When she was a student at the prestigious Lodz Film School in Poland, Jagoda Szelc was offered the chance to shoot a feature film. It was an unexpected opportunity for the aspiring filmmaker, who was then in her third year. But after it was produced on a shoestring budget, “Tower. A Bright Day” would go on to play the Berlin Film Festival and win a host of awards in Poland, unexpectedly catapulting Szelc into the limelight.
It was not an easy place for a first-time filmmaker to be. “I was very lost,” Szelc admits. Critics compared “Tower” to the works of male directors and seemed flummoxed that a young woman could helm such an auspicious debut. In one TV segment that left a lasting mark, two male presenters argued that Szelc was too young to understand what she was doing behind the camera. “There was a lot of patronizing [behavior toward] me, as a woman,” she says. “It’s like you cannot function without a male authority behind your work. Your work is not enough.”
Such attitudes have been hard to shake in Poland, which in recent months has faced a broader reckoning over gender equality after a contentious anti-abortion law passed last October, prompting millions to take to the streets. Even in a film industry that’s powered by women such as producers Klaudia Śmieja (“Mr. Jones”) and Oscar winner Ewa Puszczyńska (“Ida”), two-time Berlin Silver Bear winner Małgorzata Szumowska (“Mug,” “Body”), and fast-rising director Agnieszka Smoczynska (“The Lure”), many describe hard-fought gains in a country where a women’s achievements—and rights—aren’t always recognized.
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“When I started, my dream was to go to film school. Lots of people told me it was a man’s job,” says Aleksandra Terpińska, whose forthcoming debut feature, the rap musical “Other People” (pictured), will be released by Warner Bros. At the time, Terpińska didn’t have many role models to draw upon. But whenever there were doubts, she says, “there was always the case of Agnieszka Holland.”
An acclaimed, three-time Oscar-nominated director, Holland (“Europa Europa”) is credited by many with breaking the glass ceiling for women in the Polish industry. Faced with naysayers, says Terpińska, she could always cite the veteran filmmaker as an example to follow. “There is this exception, and this exception gave us this [inspiration] to go and fight for it, to have this dream and fulfill this dream,” she says. “Because there was someone who already did it.”
Raised in what she describes as a “very patriarchal system,” Szelc also struggled to find role models as she embarked on a career in film. That changed in Lodz, where she studied under women who found success at a time when women’s opportunities in the industry were greatly limited.
It was those teachers who gave Szelc the courage “to be more open and fight for myself,” she says. “They were so centered. Somehow, I felt like they knew exactly who they were. And I always wanted that. To be so centered, to be so sure who I am.”
For producer Agnieszka Wasiak, who cut her teeth on the set of Uri Barbash’s World War II drama “Spring 1941,” an early influence came in the form of the Oscar winner Puszczyńska. Wasiak says the producer helped foster an open and collaborative atmosphere on set, and “made us believe that we know what we are there for, and we are a team.”
Wasiak would go on to co-found Lava Films, where her producing credits include Szumowska’s Venice competition selection “Never Gonna Snow Again.” At least half of the production team on most Lava films are women, she says, a testament to the sheer number of qualified, talented, and motivated women currently filling out the industry’s ranks. “We’re shaping it now,” she says.
That presence extends to the very top, where the membership of the Polish Film Institute’s influential executive council has approached gender parity in recent years. All seven of the PFI’s heads of department are women, while women have comprised at least 50% of the selection committee that advises the institute on its funding decisions for the past three years.
Efforts are meanwhile underway to update an industry-wide code of conduct that will address issues such as sexual harassment on set and create a framework for women to receive free legal support and counseling. “I think the industry is learning and becoming more conscious,” says Wasiak, adding that more and more filmmakers are using this moment as an opportunity to “look within each other and within ourselves” as they reshape the face of the industry.
“Everything’s changing,” says Aga Woszczyńska, who directed the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection “Fragments” and is in post-production on her first feature, “Silent Land.” “I never had the impression that I’m underestimated. Right now, I can say what I feel.” “The best thing is that we’re talking about this,” adds Terpińska. “It won’t change in one night.”