Saturday, 28 February 2015

All About Ida, by Clare Mulley

This year’s Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film went to Ida, an extraordinary, haunting, Polish historical drama directed by Paweł Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The film follows the story of two fictional women. Ida is a young novitiate nun on the verge of taking her vows when she is directed to meet her only living relative. Wanda, her aunt, a deeply-damaged former Communist state prosecutor, curtly informs Ida that she is Jewish, ‘a Jewish nun’. The two then embark on an uncomfortable road trip into the Polish countryside and their own family’s devastatingly sad war-time past. You can watch the trailer here.

Universally admired for its expressive use of stillness and sparse dialogue, its stunning and original cinematography, and understated explorations of anger, grief, guilt, choice and national and personal identity, picked up a host of awards in Britain and Europe, before collecting its Oscar. And yet, the film has also proved to be controversial.

Ida is fictional narrative set in the Poland of the 1960s, and commenting both on the suffering inflicted by the Second World War, and the difficulties faced by those coming to terms with their loss, their actions, and the possibility of redemption. It is at once deeply personal and unavoidably political.

Some Polish critics fear that while the history behind Ida would be known and understood by most Poles, internationally the film might promote false stereotypes of Polish complicity and collaboration in the Holocaust. This is not an unfounded concern. Reports and documentaries sometimes still talk about ‘Polish concentration camps’ when referring to the Nazi German camps set up inside Nazi-occupied Poland, and Polish contributions to the Allied war effort, from providing the first German enigma coding machine, to vital contributions in campaigns in North Africa, Italy and even in the Battle of Britain, are often underplayed in the press, books and films.

At the same time, across the board, whether provoked by Tudor novels or Polish films, commentators are increasingly challenging the seemingly porous boundary between historical fiction and non-fiction, and the debatable responsibilities of authors and directors to convey not just the ‘truth’, but ‘the whole truth’, through their fictions. With painful recent histories such as the events and aftermath of the Second Word War, these tensions are all the more raw.

Me with Rebecca Lenkiewicz
at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden
(courtesy of Steven Larcombe)
A few months ago I was delighted to interview Ida co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz when she visited my local independent cinema, Saffron Screen in Saffron Walden. Previously best known as the author of Her Naked Skin about the suffragettes, the first original play by a female playwright to be performed at the Royal National Theatre, Rebecca is not unknown to either success or controversy.

As well as talking about the powerful minimalism of the script, the casting and cinematography, I asked her about the relationships in the film, not just between the two women, but between innocence and knowledge, honesty and concealment, and Poland and its past. ‘Poland has a complicated history with its past’, Rebecca replied. ‘Ida is the story of the tragic events around one family and its consequences. It is about unearthing knowledge, a meditation about love and loss. It's not a political statement. It questions faith and knowledge and tells a fictitious story that might well have happened.’

More recently, when I asked about the responsibilities film-makers have regarding historical accuracy and contextualisation, Rebecca emphasised that ‘it's important to be informed and to honour the subject, but fiction is not reportage. I would never feel comfortable attempting to write about an era or a real person without as much knowledge as I could garner before trying to recreate them. Research is one of the joys of writing. When you have some grounding then you have more scope to imagine.’

Ida director and co-writer Paweł Pawlikowski’s past work also rests on political themes, such as war, and deportations, but his focus has deliberately stayed personal. ‘Every good film is a bit like a dream,’ he told the BBC recently, ‘that’s what I usually aspire to, rather than some social document.’ 

Rebecca Lenkiewicz
taking questions at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden
(courtesy of Pawel Komorowski)

Opinion remains divided however. Interestingly, during the discussion after the film screening in Saffron Walden, the Brits and the Poles in the audience focused on quite different aspects of the film, and there was certainly some concern around the depiction of Polish history. Now Warsaw's Jewish Historical Institute has criticised the film for being anti-Semitic, and the Polish Anti-Defamation League has set up a petition, already signed by 50,000 people, asking Ida’s producers to state, at the start or end of the film, that:
  • Poland was under Nazi German occupation.
  • The occupiers conducted a programme to exterminate the Jews.
  • Poles hiding Jews risked the death penalty not only for themselves, but for their entire family.
  • Thousands of Poles were executed for helping their Jewish neighbours.
  • The Polish Underground State harshly punished those Poles who harmed Jews, and 
  • The Yad Vashem Institute recognises Poles as the largest group of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for helping Jews.

Since Ida won its Oscar I have been asked several times whether I think it is an ‘anti-Polish’ film. I do not. And, as an independent work of art, I do not think that it should have contextual facts imposed on screen before it starts, or after it finishes. A film, like any work of art, is always open to interpretation by its audiences, but it must remain independent if it is to have an authentic voice. Its own voice.

Ida may not explicitly state the loss of a fifth of Poland’s population, including three millions Jews, during the war, or the appalling dilemmas forced onto the surviving population. However, the pain and conflicts are built into the atmosphere and locations, and embodied within the characters, and the story encompasses both fear and courage, crime and compassion. This is a film stripped down; a film that implies far more than it says, and shows just how much more, less can sometimes convey. At the heart of Ida, both the film and character, is the question of how to deal with the past when it is uncovered and laid bare. That it has provoked such controversy around this very issue should be seen as a compliment. While I regret that many British people may not know the full historical context behind the film, I feel that Ida adds greatly to that conversation, and does so in the most elegant, thought-provoking whisper.


Sue Purkiss said...

One to look out for - thank you, Clare.I had very little idea of Polish wartime history until I started researching it for a project - and I'm sure many people are equally ignorant.

carol drinkwater said...

A thought-provoking post, Clare. I agree with you that to be obliged to add contextual facts at the beginning or end of the film is unnecessary. Rather, it is an insult to its filmmakers. Like any fine work of fiction, one hopes that the material will point its audience to delve deeper for themselves.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for highlighting this film. The Foreign Language category in the Oscars seemed to get very little attention in the British media.

Celia Rees said...

Thank you for this post, Clare. I'll certainly look out for the film and couldn't agree more with the observations about the need to judge fictions, whether in print or on film, and fact differently.

Sue Bursztynski said...

My parents were Holocaust survivors. They were not, alas, lucky enough to meet any of the righteous Poles or the sympathetic underground members, though I have no doubt they existed.

I haven't seen the film, so can't comment.

Jan Ledóchowski said...

The film Ida shows both the good news about Poland’s history (the father in the film saved a group of Jews by hiding and feeding them in the forest) and the bad news (his son killed them). In one part of my family, they saved Jews at considerable risk to themselves (in my film Uncles) while in another part they were so terrified they betrayed them to the Gestapo. There is anti-semitism and racism, with a mixture of heroes and blackguards, everywhere. The beautiful French film Au Revoir les Enfants comes to mind, also the excellent South African film District 9. One wonders what would happen in the UK if the Nazis took over and started looking for support for a campaign to eliminate Asian immigrants, shooting on the spot anyone who hid them. I wait to see a film about what the Channel Islanders did to their Jews under German occupation. The Warsaw City authorities recently had a bill board campaign reminding everyone about the anti-semitic campaign of 1968 (“Zionists to Siam”, would you believe it)? If you tell the truth you are at least proving you yourself are not anti-semitic and people start believing you. The introduction the petitioners are asking for is in my view defensive and unnecessary – a version of “the lady, she doth protest too much”. I am delighted that many Poles have the maturity to make this kind of film and tell it like it was. Jan Ledochowski, maker of Uncles, Inka and other films.

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you everyone for your comments, and Jan for this insightful perspective. I completely agree that honesty is a prerequisite for meaningful discussion. Ida is provocative but that is not a bad thing; it is also honest.

Clare Mulley said...

Those interested in Jan Ledochowski's excellent film, 'Uncles', which shows various aspects of Poland during the war and under communism, can find more information here:

Wieslaw Koleczek said...


Wieslaw Koleczek The Film touches a few serious problems. But it also touches music,especially jazz ,which sounds as a less serious subject, though a lot of young people those days treated jazz dead seriously. For many jazz was sort of a " window to freedom"...A young jazz musician can be a synonym of freedom/independence in the world controlled by the the communist state ...or church , if you decide to return to your nunnery / has she actually returned ? I have a problem with this.../ The film returnes to the music that was present in the Polish cinema in the 60s...( a lot of those films will be screened in London in April and May during Polish Film Festival ). I enjoyed the "Ida" music a lot since I like jazz and Italian pop of the60s present in the film. So perhaps best I can do is to listen to it and relax before I go crazy listening to all the moaning about " Ida" ....Music from "Ida" and inspired by the film has just beeen issued on CD....

Clare Mulley said...

How interesting Wieslaw, I had not considered that symbolism of the jazz although, as you say, it clearly plays a huge role in the film. Thank you.
I am looking forward to the Polish Film Festival in London, and am delighted that my wonderful local independent cinema, Saffron Screen, will be hosting its own Polish tie-in series at the same time!

Leslie Wilson said...

I think it is very hard for people in a relatively free country such as ours to understand what it's like to live under totalitarian terror regimes. Whether in or out of Germany, the price for trying to save Jews' lives was death. At the same time, the whole of Europe was infected with anti-Semitism. The Nazis found willing allies wherever they went - and would surely have found them in Britain, had they come here, given that returning Jewish servicemen came home to a revived Fascist party, threats, and violence, post-war.
Engagement with the harsh facts of history and racism is surely something we can all benefit from. I am convinced, myself, that only unsparing honesty can move humankind forward. That means not covering up aspects of our country's past that we find ugly or shameful. People can be both victims and perpetrators, that is the painful truth. And sometimes, also, perpetrators or fellow travellers can change their course, and save lives. That's some kind of consolation..

Clare Mulley said...

As usual Leslie, I agree with you. Things are never simple, and to reduce them does little to help us consider or understand realities. Thank you for your comment.