On a Sunday morning last June, the second day of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, a few dozen festival delegates showed up to watch two short films from Poland. With most of the rest of the festival either still in bed, or attending one of the many other offerings going on elsewhere, the large cinema had more empty seats than full. They don’t know what they were missing.
I was excited to be there to see the films and moderate the Q&A after the screening, and looking forward to meeting Aneta Kopacz, the director of Joanna, at 40 minutes, the longer of the two films. I had seen Joanna in my batch of films I watch as one of Doc/Fest’s previewers. In eight or so years of previewing, it was the film that has probably stood out the most. I had watched it on my IPad in bed, knowing nothing about it other than its title, and found myself gripped – and very moved. It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of a young woman dying of cancer, and trying to enjoy her last days with her husband and son. Although I learned later that the subject was a well-known blogger, that information to me was not important to the story which unfolded on screen, and I left it out of my write-up for the festival. It was simply a universal story of love and life, wondrously filmed by Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal. When I met Aneta she was lovely and articulate about the film, but torn about the fact that she was missing her own young daughter’s birthday to discuss a film all about making the most of the short, precious time you have with your children.
The second film screening that morning, Our Curse, was a total unknown to me. Having met the director, Tomasz Śliwiński, briefly before the screening, I settled in only to find myself watching Tomasz and his wife on screen struggling through the shock of their infant son Leo being diagnosed with a serious incurable disorder. Any parent who has been launched into the horrifying world of a sick child will marvel at how Tomasz had the wherewithal to make it. It very much evokes the exhaustion and shock that dominate those early months, as they bring their son home and learn how to live together as a family very different than the one they had expected. It’s also a wonder of a film, beautifully made, and humbling to watch.
Although they were made very differently – one purely observational, the second autobiographical – both films reflect profound, universal themes – and are crafted with artistry and sensitivity. They are my favourite kind of films. During the Q&A afterwards, both filmmakers spoke movingly about their films, and the difficulties of filming in such emotional settings. I emerged from the session, as I’m sure others did, feeling I had experienced something really quite profound in this double bill of films probing at life, and wishing that more people could see them.
All these months later, I seem to have got my wish. To my amazement, both films have received Oscar nominations for short documentary. I was staggered when I heard – two Polish docs? This isn’t the foreign language category after all. But I’m delighted – and particularly pleased to see that the New York Times has made Our Curse available as part of its Op-Docs strand. Please watch it, and share. Films like these, which humanely honour life in all its messy wonder, deserve to be seen.
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