Sunday 26 June 2016

Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, by Carol Drinkwater

Many of my colleagues are writing glorious posts inspired by recent holidays. How envious I feel as I stay locked to my desk, moving inexorably towards my upcoming deadline. However, I did make a short trip to Krakow two weeks ago, for five days, taking all my work with me. I wrote all day in our lovely hotel room and then about 4pm I allowed myself out to revisit the city.

My husband, Michel, was on the jury for the Krakow Documentary Film Festival and I tagged along because it is a city I remember from two decades back. I first visited Poland months after the Berlin Wall had come down.

Of course, my first observation was how dramatically the city has changed. My first visit was, as all my trips have been, for work. I was filming there. In fact, I have been employed as an actress in Poland on several occasions. I have also taken the role of director of English dubbing on a couple of films, written the screenplay for a six-part film series partially shot in Poland, and, more recently, I have returned as an author on a book tour. Over the years, I have been a sporadic witness to its evolution.

When I first went to Poland it was, as I said, after the Wall had come down. Communism was still visible everywhere, of course. There were few foreigners except business folk. It was a time for enterprise, for overseas companies to step in and offer their wares or stake a claim in the opportunities for new business. It was grey. The streets were grey. The citizens, poor. There was little to buy in the shops. Many of their windows were bare with possibly one object on display. There was a subdued, vanquished, sense of national identity because the dominant identity was Communism. I observed certain overseas visitors treat the Poles badly, as the underdog but most were keen to express their enthusiasm at finally being offered the opportunity to collaborate, to create a mix of experience and skills.

Krzysztof Kieslowski 

In my sphere, I was exceedingly fortunate. I was given many opportunities to work with brilliant filmmakers. The Polish people have a marvellous history of cinema, and one of the finest film schools in the world is in Lodz. Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski (there was a small retrospective in his honour at this year's doc festival because, incredibly, 2016 is the 20th anniversary of his death), Jerzy Skolomowski (who I worked with in 1976 on The Shout which was honoured at Cannes), Andrzej Wajda,  Krzysztof Zanussi, who was the president of the jury when I was part of the team at the Monaco TV festival some years ago, and a remarkable lady I have never met, Agnieszka Holland. These directors amongst many others have given Polish cinema a fine reputation internationally, and an exceptional body of work.

                                                                 Agnieszka Holland

I had little opportunity for sightseeing this time, revisiting places I had been to years ago. I did go to the castle again and to light candles for my recently-departed mother at the cathedral, and I did make a special trip to see Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine, which I had not seen before. It is magnificent and I was humbled to stand before such a work. I felt profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be there in that room in the company of such a masterpiece even if I had to share the moment with many Asian and European tourists. I left the castle and wandered down into the old town where tourists were seated in every restaurant and every bar, none of which had existed a decade or two ago. There were the inevitable lager louts behaving badly, getting drunk loudly, sloshing pints everywhere, making the most of cheap beer, having flown in off the cheap flights. I sighed at the sight of them, and I then I remembered what my driver had said on the way into town from the airport. "Life is good for us now. We have every nationality visiting us here, enjoying our food, our culture, our way of life, our art. We can afford to eat better and we can travel too. For those of us who remember Communism, this is a real step forward, a liberation. And our children can travel anywhere throughout Europe, experience new horizons, learn languages. The world has expanded." 
His words seemed more poignant than ever at this time. Communism is Poland's past. Europe is its present and its future. Borders have been removed; diversity is celebrated; free trade and access to elsewhere is the norm now.

Since I wrote this post on Wednesday 22nd June, Great Britain has been to the polls.  52% of British voters, as the world knows, put their cross in the box 'Leave', to leave the European Union. I cannot describe the overwhelming sadness I felt when the outcome was announced. Britain is choosing a new, more independent, more isolated path and for the moment the decision has caused a financial free fall. I fear for the uncertainty that lies ahead, which will probably include the splintering of the United Kingdom.

This afternoon as I visited various shops and made stops here and there in the south of France where I live, while talking to traders, it became clear that 27 states are moving forward, shocked by the UK's vote. The European Union was built out of the rubble of two world wars. It has ensured peace across Europe for half a century. It has laid down the basis for humanitarian values. It has made a historical shift in how the individual entities, countries, perceive and interact with one another.
For all its faults, I believe in Europe, in working together; the exchange of ideas and cultures.  Immersion not estrangement.
The loss of the UK is  a sorrow for one and all. This was a united journey, sometimes bumpy, but one that contained a united vision. It still does, except tragically, Britain has gone.
We cannot yet see the full impact of this split. I pray that we who remain in Europe can work together to overcome the loss of such an important member and move forward as an entity, redoubling our efforts towards solidarity and open-mindedness. Now more than ever, with so many parts of the world in turmoil, we need unity not disparity.


Unknown said...

Beautiful, poignant, thought provoking and inspirational. I made my first visit to Krakow shortly after you and I too discovered a wealth of culture and an uplifting spirit of progression and rebirth. It was envirgirating. Thank you

Unknown said...

Envirgorating even !

Catherine Hokin said...

A great post, thank you for articulating so well what so many of us feel

Grier said...

Beautifully written. I am saddened by the recent vote too. There is much uncertainty in the world right now.

Lydia Syson said...

Completely agree. And no doubt Brexit will have its horrible impact on relationships within the museum world too, making crossing borders even harder for artworks such as that wonderful Leonardo which many (of all nationalities) had the pleasure of seeing in London five years ago.

Unknown said...

Such a great post and definitely expresses how so many of us feel at the moment. Love to escape with Carol's fabulous writing!

Leslie Wilson said...

Thanks, Carol. We do indeed need unity.