A decades-spanning portrait of a transgender Polish woman on a journey of self-discovery is at the heart of Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert’s “Woman Of,” the latest from the two-time Berlin Silver Bear winner (“Body,” “Mug”) and her longtime collaborator. The film premieres Sept. 8 in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
Written by the directing duo, “Woman Of” tells the story of Aniela Wesoły, who for almost half her life has lived as a man in a provincial Polish town. Struggling against the social mores of her conservative community, Wesoły must overcome obstacles in marriage and parenthood and test strained family bonds in the process of becoming who she truly is — despite the many sacrifices she has to make along the way.
More from Variety
Encompassing nearly half a century in the life of its protagonist, and in the history of a country in the throes of its own tumultuous post-communist transformation, “Woman Of” is a deeply human story set against the backdrop of a society where transgender people are still fighting for basic rights. “It’s not a militant movie. It’s a very delicate film,” Szumowska insists. “This is a story very much about love.”
“Woman Of,” which also stars “Cold War” breakout Joanna Kulig, is produced by No-Mad Films and Plio in co-production with Film i Väst and Common Ground Pictures. The producers are Klaudia Śmieja-Rostworowska, Katarzyna Jordan-Kulczyk, Gregory Jankilevitsch, Bogna Szewczyk-Skupień, Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert and the co-producers are Jonas Kellagher and Kristina Borjeson. The movie was co-financed by the Polish Film Institute.
Englert is an acclaimed cinematographer who began sharing directing duties with longtime collaborator Szumowska with Venice competition entry “Never Gonna Snow Again” (2020). Twenty years ago, he was asked to film one of the first gender-affirming surgeries in Poland. The experience made such a strong impression that even then, the duo talked about making a film with a transgender protagonist.
It would take two decades for that vision to finally translate to a script, and even then, the final pieces of the puzzle only clicked into place “miraculously,” after several years struggling to finance the film. “There are people who have been very brave to support us,” says Szumowska, with private equity instrumental in getting the movie off the ground.
Principal photography began in February and wrapped in late June. The mad dash to get “Woman Of” completed in time for Venice, however, was about more than just having a splashy premiere on the Lido. Poland is gearing up for parliamentary elections in October, and the roiling debate over LGBTQ rights has been divisive in the conservative Eastern European nation, which is the only country in the E.U. not to legally recognize same-sex marriage. “It’s perfect timing for this film,” says Szumowska. “We have a feeling that it’s going to be a very important voice in the discussion in Poland.”
In the lead role, playing the older version of Wesoły, Szumowska and Englert cast Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik, a stage and screen veteran who appeared in Szumowska’s “Happy Man” (2000) and “33 Scenes in Life” (2008). The difficult decision to cast a cis female actress, they said, came only after casting a wide net among both professional and non-professional actors in Poland’s LGBTQ community.
“Even though the LGBTQ community is bigger and stronger than before, it’s still not recognized and not represented in the film [industry],” says Szumowska. “It was impossible for us,” adds Englert. “So many people from our generation lived in secret before coming out. They were not able to get the proper education in film schools, in theater schools. You don’t have professional [transgender] actors in their mid-40s, mid-50s.”
The decision to cast Hajewska only came after extensive deliberation with members of the LGBTQ community, who also gave the directing duo their support and encouragement to tell a trans story. The film was based on countless hours of interviews and collaboration with LGBTQ people, with many transgender and non-binary actors ultimately being cast in the film.
Szumowska says she was “positively shocked” by the overwhelming show of support from the community and hopes that “Woman Of” will mark a turning point for LGBTQ representation on screen in Poland. “We were very grateful, and we were very thankful for the community,” adds Englert. “We thought it’s a great platform for them, that they need to be in this movie — they have to represent their voice on the big screen.”
Best of Variety