The second edition of the Polish Film Festival in Amsterdam took place on 7 and 8 October. Organised by the Polish Culture NL Foundation, this year in collaboration with the De Balie debate centre, it attracted a great deal of interest, and its title was: Looking East. Understanding Central Europe.
Participants of the event had a chance to watch four films exploring the history and the present of the region, as well as to take part in discussions with experts.
The idea of the festival was to bring Central European issues to a Dutch audience. Central European history is rather poorly represented in the Netherlands, both in the educational system and in the public debate. This leads to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and marginalisation of this culturally rich and geopolitically very important area.
Meanwhile, the issue of Central Europe takes on new meanings in the face of the 20-month-long war in Ukraine caused by Russian aggression. This year’s edition of the festival opened up a space to talk about what it means to live in the shadow of Russia. How fear of Russian domination shapes attitudes and mentalities, how it dictates life choices.
The first day of the festival reflected on the history of Central Europe in the context of Soviet communist rule. It opened with the film Mr Jones (2019), directed by Agnieszka Holland. The script is based on the story of a Welsh journalist, Garreth Jones, who in the 1930s revealed the truth about the Great Famine in Ukraine (1932-33) to the Western countries. The Great Famine (Holodomor), classified today as genocide, is unfortunately rarely present in Western history books. It refers to the actions of Russia confiscating Ukrainian food in order to sell it for profit on world markets, convicting the Ukrainian population to inevitable starvation, attempting at the same time to break Ukrainian independence aspirations. According to various estimates, the Great Famine took the lives of between 3 million and as many as 12 million people.
Garreth Jones himself paid the highest price for his uncompromising pursuit of the truth. Kidnapped in central Mongolia, he was murdered on the orders of the NKVD, on 12 August 1935, aged just 30.
The film show was followed by a discussion with four panellists, Barbara Malak-Minkiewicz, Matt Steinglass, Anne-Lise Bobeldijk and Kateryna Kobchenko. The discussion began with a short presentation by the chairwoman of the Polish Culture NL Foundation, Bożena Kopczyńska, on the history of the Polish borders and aimed to show the audience, using Poland as an example, how fluid the borders of Central European countries were.
Participants in the discussion argued that it is much easier to understand contemporary Central Europe through its history, that Russia’s current military aspirations are deeply rooted historically, and how, in the face of one superpower’s dominance, the region’s states struggled to retain national identity.
The evening concluded with another film, ‘Jack Strong’ (2014), directed by Władysław Pasikowski. This is an excellent action movie with the script also based on a true story. Namely, one of the most exciting spy stories of the 20th century. The film features a Polish Army colonel, Ryszard Kukliński, who provided the CIA with information about the USSR’s war doctrine. Kukliński took enormous personal risks, but according to many historians, he contributed like no one else to pushing back the nightmares of nuclear war between East and West.
The second day of the festival was a look at the present and an attempt to understand how echoes of history still resonate in the ongoing war in Ukraine. Festival participants had the opportunity to learn how deeply the Russian aggression, which began not in 2022 but in 2014 in Crimea and the Donbass, has marked on human fates.
The first film presented on the day, Klondike (2022), directed by Maryna Er Gorbach, took the audience precisely back to 2014, showing the lives of fictional characters Tolik and Irka, who are about to become parents. The couple live in the Donetsk region, close to the Russian border, and their preparations for the birth of their child coincide with the shooting down of a passenger plane, flight MH17, and Russia’s invasion of the Donbas. The film sheds light not only on geopolitical issues, but more importantly on the lives of the people in the region, showing the difficult and often impossible choices they face.
After the emotional end of ‘Klondike’ and a short intermission, the final show of the festival took place. “The Hamlet Syndrome” (2021), directed by Elvira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski, is a documentary telling the story of five people who agreed to take part in a theatrical staging of Hamlet. The preparation of the performance was to be a way of working through the traumas of war. Not only those related to the fight against the Russian aggressor, but also those resulting from the conservative attitudes often found in Ukrainian society.
Working through the classic text provided a safe space for the characters to express their emotions. Adding a deeper meaning to the whole endeavour was the fact that during post-production Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The documentary was followed by a discussion with the filmmakers and cultural anthropologist and PhD student in social sciences, Anna Greszta. The interlocutors focused on the consequences that the hostilities on the Ukrainian population have brought. In this very personal conversation, the fact that the war started not in 2022, but in 2014 during the invasion of Crimea and Donbas, was strongly emphasised. Elvira Niewiera expressed her disappointment with the attitude of the Western countries, which, in her opinion, are not fulfilling their promises to Ukraine. When asked why she felt this way, Niewiera and the other interviewees agreed that the West fears potential retaliation due to its possible defeat of Russia. This fear limits their willingness to help Ukraine move towards freedom.
The repercussions of events in Central and Eastern Europe are and will continue to be felt in the West. And the more Russia shifts its sphere of influence westwards, the more the countries of Western Europe need to be prepared to face the problems that the central and eastern parts of our continent have faced so far. The rational step is therefore to learn about the history of the region, listen to people from there and draw conclusions.
The high attendance, engagement in discussions and emotional reactions of the audience allow us to believe that the festival has achieved its goal, contributing to a deeper knowledge, and understanding of Central and Eastern Europe. Besides, as Agnieszka Holland rightly says, “stories not told to the end will come back to haunt Europe”.