EXCLUSIVE: Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated Ida was released over a year ago in Poland, but with the increased international spotlight on the film, a controversy has erupted in its native land. The Polish Anti-Defamation League, Reduta Dobrego Imienia, has accused the film of failing to acknowledge the German occupation of Poland, calling it “anti-Polish” and saying audiences “especially unfamiliar with the history of Europe” may leave the film believing “the Holocaust was caused by the Poles.”
Amid increasing backlash from some in media and politics, the org has hatched a petition asking for commentary to be inserted to make clear that Poland was under German occupation from 1939 to 1945, and that although hiding Jews was punishable by death, many Poles did so. It now has around 40,000 signatures. I spoke with Pawlikowski this week who said there are no plans to add any sort of disclaimer, “Of course not, it’s absurd,” he says.
Set in 1962, the story follows a young novitiate nun who learns she was born Jewish and sets off on a journey of discovery with Wanda, the aunt she has just found out exists, uncovering dark family secrets along the way.
Ida was seen by about 120,000 mainly art-house moviegoers in Poland in 2013, but its international success and awards attention have started “a stream of hate in the Polish media from the right,” the director says. (For the record, Ida is not the only Foreign Language Oscar nominee to have detractors in its home country, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has complained about Leviathan, which deals with corruption at the state level.)
Ida won the European Film Awards’ top trophy and has been picking up praise and other prizes this awards season, including double nominations for Foreign Language Film and Cinematography at both the Oscars and the Baftas. Pawlikowski says the petition “is too silly to comment on. Have any of these 40,000 signatories actually seen the film? Ida doesn’t set out to explain history. That’s not what it’s about. The story is focused on very concrete and complex characters who are full of humanity with all its paradoxes. They’re not pawns used to illustrate some version of history or an ideology. Life is complicated, why can’t art be complicated?”
He says he did not make Ida to stir debate, “I wanted to make the film very specific and very concrete, and at the same time universal and poetic. Audiences in Brazil, Spain or Finland respond to it because it transcends the time and the place where it is set. And not because they are being educated about the ins and outs of Polish history.”
“Anyway,” he posits regarding critics of the film, “are these ‘patriots’ seriously saying that situations such as those described in the film could have never occurred? And are they seriously imagining that the audiences who go to see Ida don’t know that the Holocaust was perpetrated by the Germans?”
The film’s nationalistic critics, Pawlikowski says, “keep talking in terms of the Poles and the Jews all the time. But for me (Jewish characters) Ida and Wanda are just as Polish as” other characters they come across like the farmer Felix, or the saxophonist Lis who has a dalliance with Ida. “In my films, I want to cut across all this kind of talk. Art should deal with our common humanity.”
It has been suggested that the campaign against Ida could be related to upcoming elections. There is a “strong and frustrated right wing that feels Poland is under some kind of siege. The rhetoric is self-serving and has nothing to do with the film,” Pawlikowski insists. It does have support in Poland, having won three Polish Film Awards last year, including the Eagle for Best Picture.
And, others are coming to its defense now. According to Wyborcza.pl, Polish Film Institute Director, Agnieszka Odorowicz, noted last week, “Each director has the right to personal expression.” In the same publication, historian Marcin Zaremba said, “Not every movie has to be a historical textbook — cinema focuses on the hero, psychology, human dimension of history. Ida does not offend anyone… This is a film about memory, about the spiritual quest, about finding your identity.”
Defending Ida on Polish TV, helmer Agnieszka Holland called it “personal and beautirful… not a political manifesto. If it conveys anything at all, it is the suffering related to human fate and choices. A less ideological film is hardly possible.”
Pawlikowski remains proud of the film, especially for Poland itself. Polish cinema has “great traditions,” but hasn’t “made much of an impact in the world since Kieslowski. It is this artificially engineered controversy that is embarrassing and damaging to our country’s image — not Ida.”