Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 6 
18 Mar

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Dorota Kedzierzawska's Wrony (Crows, 1994) POLAND
In the absence of love
The films of Dorota Kędzierzawska

Using individual female protagonists and employing a distinctive visual and narrative style, Kędzierzawska highlights broader social tragedies, as Monika Braid explains.

Dorota Kędzierzawska, born in 1957 in Łódż to a director of film documentaries, Jadwiga, makes films very rarely but with great care and balance. She is a director of the 1990s and has so far produced only four films, all very idiosyncratic and standing out in both subject and style, consequently marking her place in international cinema.

Kędzierzawska obtained her degree in culture studies at the University of Łódż, and went on to begin directing in Moscow. On her return to Łódż and final graduation, few could comprehend her approach to film. Her ideas were strong yet seemingly impenetrable to others at first.

Longing and loneliness

It can be argued that Kędzierzawska is a skilful portraitist and her main models are young girls. However, the drawings are done with very fine lines and the girls are only a casual medium for uncovered themes and Kędzierzawska's philosophy on life.

Dorota Kedzierzawska
Portrait of a

Following a feature made for television, Koniec świata (The End of The World, 1988), Kędzierzawskamade the first of her striking films, Diabły, diabły (Devils, Devils, 1991), which clearly signalled the debut of a significant new director. It is the story of a teenage girl named Mała (played by Justyna Ciemny) and her first experience of love, which coincides with the arrival of a band of Roma.

The film portrays a disquieting build up of sensuality and burgeoning eroticism. The wizardry of the Roma is filmed in numerous close-ups mingled with equally close and penetrating shots of the teenage heroine. There is a fervent link between the two protagonists, namely Mała and the Roma. There is fascination and bewilderment on both sides. They recognise each other for the qualities they share: pride, longing for freedom, a feel for, and inseparability with, nature and simplicity; there is also a hint of a mutual admiration on both parts.

There is also an overwhelming feeling of desire to join a group one could belong to on the part of Mała, but she is hesitant because it means confronting her dreams. It may be too painful to cross boundaries and make a qualitative shift from delusion to a stark physicality.

The film contains much mystery and very little is said in dialogue.For example, who are the devils? The initial sense is that they are the Roma. They "invade" the village and cast "spells" on innocents. Mała is the only one who maintains contact. Is it because she is a witch herself? Her face, present on the screen almost permanently, shows a delicate creature of soft features though with sombre eyes filled with an inner weight.

It matches and echoes the face of the old Romany woman—obstinate deep eyes, with the apparent power to look beyond motives and thoughts in order to rearrange the diverse human "landscape" into one true picture. Her face smiles often, making her less fearful and giving the impression that she is willing to share her wisdom. It is beautiful in its tranquillity and has quasi-hallucinatory powers, as if the Romani is conjuring spells and knows the future. She has a knowledge beyond ours as watchers, she is casting events in the film as an omniscient narrator.

A green and desolate field

Can it really be said that these loitering and melancholically singing layabouts, peacefully arriving with their carts and horses, do any harm? Perhaps the people from the village are infinitely more vicious and evil in their laughable attempts to get rid of the "tribe," ironically led by a priest as the guard of what is right for the people. His face shows no signs of wisdom, he bears the smile of a simple village man—while the shot of the black figure of a priest set against a green desolate field presents the reality of Polish provincial life.

There is also another ambiguous character in the film. The old village woman (a grotesque alter-ego to the Romany woman) who scares Romany girls with the future written in her palm. She has no trace of dignity, rather some nervousness and spiteful wickedness as her only means of power. Her pretence to elegance, visible in the shabby black coat and a worn-out hat, only underlines her lack of it.

She also has a story set in her eyes: some form of longing together with the sadness of a humiliated creature on a smiling face which looks like a wrinkled little apple. What does her hand say? We do not know. There is a humiliated wisdom somewhere in there which a parochial society relegates to the rank of village fool.

The intensity of close-ups in the film is released by the breathing space created by long shots of green and yellow fields, raw meadows, sandy rocks and cliffs. Frequent wide shots of children playing in a barren, severe and empty landscape give the sense of fragile and familiar beings lost in space—spirits who have taken a wrong path down to earth. At one point, however, a line of girls in white First Communion dresses following a black-robed priest is juxtaposed with the picture of the black figure of a little Romany boy shouting freely into the air, the former resembling a queue of obedient geese in contrast to the solitude and happiness of an exuberant and rampant animal.

Strength in spite of frailty

The province is populated by people with closed and narrow minds, strong in their opinions but hugely influenced by the group mentality. The arrival of the Roma, who are seen as an approaching danger, rocks the foundations of their stability. . There act as if there were no way to communicate, believing their best apparent defence against this strangeness is attack. Mała and her single mother live on the outskirts of the village society and that forced position gives them ability to care less about the group and have more tolerance towards the newcomers.

The villagers, Mała and her mother and the Roma are evidently divided by cultural differences. For a young girl, the first awakening of her sexuality is intriguing. Unknown impulses push her curiosity to investigate. Roma, so colourful, free and sensual are fascinating for her. The subtle picture of eroticism which unveils in front of Mała is a lesson about herself. She needs guidance of some kind and finds it in a mature Romany man who is, in turn, bewitched by her fragile, delicate freshness. Being looked at by a grown-up man she gains confidence and joins him in a dance. There she finds herself, a mixture of abounding beauty and an awoken sex appeal.

The scene reaches its anticlimax when villagers charge the Roma with a water cannon and their opponents attempt to resolve the tension by dancing in the streams of water. When it gets too much, the Romany man sizes Mała and puts a knife to her throat. All this is played out with the same undertones, the change of mood comes later then the actual visual image of him holding a knife

The original musical phrase continues, but all the motion around them slows visibly down to total stillness and the eventual backing off of the villagers. The girl is freed and calmly willing to continue the interrupted scene. She is obviously an unusual girl, almost male in her rationality, and the play between her fragility and her strength of character is the key to this film.

In contrast, the school teacher is a stuttering, somewhat crushed individual of similar age to the Romany man. Mała tests her boundaries on him. It is clear who is the stronger in this relationship. The teacher's dismissal of her looks proves to be his weakness and Mała takes advantage of it.

A kidnapped happiness

In Wrony (Crows, 1994), the central place is given once again to a little girl, this time set against the background of a small town. It also is a film about love, but this time about the absence of it. Wrona, the skinny and mouthy girl of a fragile build with a face of both an innocent and a scamp, kidnaps another little girl (Maleństwo) from the neighbourhood. She does so in order to find someone to love and to be loved herself.

Dorota Kedzierzawska's Wrony (Crows, 1994)
Young "mother" and "daughter"

Wrona, whose mother is tired, busy and has virtually no spare minute, intuitively comes to the conclusion that giving someone love gives her the right to get some of it back. The question that arises is: how can someone who did not experience much love themselves provide it for another? We witness the absorbing mixture of tenderness and aggression, playfulness and rebuking, cheerful pranks, grumbling helplessness and resourceful drive. She wants the kidnap to be "for life," to give Maleństwo or to pretend to give, at least for a while, a place in her life and fill it with everyday exertions and fuss. Thus she can evoke an illusion of the longed for reality missing in her own life.

Once again, the film is set in a provincial town. Simplicity, roughness and signs of impoverishment are implanted not so much as to make a point about it as a cause of the situation, but rather to underline the frailty of the girls. A characteristic feature of Kędzierzawska's films is the contrast built between an alluring portrayal of the world and the roughness of the characters' immediate surroundings. In Wrony, it is a poor, insular Polish town by the sea; in Diabły, diabły, it is a remote village situated in lush, green but empty fields; later, in the film Nic (Nothing, 1998), it is a big city, an old town house and the difficult life which is led there.

This environmental desolation common to Kędzierzawska's films is not a theme or course of action, it is part of an ideal landscape for framing peoples' inadequacies, problems and the solitude encountered by strong personalities striving for individual independence with powerful instincts for life. The presence of poverty reveals plainness, the core of existence without its civilised accessories—with no sophistication or makeup. It prevents the distortion of an image. Wrona is coarse not because she is poor, but because there is nothing to obscure this roughness with (e.g. a nice dress).

On the other hand, the sophistication of Kędzierzawska's workmanship produces a visual fête. In Wrony, the refrain of running girls accompanied by a musical leit-motif recalls the children in Diabły, diabły. The same shots against the sun which make shilouettes of the children, the dramatic, spirit-like and typically spacious shots set amongst the freedom of nature and the rickety trees and the never ending, empty seaside. Such aesthetics create a fairy tale out of originally grim surroundings.

In search of the raw self

The choice of characters and actors is also symptomatic. The girls (Mała and Wrona) are of a dainty build with revealing sings of forthcoming beauty in contrast to their blunt loutish behaviour. The choice of the young actress (Karolina Ostrożna) in Wrony is almost anecdotal. After several unsuccessful auditions, Kędzierzawska eventually spotted a girl playing in the street, ambitiously trying to score points in a game and failing, generously swearing about her bad fortune. She chose this small, impudent girl, with a spark in her character, rude, unruly and with no "civilised" cover—the layer forced upon children by adults and society. "Children are so open," says the director, and it is apparent that they are perfect medium to reveal the true picture of human essence.

Kędzierzawskais interested in a search for the intimate, hidden corners of the psyche, lying under a surface that can form an unpleasant, disturbing yet intriguing picture. She engages the audience with secretive, brusque but brave girls and takes these girls as a starting point for an investigation into the inner, rich world of their characters, unexplored by and unknown to adults.

Kędzierzawska's representation of children can be interpreted in different ways. The children can be read as "fragile little beings" rather than little people with little problems, as is the case in many films about children. Their problems manifest themselves, quintessentially, on a large and unsolvable scale and are of the kind usually associated with the typical adolescent's life: solitude, desire for loveand a lack of a place in the world. However, we do not pity Wrona as a child only, but as a human being like ourselves with no part in anybody's life. Hence the reference to crows—hovering aimlessly in the air above.

Traditionally, the representation of young girls in films is as daughters or lovers—exciting objects which evoke the first sexual fascination for boys in their youth. For Kędzierzawska, however,a young girl is a friend—and also a wronged entity.

Unravelling minds

In Nic, we are presented with the story of a young mother of three, with a harsh and abusive husband. When she shows a need for a sign of tenderness and feeling, he is abrupt and brutally cold. She finds herself pregnant and, after a tragic attempt to abort the child, she gives birth and buries the new-born in the yard. Brought to court and asked whether she has anything to say to justify her actions she replies: "nothing."

Dorota Kedzierzawska's Nic (Nothing, 1998)
Nic : A dramatic cry for love

As with Wrony, the film is a dramatic cry for love, a disturbing picture of a lost being which does not fit and feels she has no right to exist, misunderstood, ashamed of her whole existence and with an irrational desperation informing her actions. The concept of someone listening to her problems is out of the question. There is no rational interpretation of Hela's (the mother, played by Anita Borkowska-Kuskowska) behaviour. Emotion, the "pain of the soul"—a fundamental constituent of human beings—is not to be discussed in courts.

The belief that one's existence is conveyed by one's relations to others (with love being the strongest of links between people) and that a lack of it leads to detachment from life and reality is a fundamental presence in Kędzierzawska's films, which share the philosophy that emotional logic is opposed to cold rationalism.

The murder in Nic might be compared to the shocking scene of infanticide in Walerian Borowczyk's Dzieje grzechu (Story of Sin, 1975) where Ewa Pobratyńska (played by Grażyna Długołęcka) kills her baby after a savage birth by throwing it into the outside toilet. It is the same painful image of a hunted down woman losing her senses and led by shreds of twisted logic.

Although the story is taken directly from a daily paper, Nic manages to escape the character of an investigative report. Kędzierzawska's visual finesse creates a form of intimate poetry rather than a social comment. The fate of this woman is so well placed in the context of contemporary Poland that it instantly becomes universal.

It is remarkable that Kędzierzawska's sophistication reaches its highest point in a film that deals with the most awful subject. Her imagination places a tragedy on a large social scale in the context of an individual and makes it into a refined picture of the world. Her work is a brave and successful venture that gives a bright, new light to films not only about women, but the human condition in general.

Monika Braid

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Also of interest
About the author

Monika Braid graduated in film studies from Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She works as the film programmer at the Polish Cultural Institute in London (which organised the recent "20 million Polish women" season, at which Kędzierzawska's Wrony played) and writes widely on Polish films.

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