12 Oct 2017

Poland’s gov't reaches for film industry’s throat

The quality of modern Polish filmmaking won Poland its first Oscar (for Ida in 2014) and brought moviegoers back to the cinemas in numbers that allow the industry and its artists to thrive. There is much to lose. 

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
Source: Gazeta Wyborcza
Poland’s
gov't reaches for film industry’s throat - NewsMavens

Why this story matters:

Many Polish filmmakers are in a panic this week over the sudden, unwarranted firing of the director of PiSF -- the Polish National Film Institute.  

Magdalena Sroka was halfway through her tenure when the culture minister fired her on trumped-up allegations that the institute’s own advisory board said were unconvincing. In response, a group of women film industry professionals organized industry-wide protests in support of Sroka. In their manifest, they point out that the institute’s independence from politics is paramount to its continued success in supporting quality filmmaking in Poland.

And they are right. Yes, the deputy culture minister reacted to the protest with textbook correctness and invited industry reps to a sit down over the issue. Yes, he assured everyone that PiSF would continue to be independent. But then, in an unprecedented demonstration of government interference, his boss turned around and fired the director anyway.

Perhaps no one would be hitting the panic button if this was an isolated event. But it’s not. When the PiS (Law and Justice) party gained the presidency and parliamentary majority two years back they began a massive coordinated campaign to replace professionals in government positions, state-owned companies, and public media with loyalists. Likewise, NGOs funded by the previous government have seen funding siphoned to new organizations created by more loyalists. Everyone working for an organization with even a trace of state funding -- from theater directors to oil company executives and execs at the national bank -- is now a party member or related to one.  There is absolutely no reason to think that PiSF will be an exception to this rule. Magdalena Sroka was the first to go. Her replacement will likely clean out the rest of the staff to make room for PiS supporters.

Why does this matter? Because PiSF is a really unique idea. Created in 2005, the institute’s purpose is to make independent Polish filmmaking possible. The institute co-finances many of the country’s biggest productions and assists in the distribution and promotion of Polish films aboard.  Thanks to PiSF, Polish cinema was reborn over the last 12 years.

The quality of the filmmaking won Poland its first Oscar (for Ida in 2014) and brought moviegoers back to the cinemas in numbers that allow the industry and its artists to thrive. In 2016, a record breaking 50 million cinema tickets were sold and amoung the top ten grossing films, five were Polish productions. So, there is much to lose.

The threat is not that PiS loyalists will be from an opposing political camp, but that they will not have professional credentials. This distrust of professionals, experts, foreign diplomas, and global quality standards is a hallmark of Poland’s ruling party. For this reason, PiS-managed public broadcasting has plummeted in ratings and their flagship news programs have lost all semblance of journalistic credibility. If the same happens to Polish films when PiS takes over the National Film Institute, a young and vulnerable industry will falter and an important channel of communication between Polish artists and the world may be lost.

Whatever Poland’s governments have done in the past, Poles have always had artists to fall back on. Behind the iron curtain, Andrzej Wajda told our tale in The Man of Iron and later Kieślowski in his cult trilogy Three Colors. Since PiSF was formed, Poland’s film talent emerged from the underground that gave us those names. If the institute becomes a puppet in the current conservative government’s hands, then that voice will once again fall to a whisper.

Details from the story:

  • Last week, Magdalena Sroka, director of the Polish National Film Institue (PiSF), was accused of writing and sending a letter to an American film production studio with derogatory comments about the current government
  • The letter in question was sent in May, 2017. Sroka was at the Cannes Film Festival at the time
  • The letter, she claims, was written in her absence by an employee who ended it with a scan of Sroka’s signature.  Sroka later dismissed the employee
  • Professionals making up Poland’s film industry gathered in support of Sroka during an advisory board meeting at which she made her case. They were joined by Polish filmmaker and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland who sent a letter of support from the US, where she resides
  • Deputy Culture Minister Paweł Lewandowski met with representatives of the filmmaking industry to discuss their concerns over Sroka’s firing. He assured them that PiSF would remain independent of government influence
  • The PiDF advisory board backed Magdalena Sroka in defense of the culture minister’s accusations
  • On Monday, 9 Oct. Culture Minister Piotr Gliński fired Sroka from her position as director of The Polish National Film Institute two years ahead of her contract running out

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