Why Olga Chajdas' NINA and Polish Cinema are Worth Your Time
After the Rotterdam world premiere of the drama Nina in February, director Olga Chajdas answered a question about her country’s increasingly authoritarian political climate during a talkback. “The situation in Poland is not all colorful as we would wish it would be,” she acknowledged. “People go on streets and protest, but it doesn't do anything. We're just this island in Europe where things are going to change. The question is: in which direction?”
Fast forward a few months, and we now know the unnerving answer: This week, Poland purged its Supreme Court and its Constitutional Tribunal, another leading legislative body, questioned its past rulings. For the country, one ravaged by two World Wars and subsequent Soviet rule, the moment represents a sharp return to the authoritarianism it seemingly disavowed upon joining the European Union in 2004.
In the years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Poland has become a go-to country for fresh cinema helmed by women, both emerging and established; their work is often defined by the survivor’s paradox: the images are both haunted and hopeful. Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 The Lure, a bloodthirsty reinterpretation of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, became an international success and feminist cult classic, enjoying a U.S. theatrical release in 2016 and Criterion status a year later. Spoor, a rib-splitting thriller about a spinster teacher who goes on a rampage through her village after her beloved dogs go missing, earned veteran filmmaker Agnieszka Holland the Silver Bear in 2017 and, once more, Poland’s Academy Award submission in 2018. The small country’s filmmaking world is intimate and rigorously collaborative. View a handful of contemporary Polish movies and you’re bound to see the same women’s names and faces more than once, forever intertwined. Chajdas, for example, served as an assistant director of Holland’s 2011 World War II drama, In Darkness.
Poland’s film stylings have, like spectres, quietly permeated American theaters. The images, at once dismal and enrapturing, have held our attention as we’ve white-knuckled our armrests: this summer, Paweł Pawlikowski—who directed and co-authored Academy Award winner Ida with Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience)—jarred us all with his lenswork in Ari Aster’s matrilineal horror flick, Hereditary.
Focusing on the erotic push-pull between Nina (Julia Kijowska), a barren married woman with a feminist bent, and Magda (Eliza Rycembel), the reckless and apolitical gay twentysomething she poaches to be her surrogate, Chajdas’ first feature is filmically and topically dark: shot by Tomasz Naumiuk employing a new camera requiring low light levels during an unshakable winter, Nina is a movie about seeking refuge from the chill: in parlors, lesbian bars, the classroom, ‘one night only’ embraces, the womb of another woman, and even a warm red art installation resembling one. As Nina experiences latent sexual awakening, Magda contends with the irreparable loss of autonomy caused by the double-whammy of true love and pregnancy.
While Variety’s Jay Weissberg self-assuredly wrote that Nina’s “play will be limited to the LGBTQ circuit, though even there, a significant level of narrative dissatisfaction is inevitable,” his assessment possess the foundation of a decaying stilt house: Weisberg wholly ignores the role of the international lens in the States; a nation burdened by its own authoritarian flux. He also presupposes that queer audiences, increasingly catered to by wide releases, attend film festivals to solely experience tidy, if not formulaic, cinema. On the contrary: we come for the underground, the strange, the dodgy, not to mention the open bars and open conversations that follow. And if lesbians--Nina’s purported niche audience--are irked by the film, it won’t be a plot hole that triggers it, but both lead characters having sex, in separate scenes, with Nina’s cuckold husband, who is played by Andrzej Konopka. (Granted, this transgression may be forgiven should viewers be familiar with Konopka’s ill-fated patriarchs in both The Lure and Spoor.)
Indeed, if Nina is narratively burdened by anything, it is Chajdas’ deluge of subcultural references, art house inspo, and ideas about lesbian futurism. Nina, who teaches idle teenagers French in the capital city, makes a jab at Godard by including acclaimed female Polish artists on the week’s lesson plan. In a nice gesture of cultural exchange, the director pays homage to the bisexual American photographer Nan Goldin with her feature’s 1980s look and feel; Magda’s post-car crash bruises resemble those in Goldin’s self-portrait, Nan One Month After Being Battered. Chajdas fabricates the queer world she lusts after, one that’s rife with gay airline stewardesses and gay security agents who have all too much fun patting their lovers down. Nina has no shortage—yet possibly an overabundance—of lengthy lesbian bar scenes. Initially Magda’s hunting grounds, these Warsaw watering holes become a sort of sanctuary for her nascent affair with Nina.
These spaces are a fever dream at most.
“We have gay clubs. We have lesbian parties from time to time, but we don’t have lesbian clubs,” the director explained at Rotterdam. “So I thought, ‘Hey, let’s make it a bit nicer and funnier than it actually is. Let’s make our own fun and crazy world.’ It’s sort of like a dream come true: we do want our world to be like this. We do wish Warsaw looked like this.”
This ‘burden’ is more of a testament to international lesbian cinema landscape’s infinite possibilities than it is Chajdas’ lack of focus. There is so much that has yet to be mined and probed. When one has the funding, it’s impossible to not yearn to show everything. Including the realms—marked by peace, democratic socialism, and pleasure—which have yet to fully come into fruition.
Nina, which received International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Big Screen Award in February, had its American premiere at Frameline in San Francisco last month.
Sarah Fonseca is a publicly educated Cuban-American writer and film bro-ette from the Georgia foothills who lives in New York City.
She is a contributing writer for Fandor.
Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, cléo: a journal of film and feminism, and IndieWire, among others (listed here). She primarily writes about roman à clef and nonfiction texts, cinéma vérité, the adaptation, American action film, and the lesbian image. Fonseca is a voting member of GALECA, the society of LGBTQ entertainment critics.
A former Lambda Literary Foundation fellow in nonfiction, Fonseca can regularly be found where the textual and visual worlds converge: the free movie showings in the Balcony Conference Room at Brooklyn Central Library and the Fales Reading Room at New York University.