Poland’s Politics Paint a Worrying Picture For Its Arts Sector

Marta Balaga
·6-min read

As writer Jakub Żulczyk faces charges for calling Poland president Andrzej Duda a “moron” on Facebook, and online event “Herstories for Women’s Day” is suddenly pulled, Polish leadership is raising eyebrows, with their actions perceived by some as a sign of the country’s further shift towards authoritarianism.

“The loop is tightening, especially since their ass is on fire,” notes director Agnieszka Holland, an outspoken critic of Poland’s right-wing government.

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“This [situation] will not result in liberalization — quite the opposite,” warns the helmer, whose “Charlatan” was recently shortlisted for the best international feature film Oscar.

Poland’s controversial stance on women’s reproductive rights saw nationwide protests last October in the wake of a constitutional court ruling that deemed a law allowing the abortion of deformed fetuses, even with life-threatening defects, to be “unconstitutional.” Now, some fear the country’s politics may be directly impacting its arts landscape, with a celebratory virtual event canceled, and a prominent writer potentially facing jail time.

Originally scheduled to take place from March 4-8, on the National Film Archive Audiovisual Institute’s (FINA) VOD service Ninateka, “Herstories for Women’s Day” was suddenly suspended. According to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, two of the presented shorts – Karina Paciorkowska’s “You Are Overreacting” and Weronika Jurkiewicz’s “The Vibrant Village” – were seen as problematic. They depicted, respectively, misogynistic statements made by public figures, including Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment, and women working in a Hungarian factory producing vibrators.

On March 3, Deputy Minister of Culture Jarosław Sellin allegedly asked the head of the National Film Archive, Dariusz Wieromiejczyk, to remove the event. Outlet Gazeta Wyborcza quoted an email sent by Wieromiejczyk to the Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński noting that “there is nothing here that could offend the sensitivity of the contemporary audience…Vibrators exist, someone makes them, someone buys them (mostly women) and even the most conservative moralist cannot deny this fact.”

Despite his argument that pulling the films the day before the festival “would be incomprehensible for viewers and detrimental to the image [of FINA],” Wieromiejczyk was summarily dismissed and replaced.

FINA and the ministry responded to the controversy on their respective websites, the first stating that the event in question was suspended for “formal reasons” as a co-organization agreement hadn’t been signed by persons authorized to represent FINA. They also mentioned a failure to purchase a screening license for “Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl” and questioned the event’s status as a festival, as it was taking place without an official selection, jury or awards.

The ministry added that Wieromiejczyk’s dismissal was caused, among other things, by “a breach of duties in the position held and breach of the provisions of law,” rebutting the newspaper’s claims.

While the event ultimately continued, hosted on a VOD platform operated by the Five Flavours Asian Film Festival, Maja Szydłowska, Katarzyna Korytowska and Weronika Adamowska of the HER Docs Foundation, which co-organized “Herstories,” observe that their work has long been viewed by the ministry and the Polish Film Institute as subversive and, therefore, ineligible for support. Founded in 2019, the foundation’s mission is to promote documentary films made by people identifying as women, as well as to support and educate.

“Although we wouldn’t classify this situation as a classic case of censorship, as we believe the subject of these films was just an excuse, what worries us is that, as reported by Gazeta Wyborcza, this argument was even used,” they tell Variety. The organizers highlight that the event focused on women and was taking place around International Women’s Day, when further protests were scheduled all over the country.

“We have been observing such attempts to control culture by politicians for a long time,” says the group, which points to the alleged takeover of cultural institutions by those partial to right-wing ideology and attempts to exercise control through granted subsidies. While other cultural events are also taking notice, since 1989, the Warsaw Film Festival has seen only two cases of attempted censorship: one involving a sponsor that tried to block two films playing in a section that bore the name of the company; and a separate incident involving a movie about a company whose lawyers blocked its distribution.

“We present very different films, assuming that our viewers are people with different views. We had films about feminists and about Catholic saints, serious and frivolous. I believe that art is more important than politics,” says festival director Stefan Laudyn.

“The Vibrant Village” director Weronika Jurkiewicz also chimes in on “vibrator-gate,” describing her film as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the taboo surrounding sexuality, especially female pleasure. Jurkiewicz notes that censoring the film and suspending “Herstories” could be viewed as a dangerous decision that further undermines artistic freedom in Poland and illustrates the government’s approach to women’s rights: silencing instead of fostering a dialogue.

“It’s a poignant response, highlighting how a mere mention of a vibrator can still cause a major stir in some circles,” says Jurkiewicz. “The government has been ignoring nationwide protests and overwhelming opposition towards the near-total abortion ban, actively widening societal divide by using state media to paint the feminist and LGBTQ+ activists as threats to the Polish identity.”

A similar point was made by Jakub Żulczyk, the writer behind the upcoming thriller “Institute” and “Blinded by the Lights,” which was turned into an HBO Europe series. He now faces a possible prison sentence for writing on Facebook that “Andrzej Duda is a moron” following the Polish president’s comments about Joe Biden’s victory, where he expressed a wish to “await the nomination by the Electoral College.”

“I am, I suspect, the first writer in this country in a very long time to be tried for what he wrote,” Żulczyk shared on social media, later adding: “On June 13, 2020, Andrzej Duda […] said that ‘LGBT is not people, it’s an ideology’ – dehumanizing millions of Poles who are already exposed to violence on daily basis, physical and verbal, and deprived of many human rights. Beatings and assaults against LGBT people are commonplace in Poland. So far, not a single prosecutor’s office has pressed charges against president Duda.”

Maciej Nowicki, deputy president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and director of Watch Docs International Film Festival, points out that criminal charges like the one brought against Żulczyk aren’t unusual, as Poland hasn’t abandoned “anachronistic” laws that protect the honor of the president or religious sentiments.

“On the other hand, the Żulczyk case and the HER Docs case are indeed ominous signs of the times and of Poland’s rapid departure from the rule of law and democracy towards authoritarianism,” Nowicki tells Variety.

“What we are witnessing now is the decisive phase of the destruction of judicial independence,” Nowicki adds.

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