointment with the present is balanced with the hope inspired by this generation. That they continue to do all that they can, with everything they are facing, really makes you question if you are doing all you can too. The kids are my heroes.

Re-cycle

Re-cycle is a Polish short animated film about a man in a post-apocalyptic world of darkness and howling wind, who cycles relentlessly on his bike to charge up what little power he can to run the radio playing his dead wife’s voice singing. Grim as fuck.

With no dialogue, it manages to tell a full story in 6 minutes. The man is a champion cyclist, his wife was an opera singer. Whatever has happened to the world has resulted in tumultuous wind, and her room, with her posters still on the walls, has blown open in a scene of destruction.

What once was a city now lies in ruins, as the man plunges over again into his task, to power the generator for some brief moments of relief, the bright light in his kitchen, to boil the kettle for a morning coffee, and to hear his wife’s voice singing. This desperate need to retrieve the past consumes all his present in a world with no future.