Afterimage [2016] – A Fitting Tribute to a Defiant Polish Artist

Acclaimed Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda’s final film Afterimage (Powidoki, 2016 -- Wajda died last October at the age of 90) captures the struggles faced by Polish avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893-1952) – marvelously played by Polish star Boguslaw Linda – during the last years of his life. Born in Minsk, graduated in St. Petersburg, Strzeminiski lost a leg and arm in WWI. He later attended state workshops in Moscow and got associated with great avant-garde artists like Chagall and Malevich. During the early 1920s he moved to Warsaw and developed his theory of Unism. Post World War II, he became an instructor at Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz (a city in Central Poland). Adored by students and faculties, Strzeminiski evolved into a fine theoretician and art historian. He also developed the ‘Neoplastic room’ in 1946, a unique exhibition space for showcasing the collection of avant-garde arts, built inside Lodz’ Museum Sztuki. However, the postwar Stalinist ideologies soon snuffed out the space for abstract arts. While many artists succumbed to the Party’s populist demands, Strzeminiski refused to compromise his artistic standards or views. For nearly two decades, director Wajda pondered over making this biopic. Initially, Wajda wanted to focus on the troubled relationship between Strzeminiski and his wife/famous Polish sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. Instead, he used a classical narrative structure to make a quietly brooding drama on the isolated yet defiant last days of Strzeminiski’s life.

Andrzej Wajda is one of the few directors who can employ allegory as a powerful tool, which is pretty evident in an earlier scene in Afterimage when Strzeminiski sits down to paint in his flat. A huge red banner bearing the visage of grim-faced Stalin is hoisted over the apartment building, coloring the walls and the empty canvas in bright red. Unable to paint, Strzeminski uses one of his crutches to tear a potion of the fabric to let in some light, which makes the lawmen to barge in and carry him to police headquarters. The giant red banner becomes a symbol for the loss of individuality (or a symbol of oppression). The film opens in 1948 and chronicles the mandate imposed by Cultural Ministry to only uphold arts related to ‘Socialist realism’. As a bureaucrat says, “in these times, we have only one choice”. Art that lacks strict ideology is considered to be an art hostile to socialist ideologies. The bald-headed despot minister doesn’t have the time or mind to appreciate abstract arts or champion individualism. Strezminiski openly denounces minister’s views that ‘art should have a clear political message’.

Strezminiski refusal to work within bureaucratic ranks strips him of his position at the university. He loses his gallery at the museum, and even dismissed from the artists association. Unable to find job anywhere within the system, Strzeminiski reels in poverty and faces humiliation everywhere he turns. He finds solace in the visits of his loyal students (among the students young Hania is infatuated with Strzeminiski), who are helping him to finish the radical work ‘Theory of Vision’. Apart from the students, Strzeminiski is cared by his smart, tough teenage daughter Nika (Bronislawa  Zamachowska). But his situation doesn’t get any better. He is reduced to painting large banners of Stalin to survive, and in turn for the worse, Strzeminiski is even denied the right to purchase paints. Furthermore, the onset of tuberculosis hacks away the little physical strength left within him.

Afterimage may not be one of the greatest works in Wajda’s extensive body of work. Nevertheless, it is a poignant study of a quietly rebellious artist trying to preserve his artistic integrity, in the face of oppressive doctrines. The script developed by Andrzej Mularczyk (based on Wajda’s idea) is totally devoid of hagiography notions. It was good decision to only refer to Strzeminiski’s difficult relationship with his ex-wife or his former acclaimed position rather than explain everything in detail. With his minimalist directorial approach, Wajda doesn’t shies away from depicting the harshness of Strzeminski’s physical and existential isolation. He doesn’t allow the artist to deliver loud proclamations or express the injustices done to him. Wajda even audaciously captures Strzeminiski’s graceless moments: for eg, the moment when the hungry artist licks the few drops of soup in empty plate, or showcasing his plight of drawing very large Stalin banners which earlier set off all the modes of oppression. Strzeminiski didn’t denunciate his choice of artistic expression to gain food-stamps and steady job. But at the same time, he wasn’t too prideful to deny all the essentials to survive. Director Wajda’s intention isn’t to capture the avant-garde artist’s glory. By focusing on the isolation and disintegration of the true artist, Wajda explores the ceding position of alleged intellectuals in the rise of populism or extreme nationalism. It is also interesting to note how totalitarian governments sought out arts with propagandist purposes to exploit citizen’s goodwill.

The movie title represents the shapes that linger in our eyes after it has been exposed to an image. Wajda’s recollection of Strzeminiski’s final days seems to be well-crafted afterimage of the old Poland (governed by brutal and foolish authorities). Although the systematic annihilation of Strzeminiski’s art and individualism looks relentlessly bleak, Wajda does find some hope, if not positive signs, in the young characters. The character of Strzeminski’s emancipated daughter Nika is wonderfully performed and well-written. Her sense of self survives despite the invasive doctrines. The quiet desperation as well as unbridled love between the father and daughter is also portrayed in a nuanced manner. Boguslaw Linda (Blind Chance, Psy, Man of Iron, etc) incredible acting style and physiognomy impeccably conveys depths of the artist’s anguish. He avoids sentimentality and didacticism to unwaveringly play out Strzeminiski’s misfortunes. Linda even elevates the narrative above its slightly monotonous tone (particularly in the later half). 


Afterimage (98 minutes) is a quiet, non-sentimental reflection on a famous Polish avant-garde artist’s struggles against Stalinist dogmas. The story of Wladyslaw Strzeminski is the perfect farewell subject matter for veteran film-maker Andrzej Wajda, whose art is often marked by individuals’ bold resistance against cruel establishment. 

Stories We Tell [2012] – A Multi-Layered Scrapbook

How should I describe the Canadian actress/film-maker Sarah Polley’s acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell (2012)? Is it an earnest effort by the film-maker to piece together a portrait of her mother, who passed away when Polley was eleven? Or is it a search for an answer to the alleged family secret – using means of art to get at the truth? Or is it about coming to terms with a harsh truth – a sort of therapy? Or is about the elusive nature of human memories?  The answer could be all and none; it may elicit admiration or aversion based on how we interpret it. Sarah Polley simply states that her film is about ‘our need to tell our stories and to understand them’. The first time I saw Stories We Tell I wasn’t very impressed. The plot description said that through series of interviews, Polley reveals truth about her family history. I am not the one who thinks, ‘Why should I watch a documentary made by a rich, white Canadian actress digging up her own past?’ but still I didn’t focus much to look through the smart layers, intertwined into a seemingly simple portrait of a mother. However, the second (and 3rd) time viewing have left me with a thought-provoking experience, enabling me to ponder over the documentary’s universal truth. Now I don’t think Stories We Tell is simply a film about well settled Polleys’ or just a pseudo-artistic exploration of memory; it’s much more than that – it asks ‘how would you shape your own story?’ ‘Forget about your objectivity on worldly matters and can you be anything but subjective when reiterating the legends in your own family?’ inquires this ingenious feature.

Director Polley is very much aware of the banality behind such a premise. So, despite opening the documentary with Canadian poet & novelist Margaret Atwood’s immersive words [“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness………..It’s only afterwards it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it to yourself or someone else?”] Polley shows us the slight artificiality inherent to this process. She frames the chief players (the family members) among the rigged cameras & mics, and asks them if they are nervous. She sort of breaks the fourth wall by introducing us the tale’s narrator – Michael Polley (Sarah’s father)—and even goes on to ask ‘who cares about our family anyway?’ The elder step-brother asks if the ‘angle is ok’; the elder sister drops in an ‘f-word’ and wonders if that's alright. These little awkwardness and hesitations hacks away at the clich├ęs of this process, extracting a chuckle or two from us. Old Mr. Michael Polley reads the narration he has written, and in it he refers to himself in third person. At the center of this family tale is Diane Polley, the deceased mother – a beautiful blonde with an incandescent smile – seen in the grainy home movies.

Sarah’s siblings, father Michael, friends and relatives recall the free-spirited nature of Diane, who always had a smile on her and immensely adored by the children. Michael, the stage actor, recollects the day he met Diane backstage and how it developed into decade-spanning romance. The first half of the tale tells the character contradictions between the couple – Michael, a quiet introvert and Diane, a whirlwind with lot of friends. Sarah has used professional actors [the footage are shot on super 8] to enact friends’ & families’ memories about the relationship between the couples. Diane, who is also a Toronto-based stage actor, chased upon her dreams to perform for a play in Montreal, while Michael gave up on acting and writing to pursue a simple job. He took care of the children. Couple of Diane’s friends state how she was disappointed in Michael, who is very talented than her, but wasn’t interested to come out of his small circle. Diane’s trip to Montreal and Michael timely visit for the weekends, rekindles the passion which for a long time had been dormant. At the age of 42, Diane gets pregnant with Sarah and at the age of 53 she dies to cancer (since her mother passed away at the age of 11, Sarah has little idea about her mother’s past).

Later in the tale, the bitter ending to Diane’s first marriage is revealed (three of Sarah’s siblings are from Diane’s first marriage). Polley keeps on providing visual accompaniment about Diane (from the words of her friends) by celebrating the woman’s positively infectious spirit and also sharply observing her impulsive behavior. Then, there’s the tale’s chief element, which all started as a dinner table joke. Sarah’s elder brother has once overheard his mother’s phone conversation with an alleged secret lover. He also heard rumors that Michael is not Sarah’s biological father. As a pre-teen, Sarah is often teased by her siblings about how she doesn’t look like their Michael at all. This seed of doubt has grown big along with Sarah’s growth and at some point she conversed with her mother’s alleged lovers to find out if such rumors are indeed true. This search leads Sarah to Harry Gulkin, a producer with whom Diane has once worked. Out of nowhere, the old man on their first conversation has confessed that he is Sarah’s biological father. He thinks she would have already known this. Sarah comes across this truth in 2007 and confirms it with a DNA test, but reveals it to Michael only in 2009, after a reporter got wind of the fact.
Although the vexed family history of the Polley’s seems simple like that of a drama set on the suburbs, it has layers like that of an onion, thanks to Sarah Polley’s magnificent direction. Of course, it demands a lot of focus to peel through the onion layers to ponder upon its multi-faceted nature. With the grainy, jerky super 8 camera footage (contrived as well as the real one), the documentary makes us believe that it's searching for an elusive truth of a particular person. This elusive truth is not the kind we encountered in Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Rashomon”. The people interviewed are not providing contradictory details about Diane’s character. While films like “Rashomon” through dramatic means, profoundly contemplates on the nature of truth, limited by perspective, Stories We Tell looks at different aspects of a truth, conjured by memories, which itself is made by our ordinary emotional needs. Compared to bigger contradictions in the versions of truth in a dramatic movie, Polley’s real story just observes the small differences we make to retell a fact or a particular life incident. For example, Diane’s friends state how she knew that she’s gonna die soon, whereas Michael tells she didn’t know and recounts the day Diane started scraping and varnish or re-paint large tables – a project that would have taken weeks. “That’s a person who is still planning how her house is going to look. I don’t think she got real sense…….” Michael says. It’s not that Diane’s friends or Michael is lying about it; it means they have formed a perception based upon the experiences they had back then. The memories later make those experiences the truth and actually such different facets of truth makes a person multi-dimensional (an enigma – and who doesn’t want to be a bit of an enigma rather than our friends & families reminiscing a single, boring version of our life).

When Sarah Polley reaches a point to uncover the truth, she wonders if this is what she wanted to do. The constant introspective examination of film-maker’s intent and the ‘meta-nature’ transcends this tale from being personal to universal. When she comes to a conclusion that there is no single, fixed version of her mother, the artificiality of using the professional actors are revealed. The actors in those footage re-enact particular memory from different interviewees. The acting is bit stilted to observe the ‘truth’ of individual memory. May be, the constant self-examination of a documentary’s limitations is not related to the story of Diane Polley (to show what kind of a person she is), but such an approach makes it quite an acute examination of how we tell our stories, patching up random, unforgettable memories.Michael Polley, towards the end, also questions how the editing process would make her select certain views to construct one version of the tale or Diane's portrait. Sarah Polley plays with this idea in the small scene during end credits. With all the numerous footnotes provided by half-siblings, father, and old friends, we seem to know the kind of person Diane is and why she did certain things in life, but Polley drops in that little, darkly comical information, teasing us and asking: “Oh! You think you figured out everything about Diane, huh?” May be, Diane is ultimately unknowable, in the same way we and our loved ones remain to each other. And, this resulting question of ‘why’ that drives us to find the ‘unknowable element’ of a person is what makes all of us story-tellers and story-listeners. Eventually, Stories We Tell is could be about our inherent thirst to tell or shape our own personal stories.


The multi-talented artist Sarah Polley, through the kaleidoscopic tale of her family suggests that truth and memories may get lost in time, but what matters in life is to love & being loved.


The Student [2016] – An Angst-Ridden Teen Turns into Agent of Chaos

“Puberty is a temporary mental disorder” says a character Kirill Serebrennikov’s unnerving satirical drama The Student (2016). The film’s protagonist Veniamin Yuzhin aka Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) is not just going through maddening puberty, but also caught by the allure of religious dogma. His teenage angst mixes with fierce dedication to Christianity to stir-up collision between two extreme schools of thought. The movie is both a reflection on the contradictions within Russian schooling system and a universally resonant exploration of the roots of religious zealotry (or religious totalitarianism). The Student is based on German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s controversial work ‘Martyr’ (The Russian title for the movie (M)uchenik plays with words as muchenik means ‘martyr’ and uchenik means ‘student'). Director Kirill Serebrennikov (made acclaimed films like ‘Playing the Victim’, ‘Betrayal’) made The Student through independent producers, since the Russian government would have waved red-flag due to its political and religious themes. The movie was screened at 2016 Cannes – in Un Certain Regard section.

The Student opens with one of many prolonged, gracefully shot argument scenes (6 minute take) between teenager Venya and his tired single mother (Yuliya Aug). Venya has lanky, chiselled features and cloaked in total black (black t-shirt and jeans) throughout the narrative, except for the few moments he strips his clothing. In the heightened conversation, Venya and his mother move through the closed quarters of apartment, bickering over swimming classes, school life, and his newly found vigorous love for God. Venya often launches into religious tirade, integrating texts from Bible to support his argument. We wonder whether the teenager is just using Bible verses as a means to get to his mother or maybe overturn the whole apparatus of authority. The reason behind Venya’s rejection of swimming classes has spiritual perspective: as per the law recited by God, he is protesting against the bikini-wears of the female classmates. He even jumps into the pool, fully-clothed.

The silly antics of Venya make his mother to seek help from school administration. Headmistress (Svetlana Bragarnik) and most of her faculty finds the boy’s reasoning to be valid and imposes the rule of swim-suits. The open-minded biology teacher Elena (Victoria Isakova) disapproves the decision. In fact, she becomes Venya’s only rival. He launches into violent denunciations right in the middle of her class. It starts with ‘sex-education’ class, and to Elena’s dismay continues in the ‘evolution’ class. Instead of controlling Venya’s outburst and condemning his archaic, fundamentalist views, the headmistress turns a blind-eye, finding Elena’s teachings to be too progressive for the students. “The Church needs more people like you” says the school priest. Venya also attracts adoration from couple of classmates – the class heartthrob Lidia (Aleksandra Revenko) and the bullied Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin). However, both the classmates’ interests are interested in physical closeness than the spiritual. Moreover, Venya finds it very hard to shake off Grigoriy’s affections for him. Venya also decides to do the ‘necessary’ in order to spread his dominant religious doctrine.

The film reaches fascinating heights when it pits the two ideologically different personalities (Venya and Elena) for the verbal clashes. The teenager’s literal interpretation of the ambiguous scriptures and his rigid recitation of Bible passages disorientate Elena, who is looking to find foothold through scientific reasoning. Nevertheless, the old peoples in authority find it easy to kow-tow to conservatism than progressive ideals. It’s an indictment of the unprecedented rise of orthodoxy in Russia. Furthermore, in a broader sense it explores the little steps that put our societies in the paths of totalitarianism. Director Serebrennikov and DP Vladislav Opelyants (worked in the films of renowned Russian film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov) have done an excellent job in creating this kinetic film-form. Many of the sequences are shot in long takes (after repeated rehearsals). The presence of Venya, dressed in black and speaking with booming voice, starkly reflects the catastrophe he is waiting to unleash. Except for Elena and Venya, Serebrennikov frames other supporting characters as beings solely anchored in bodily existence (by bowing to fundamentalism and clinging to physical desires).

 Yet, for all its riveting staging and relevant social commentary, The Student never turns into a profound piece. Part of the reason lies in the characterization, which doesn’t have much depth and even at times threatens to turn into caricatures. Venya’s sermons do tend to cause fatigue in the latter parts, largely because the character remains the same; he doesn’t go through an arc. It is understandable that the pains of adulthood has set him to embrace God (in a fierce manner), but we definitely can’t empathize with him. The same goes for Elena, whose ideals makes us side with her, but we aren’t fully devastated by her emotional conflicts. The glimpse of empathy is seen within Grigoriy, although his character arc offers nothing new (or of importance). Thankfully, the haunting ending and the terrific central performances – from Skvortsov and Isakova – doesn’t completely lessen the impact of the subject matter. 


The Student (114 minutes) is an intriguing parable on religious fundamentalism which often serves as point of aggression and terrorism between two individuals or even nations. Despite its on-the-nose symbolism and near-exhausting sermons, its rounds of moral wrestling leave us with lot to contemplate.  


Hounds of Love [2016] – An Unnerving Character-Driven Crime Tale

In its intention to explore the mind of a serial killer and the societal atmosphere he lives in, one that prepares him to commit gruesome crimes, movies mistakenly tend to lessen the impact of the crime, or even worse, it glamorizes the violence. Australian film-maker Ben Young’s feature-film debut Hounds of Love (2016) doesn’t make those grave errors. It’s more about the psychology of people committing such brutal acts than being a visceral presentation of brutality. In Hounds of Love, Ben Young focuses on a quite simple-looking suburban couple; on their symbiotic relationship. The shock comes from what these couples do. The ‘how’ is only suggested (left to our imagination), yet the uncompromising presentation of the two characters and their terrifying performances are disturbing enough, providing none of the catharsis through bloody violence.

Ben Young has cited that his mom, who writes crime fiction, as the source of inspiration for this story. He borrowed her book on female serial killers and found within the stories of couples killing together. The script and the character psychology are based on different 'couple' serial killers. Director Young also decided to set the film in 1980s to subvert the presence of contemporary technological devices and these suburbs from the 80s has a bland, wasteland looks to it. Hounds of Love opens in Western Perth in the year 1987 (in the 1980s Perth couples David and Catherine Birnie killed four young women between age 15 and 30). The opening sequence announces Young’s keen directorial abilities. In the extreme slow-motion opening shot, there’s closeups of school girls playing ‘Netball’. The perverse gaze of the voyeuristic camera is centered on the girls’ torsos and we come to realization that the vile gaze is that of a man sitting inside a nondescript car, waiting for a target. The seemingly affable couple successfully lures one girl, walking home in the punishing summer heat, into their car. The teen is taken to the couples’ bland suburban dwelling, tied to a bed, raped, tortured, and after eating the breakfast next day, the man kills the girl and buries the corpse.         

The predatory eyes that chose the ‘target’ and one which seemed gentle enough for the teenager to get inside the car belongs to John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth). Director Young doesn’t give away graphic details of the killing. He simply shows boarded-up window, closed door, and bruised hands tied to a chain to grimly suggest the fate of the girl. The visuals simply focus on how these couples go through the motions, before and after committing the cruel act. It’s like a routine thing, devoid of emotions; similar to some people switching on TV after long day of work, and impassively looking at the images floating on the screen. Few streets away from John and Evelyn live the rebellious 17 year old girl Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings). She has come to spend the weekend with the mother (Susie Porter), whom she hates for leaving her and the father. When mother grounds Vicki for the night, she sneaks out her room’s window. En-route to a party, Vicki encounters the dangerous couples, who promises pot if she comes to their house for a fleeting minute (as a couple they seem more trustworthy). Drugged and chained to a bed, Vicki later witnesses and desperately tries to exploit the dynamic dysfunctional relationship between John and Evelyn in order to escape.   


Spoilers Ahead..............

As I mentioned earlier, much of the unforgivable crimes take place off-screen. Writer/director Young is interested in exploring the manipulator-manipulated status between John and Evie. John is a walking time-bomb, while Evie is a very vulnerable woman. She is profoundly manipulated by John so as to succumb to his loathsome desires. He also gradually erases her identities (particularly the identity of mother – Evie's two children are detained, may be due to John’s pedophilia) to make her feel that life isn’t possible without him. All she experiences is the twisted sense of love, which John showers upon her, by allowing participation in his deviant sexual acts. For Evelyn, the fact that John dismembers the girls after sex proves she is the only love in his life (a twisted way of reasoning indeed). The central conflict arises when John finds Vicki attractive to try and solely violate her. Naturally, Evelyn finds this unbearable. The way Young explores this abusive relationship makes strong thematic statements on the dark side of love, domestic violence, and ingrained misogyny. But most importantly, despite spending quite a lot of time on Evelyn’s perspective, Young doesn’t try to minimize her status of an accomplice; or bestows her character a sudden change of mind. Evelyn remains truly remains disturbing to the end, because John is driven by a very sick mindset, while Evelyn has done it for her idea of ‘love’. Vicki’s character is written as much more than rebellious-teen-turned-victim. Both her determination to outsmart her captors and the sense of utter hopelessness is inquired equally. The precarious relationship between Vicki and her mother isn’t fully developed. But I liked how the mother character strongly comes back into the narrative (towards the end), who unlike others believes that her daughter could be found. Moreover, Vicki’s freedom eventually rests on her mother’s belief.

The faded-out color palette and the dingy neighborhood with sinister goings behind white picket fence and closed doors reflect Lynchian imagery. The co-existence of depravity and the mundane life reminds us of the opening sequence in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Nevertheless, Ben Young’s visual sharpness doesn’t boast heightened reality or surreality of Lynch. The visuals stresses on the dichotomy: the presence of monstrosity within ordinary. The setting also brings to mind the other two excellent Australian crime films (both based on true events) – David Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010) and Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011). There’s something Kubrickian in the way Young uses music to not only place us in the era, but also exhibit the jarring mindset of the dysfunctional couples (similar to the use of Singin’ in the Rain song in ‘A Clockwork Orange’). Perhaps, the best thing about Young’s direction is making us fully grasp John and Evie’s mental sickness without ever unfurling the details of their actions (the scene when John kicks at the dog is truly horrific although the frame only captures his face). Emma Booth and Stephen Curry are brilliant as the central pair. Curry, who is a well-praised comedy actor, is cast against type. He gracefully wears the mask of loving husband, while also tearing it up to some pretty brutal things. Booth magnificently showcases her inner turmoil, convincingly moving between the roles of victim and victimizer.  Cummings is courageous to accept the role of emotionally and physically battered Vicki and she wholly traumatizes us. 


 Hounds of Love (108 minutes) subvert the usual serial-killer theme trappings to offer a genuinely chilling film experience. Deubutant film-maker Ben Young’s remarkable film-form and the riveting performances perfectly achieve the task of disturbing the hell out of us.