Ida: A Not-So-Much-Wanted Success

Movie still

The Polish cinema has rarely been celebrated during the Oscar Galas. The honorary prize for Andrzej Wajda in 2000 remains one of the few examples of the Oscar being awarded to a Polish artist, actually working in Poland. Ida, the movie, finally broke that rule.

For many decades Polish film-makers have been invisible, while some nominations and prizes were awarded to artists of Polish origin, working in the UK, US or Switzerland. One of the underlying reasons was that exceptional artists could not get the attention of the Western public, because of living in a communist country. Polish cinema of that time was also deeply grounded in the local reality and assumed its good understanding also at the part of the audience. That again, didn’t make it easier for the excellent, but often historical and very “Polish” movies, to hit the screens outside of Poland.

The movie Ida breaks this trend. It is also not entirely Polish movie. The Director – Paweł Pawlikowski left Poland at the age of 14 and received education in the UK. The movie itself is a Polish-Danish co-production. Yet, the crew and dialogues were almost entirely Polish, and pictures were shut in Poland. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that it is the most “Polish” of all Oscar-awarded movies, since the prize for Zbigniew Rybczyński in 1982 (“Best short animated movie”).

The black-white production keeps simple form and makes it possible for the audience to easily enter the realm of the story, without requiring an in-debt knowledge about Poland’s post-war history. All plots of the story can be seen as personal consequences of living in the dramatic “in-between” times. There is a story-line of a young girl who grew up in a catholic orphanage and now re-discovers her identity, the story-line of her aunt, struggling with life after having sentenced numerous people for their political activity, the story-line of a countryman, forced to take part in a terrible crime, who balances between the loyalty to his ailing father, and responsibility for their own past…

Certainly, the movie leaves room for discussion. It can be a great starting point for “cinema circles” around the world. Surprisingly, in Poland, few voices in the public debate referred to the movie itself. On the contrary, the first great success of Polish cinematography in 33 years is consider as a national tragedy.

The right wing conceives the movie as an instrument of aggression against the Polish nation. A crime committed by a Polish countryman against a Jewish family is deemed to make Poles responsible for the Holocaust. A Polish MEP – Janusz Wojciechowski – shared this view, at the same time stressing that he has not seen the movie and does not intend to do so.

Judging a movie by a fragmented description is like criticizing choices of people living on a different planet without any prior knowledge about local conditions. A group called “Polish League against Defamation” published a manifesto addressed to the authors of of the movie, asking for an explanatory note to proceed the screenings. The note should provide information regarding the geopolitical situation of Poland during World War II, the number of Jews murdered in those years by the Germans, severe punishments for hiding Jews, as well as the actions undertaken by Polish underground state to support the Jewish population, and counteract Polish aggression against it.

These attitudes result from a ridiculous fear that the primary responsibility for the Holocaust will not anymore be attributed to the German nation. Yet, the fear does not hold a reality check. The German state in highly involved in counteracting neo-Nazi movements and maintaining the memory of the Holocaust. The denial of Auschwitz is most severely punished precisely in Germany and Austria. Unless the political position of extreme right (NPD) will be radically strengthened, Berlin will not change its direction with regard to historical issues.

Nevertheless, from a different angle, Ida was also accused of re-producing anti-Semitic stereotypes. In a comment published in the leftist Krytyka Polityczna, Agnieszka Graff criticized the fact that one of two main characters was a Stalinist persecutor of Jewish origins. She also didn’t like the fact that the positive character – also of Jewish origin – was raised in catholic faith. That was considered by the commentator as a symbol of the superiority of the catholic faith over the atheistic views embodied by the aunt of the young girl.

The main issue of the Ida debate, noticeable also in other societies, is an expectation that art will reflect our perception of the world. Books, movies and music should be well suited to be used against opponents. We don’t like art that induces questions and raises doubts. It should rather remain in line with our expectations and convictions. And that’s not just our Polish problem. The movie Selma, telling the story of Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and other activists of the Afro-American civil rights movement, was also confronted with accusations of being created to strengthen the feelings of guilt among white Americans.

Behind the accusations of Ida being Polono-phobic, there is a similar way of thinking. It’s not very likely that the movie will induce either anti-Polish, or anti-Jewish biases. Yet, the audience will be certainly left with a number of questions. It’s a very wrong direction to put a ban on critical thinking and reduce art to propaganda. We should bear this in mind when talking about potential damages that one or another movie might cause.