Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh film festival puts eyes on Poland's rich cinematic tradition

A man holds his hands above his head behind a small child. Both are looking at a person in military gear.
Agata Kubis
Polish Film Festival
Agnieszka Holland's "The Green Border" makes its Pittsburgh premiere as part of the Polish Film Festival.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Though it was overshadowed last week by the awful events in the Middle East, the news from Poland was as encouraging as it was surprising: In national elections, the center-right Civic Platform and two likely coalition partners outpolled the ruling Law and Justice Party, a nationalist, socially conservative outfit whose continued dominance many observers saw as a threat to democracy there.

There’s nothing partisan about Pittsburgh’s long-running Polish Film Festival, but the big election seems a good reason to catch up with films both old and new from that country’s rich cinematic tradition.

The festival is run by the Polish Cultural Council, a nonprofit whose executive director, Maria Staszkiewicz, previously guided the showcase as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival.

Staszkiewicz, who took the film festival solo last year, is a native of Poland who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1988. (Foodies will enjoy knowing that she is the mother of Thomas Skowronski, co-owner of Pittsburgh’s James Beard-nominated Apteka restaurant.)

WESA Arts Newsletter

Love stories about arts and culture? Sign up for the WESA Arts newsletter, delivered every Wednesday afternoon.

The 2023 festival runs Thu., Oct. 26-Nov. 4, with two distinct components: a retrospective for an iconic filmmaker and a slate of new films, all screened either at the Harris Theater or Row House Cinema.

This year’s retrospective celebrates Jerzy Skolimowski, who directed his first film in 1960 and who is still active at age 85. Last year, he garnered critical acclaim for his feature “Eo,” a deeply moving film whose hero is a donkey.

“He’s tremendous, and I think some of his films really deserve a second look,” said Staszkiewicz.

The fest’s five Skolimowksi features span from his earliest, made behind the Iron Curtain, to one of his newest. They include the semi-autobiographical “Walkover” (1965), in which Skolimowksi himself portrays an amateur boxer in a relationship with a young woman who manages a power plant. “The Shout,” made in England in 1978 and starring Susannah York, Alan Bates and John Hurt, was that rare horror film to win a top prize at Cannes. And in 2015’s “11 Minutes,” Skolimowski deconstructs Hollywood action films by cutting back and forth between a variety of characters in contemporary Warsaw living through the same brief span of time.

The six brand-new features in the festival include “Filip,” Michael Kwieciński’s World War II drama about a Polish Jew posing as a French waiter in occupied Paris, and “The Secret of Little Rose,” Jan Kidawa-Bloński’s thriller about a politician thrown into turmoil after her husband is killed in a terrorist attack.

Of topical interest is “Green Border,” the latest from Agnieszka Holland, famed director of the 1990 arthouse classic “Europa, Europa.” Her new drama is set amid the recent humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, and involves a Polish psychologist, a family of Syrian refugees, an English teacher from Afghanistan, and a border guard.

Staszkiewicz notes that the issues “Green Border” addresses aren’t unique to Poland. “Similar problems face this country and France and Greece and Italy,” she says. She adds it’s about “how to be a human in a situation like this.”

A complete festival schedule is here.

Corrected: October 26, 2023 at 11:03 AM EDT
This article was corrected to accurately reflect Maria Staszkiewicz's relation to the Polish Cultural Council and the history of the film festival.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: