My Friend the Polish Girl: an effortlessly complex treatise on the quantum mechanics of the movie camera
It’s really interesting that My Friend the Polish Girl should come out at roughly the same time as Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline. Films reflect the talking points of the moment and as we face a reckoning in Hollywood over the art/=artist debate, we’re beginning to see works self-reflexively questioning the ethics of creation. At Cannes, we were also exposed to Lynchian thriller Nina Wu which, although about a very different type of abuse, similarly asked to what extent filmmakers can morally influence their subjects.
Like Decker’s film, My Friend the Polish Girl questions the ethics of the creator, examining the moral lines that are blurred and crossed when wealthy, privileged artists use the turbulent lives of those less fortunate than themselves to create work which brings them edification. Unlike Madeline, however, Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek’s film takes the form of that final piece of art itself: a documentary.
It’s a bold move, because to work properly My Friend the Polish Girl has to be quite an unlikable piece of work; one that flouts the flaws of its hidden protagonist. I’m pleased to say that Banaszkiewicz and Dymek have succeeded in this: the 1* online reviews mistaking their mockumentary as a genuine article speak for themselves. Less Spinal Tap and more Man Bites Dog, My Fried the Polish Girl is an effortlessly complex, startlingly well-made treatise on the quantum mechanics of the movie camera.
Emma Friedman-Cohen plays Katie, a wealthy American documentarian who decides to make a film on immigrants in post-Brexit Britain. She eventually settles on Alicja (Aneta Piotrowska) as her subject, because of her particularly tragic response to an interview question. However, as filming drags on and on, Katie begins to realise that Alicja’s story is… well… kind of boring. She’s just an ordinary person living in London, and not a revolutionary subject for a documentary. Instead of moving on, though, Katie begins to try and provoke Alicja and intervene in her life in order to make her own narrative more interesting. How else will her film be able to play at ‘lots of festivals’?
If there’s any actual relevance to post-Brexit Britain here (besides an overt metaphor for immigrants being used and discarded) I’ve missed it, but I think that’s probably the point. Katie desperately tries to relate Alicja’s existence to the wider political climate – informing us how long ago since the UK voted to leave Europe, how her film-maker friends voted in the referendum, and especially how she wants to make a statement about these events. But nothing comes: Alicja, like most of us, is just a person, and to try to link people to overarching political events is more often than not a futile task.
Weirdly enough, there’s also something of Solaris in all this: how can we possibly understand another person, or truly know anything other than a projection of personality by our own consciousness? Like Man Bites Dog, or quantum mechanics, once you turn the camera onto real life, real life reacts – it begins to perform and the camera itself can become complicit. Watching this year’s stellar Apollo 11, for instance, it was immediately apparent that once the lens fell upon people, they were instantly compelled to act. When Katie turns her lens to Alicja, she unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly) disturbs the molecular structure of her existence, magnetically altering her path towards the aims of her own film.
But unlike Man Bites Dog, which amusingly (and disturbingly) asked about audience and film complicity in generalised atrocity – violence, specifically – My Friend the Polish Girl asks whether the documentarian can be at least partially attributable for the destruction of her subject’s life. What if the documentary can often be a fiction, albeit one lived in real time by its protagonist? Some would argue the documentary is always a fiction – or at least always a white lie paving a pre-determined path to a foregone conclusion.
Katie’s attempts to convey emotional sincerity, and her increasingly self-aggrandizing stabs at ‘helping’ Alicja are accompanied with a faux-edgy, Tumblr-esque aesthetic that begins to become our perceived aesthetic of Alicja. The documentarian’s own stylistic choices become the style of our protagonist. At the same time, Katie clearly wishes to perceive herself as morally justified: she gets Alicja a job that was never going to work out, and then, in a bizarre moment at the denouement of the film, presents her with cash. Alicja is just an object to her – a character in a film without complex feelings, and a means to an end.
Immanuel Kant would shudder.