Millennium Docs Against Gravity Festival Artistic Director on Program

The Millennium Docs Against Gravity Festival, taking place in Warsaw from Friday until May 16, has grown exponentially in the last few years. In fact it is now, as the people behind it proclaim, “the largest cultural event in Poland.”

Artistic director Karol Piekarczyk explains, “There is a culture of watching films and of watching films with subtitles in Poland. It’s quite unique. There are a lot of arthouse cinemas, in comparison to the U.K. for example. Even in small cities.” Which is why the festival doesn’t play only in Warsaw but in six other cities around Poland.  

Piekarczyk has worked for the festival for the past seven years and this edition will be his fourth as artistic director. He sees his job as “reminding everyone that our priority is and has always been the audience. However, we are a documentary festival, and whether we like it or not, audiences mainly choose films based on topic. We as programmers focus more on the quality. But if the films we program were not of high artistic value as well, the audience would notice.”

While MDAG does not chase world premieres, Piekarczyk claims that “premieres come to us anyway. For example, this year, we’re going to have the European premiere of ‘Porcelain War,’ and the international premiere of ‘Sugarcane.’ Both of which played at Sundance.”

The festival has a reputation for treating filmmakers and guests well. (This writer will be an onsite judge of that as he was invited to the main competition jury alongside filmmakers Anna Hints of “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” and Lauren Greenfield of “The Queen of Versailles”). 

While the program is large, 170 films in 15 sections, Piekarczyk and his team of programmers allow the world documentary offerings to guide their choices. ”We don’t just come up with an idea for a section. We watch the films and see what patterns are growing. For example, this year, we have ‘Unforgettable Female Stories,’ a section about women who were somehow put on the side of history despite being amazing at what they do. It includes ‘Let the Canary Sing,’ about Cyndi Lauper, who was misbranded and misunderstood. We have many films from Japan this year so we created a specific section for them. ‘The Path to Happiness’ includes films about that human search.“

To complete the selection programmers looked at their big titles and international luminaries. Spurred by the inclusion of the aforementioned “Sugarcane” they programmed a section titled “First Nations” – that is dedicated to the stories of indigenous people from around the world. There’s also a section about climate change and a retrospective of the work of American queer artist and filmmaker Barbara Hammer. 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Another goal of the festival is to showcase Polish documentaries for its international guests of distributors, curators and other industry figures. In this regard Piekarczyk highlights two titles: “Forest” by Lidia Duda and “The Last Expedition” by Eliza Kubarska, both playing in the main competition. 

With wars in Ukraine and Palestine dominating news headlines, political controversies erupted at several festivals. The series of statements and apologies issued by organizers at both last year’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and this February’s Berlinale were “ridiculous,” according to Piekarczyk, and something MDAG has no desire to repeat. “I think that if you’re showing films, you should just stand behind them and not waver or pretend. Those festivals are maybe in a trickier political situation. We are luckier in Poland. We had eight years of a right-wing government but still we didn’t allow it to affect our festival and we are not going to allow that this year either.”

Even though the festival issued a solidarity statement with neighboring Ukraine at last year’s festival, they have no intention of issuing any statements this year. “We are going to use films as statements as we’ve done in the past,” Piekarczyk says. These conflicts will be part of the sprawling program in different sections. “There’s always a lag in terms of when current events will become reflected in the films. But for the past couple of years we had strong representation of films about Ukraine. Not just strictly about the brutality of war, but they included some other contexts too.”

Piekarczyk continues, “Of course because it’s recent, there are less films this year about the situation in Palestine. Nonetheless, we have a very strong contender in ‘No Other Land,’ which we are showing in the main competition. We are still unsure about whether the filmmakers will be able to attend because of the political situation, but, of course, they’re invited. Showing the film will be our way to talk about the situation and not just with the audience. Teachers approach us asking for tools to talk to the kids about it, so we will play these films in our educational screenings too.”

As to what his hopes are for this year’s gathering, Piekarczyk gets fantastical, “If somebody could hypnotize me so that I forget all these films and I could spend 10 days in the cinema  just watching them, it would probably be the best 10 days of my life.”

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