“The first Polish people who came over [to Seattle] a century ago were lumberjacks and miners,” says Zbigniew Pietrzyk, who is organizing the 2016 Seattle Polish Film Festival with his son Michal Pietrzyk. “Then there were the [Polish] who came over right after World War II, as well as those, like me, who came here in the ’80s during Solidarity [the labor movement that contributed to the fall of communism].”
Seattle’s Polish community has been supportive enough and significant enough—the Pietrzyks estimate it’s around 10,000 people—to support SPFF for 24 years. But for the Pietrzyks, the fest’s Northwest locale is as important as the lineage of the films on display. “It’s really important for me to try and integrate the Seattle filmmaking and film-going communities, to program things that they’d find interesting,” Michal says.
This year’s festival runs Oct. 12–23 featuring a mix of recent films, archival presentations, special guest appearances and live events. It’s a persuasive sampler, including features that showcase Polish cinema’s trademark visual beauty, as well as documentaries and features that focus on another of Polish cinema’s calling cards: a profound sense of social awareness.
Polish community leaders Tom Podl and Dr. Michal Friedrich started SPFF in 1992, screening a modest handful of films in the fest’s early years. In the early 2000s, local attorney Krys Koper became festival director and the festival grew. Koper actively booked Polish filmmakers and their films, bringing acclaimed modern Polish films like When The Sun was God as well as archival classics like The Promised Land to Seattle screens. Zbigniew, a former Solidarity activist and retired businessman, took over the festival in 2011, and Michal, a veteran television producer and editor, joined him in 2012.
Wednesday’s opening night presentation at Northwest Film Forum is a SPFF-themed installment of Puget Soundtracks showcasing Mr. Blot’s Academy, a 1984 children’s movie that Michal likens to “a Polish Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Chris Cheveyo (formerly of Rose Windows) and local musician Garrett Moore provide live accompaniment to the film. Polish animator Joanna Polak also hosts an animation workshop in which kids and adults can collaborate on an original animated film.
A number of guests, many flying in from Poland, are making appearances at SPFF. “We have more visiting guests during the first weekend of this year’s festival than we’ve had in the SPFF’s entire history to date,” Michal says. Among them is actor Dawid Ogrodnik, who won a 2013 Seattle International Film Festival Golden Space Needle Award for his performance in Life Feels Good. Ogrodnik also co-starred in the 2014 arthouse hit, Ida.
Fans of the late Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski will relish a visit by Slawomir Idziak, the acclaimed cinematographer who shot many of Kieślowski’s finest films. In addition to a screening of Kieślowski’s masterpiece The Double Life of Veronique, Idziak also introduces Gattaca, the classic sci-fi film for which he also served as cinematographer. “Poland has a long history of great cinematographers,” Michal states. “And [Idziak] is one of the best. It took us three years to get him as a guest.”
The increased ease and availability of filmmaking technology in Poland has enabled Polish filmmakers to branch out, making lighter romantic comedies as well as the powerful cinematic statements crafted by old masters like Jerzy Skolimowski (whose latest, 11 Minutes, screens Saturday night). “For the last 10 years, Polish filmmakers were trying to do the types of films Hollywood does,” Zbigniew says, “But now they have the technology to do them well.”
One of the most light-hearted films of SPFF 2016, Planet Single, screens at the SIFF Cinema Uptown on Saturday. The romantic comedy about a TV talk show host and a shy music school teacher was co-written by Seattle screenwriters Sam Akina and Jules Jones, and dominated the Polish box office for months. “It was the number one movie in Poland last year,” Michal says with a laugh. “It was the only movie to beat Deadpool at the Polish box office.”