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The 27th Polish Film Festival in America

Billed as “the most extensive showcase of Polish cinema outside of Poland,” the 27th version of the Polish Film Festival in America brings 20 new dramas, plus 10 older titles dating from 1917 to 1977. Twenty-six documentaries and five shorts are also slated. From November 6th through 22nd, the festival screens at two Chicago screening rooms and Muvico Rosemont 18, a multiplex in suburban Rosemont, Illinois.

The festival serves the city’s large Polish community, besides cineastes. Every year, festival founder Christopher Kamysze books a few entries that screen here before they open in Poland. 

Popular commercial features include “Karbala” by Krzyszto Lukaszewicz. Touted as a box office record-breaker in Poland, this timely Iraq drama depicts Polish and Bulgarian soldiers defending Karbala’s city hall in April 2004. Non-disclosure clauses for their “stabilization mission” contracts supposedly erase the true record of a three-day engagement with Shiite forces. 

Four features in the Polish Film Festival in America screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. The annual European Union Film Festival also brings Polish fare to Chicago.

Mortality is a motif in several features available for preview. Death by cancer and killers also drives plots. The German occupation, underground resistance, Holocaust and Soviet occupation are traditional touchstones for political documentaries and period dramas in this nationally themed festival.

Opening Night on November 7th (7pm, Muvico) brings “These Daughters of Mine” by Kinga Debska to the festival. Its Polish theatrical release is on January 15, 2016. Poland’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film—"11 Minutes" by Jerzy Skolimowskiis the Closing Night feature on November 22nd (5pm, Muvico).

Among sponsors are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, Polish Film Institute and Polski FM. “The festival was launched in 1989 after a collapse of communism in Poland when official contacts with the country were again possible,” states the fest site. Visitors to the site can glean from bios that most directors graduated from Polish film academies, though a few were initially trained in such unlikely specialties as philology, ethnography and law.

Warsaw composer Marcin Pukaluk will accompany two silent works on accordion and electronic instruments. “The Polish Dancer” (1917) by Alexander Hertz, starring Pola Negri, and “The Self-Seeker” (1929) by Nikolai Shpikovsky (“Bread” and “Chess Fever”), play on November 15 at 5:30 pm at the Gallery Theatre, site of the festival offices at Society for Arts, 1112 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Narratives by Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk and six other Polish directors comprise a retrospective cued to the “70th Anniversary of the Victory of Fascism” (aka, the Allied defeat of the Axis in World War II). The National Film Archives and Nike Foundation helped program this series.

The most audaciously styled feature is Lukasz Barczyk’s “Influenza” screening on November 21st (7:30pm at Muvico). Its original Polish title “Hiszpanka” translates as “Spaniard.” Set in 1918 during the Spanish influenza pandemic, this fantasy-inflected film, alternately titled “Influenz” on screen, imagines telepathic influences over famed Polish pianist Jan Paderewski (Jan Frycz). “Influence” is a title used in some festivals.

Officially commissioned for the 95th anniversary of the Wielkopolska Uprising, “Influenza” pits Doctor Manfred Abuse (Crispin Glover) against Rudolf Funk (Artur Krajewski) to control the mind of Paderewski. Will the high-profile patriot boost national morale in Poznan by proclaiming: “Poland has been reborn”? Will a long-range cannon code-named “Elephant” arrive in time to blast the Prussians? Meanwhile, Theosophists stage a play called “The New Homeopathy of Evil.”

A more tantalizing question is whether the key conceit of Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception” influenced Barczyk’s seance sequences. Mind games, indeed.

In “Karski” writer-director Magdalena Lazarkiewicz borrows a different framing device—this one from Andrzej Wajda’s ideological drama “Man of Marble” (1976), wherein a documentary director pursues the truth about an historic Polish icon. Lazarkiewicz here profiles Jan Karski (1914-2000), known as a WWII courier with a keen memory who brought word of the Holocaust to the outside world. 

Olga (Julia Kiev) and Luk (Piotr Glowacki) are two young filmmakers with creative differences and romantic conflicts. “You don’t have to make the next `Citizen Kane,’” she insists, as their deadline looms. We see the made-up making-of scenes of their actors rehearsing reenactments of episodes in Karski’s exploits, mixed with archival footage. This deconstructive exercise—unsubtly citing ISIS beheading videos—screens in Chicago at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., on November 6th (8:45pm) and in Rosemont on November 21st (7pm, Muvico).

Murder sprees and serial killers in this festival are largely fictional. “The Red Spider” draws on the 1960’s case of the Kracow teen christened “The Vampire” in urban legend. “It is the first film in Poland about a serial killer,” claims the producer. Marcin Koszalka scripts, shoots and co-edits an unsettling tale of guilt transfer. Is the audience implicated, if not tainted, by psychokiller entertainment? This screens once on November 18th (7:30pm, Muvico).

Writer-director Borys Lankosz crafts a more conventional murder mystery in “The Grain of Truth,” scheduled for November 8th (6:45pm, Facets) and November 10th (7:30pm, Muvico). A criminal investigator (Robert Więckiewicz) from Warsaw deals with a series of ritual murders in Sandomierz, a real town with medieval, maybe neolithic origins. 

Legendary blood libel (an alleged rite of Jews sacrificing Christian children and stealing blood) intertwines crimes and tragedies. Descendants of perpetrators and victims still reside there. Anti-semitic paintings appear in the plot, as well as hang in local churches to this day. 

“This is Poland—she must have been hated for something,” points out one local when the first exsanguinated corpse turns up. Shooting on location in Sandomierz, Lankosz must realize it’s risky to exorcise historic scapegoats and their revenants on screen.

“Photographer” goes back just one generation to track a serial killer. A seven-year-old boy with a camera in 1974 earned the tag of Photographer for snapping a grisly suicide in a town square. Besides that flashback, there’s footage of the boy in Moscow psychiatric ward. Turns out he only imitates the utterances of others, and never says anything in his own voice. Waldemar Krzystek writes and directs a frantic chase by two cops with troubled back stories of their own. This skillful generic thriller shows on November 9th (8:45pm, Facets) and November 16th (7:30pm, Muvico) 

Breast and lung cancer drive two earnest dramas about life lessons taught by disease. “Life Must Go On” by Maciej Migas follows a pathetic TV personality attempting to make amends in his last months. Screenings: November 8th (5pm, Facets) and November 12th (7:30pm, Muvico). In “Chemo,” two free spirits bond over suicidal impulses, then deal with a cancer diagnosis. Bartosz Prokopowicz directs this autobiographical melodrama playing on November 10th (8:45pm, Facets) and November 19th (7:30pm, Muvico).

Retinitis pigmentosa challenges a lovable high school teacher that writer-director Jacek Lusinski models on a real one in Lublin who lost his sight but kept his job. A laser vision correction company is the “exclusive sponsor” of “Carte Blanche" screenings on November 9th (7:30pm, Muvico) and November 11th (8:45pm, Facets).

Tough-to-stomach crime scenes, eating disorders, a random suicide and an occasional ghost serve up the mise-en-scene of Malgorzata Szumowska’s offbeat “Body.” Besides sporting what might be the most original opening and closing scenes in the festival, “Body” lends wry overtones to touching insights on life and death. 

“Polish people really believe in ghosts,” Szumowska told the Cineuropa site last February. “Poland is sometimes partly absurd, it’s partly surreal.”

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