Directors/Coscreenwriters: Joanna Kos, Krzystof Krauze
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This seems to be the year for biopics among the Polish entries to the Chicago International Film Festival. Wałęsa: Man of Hope is a stimulating look at the life of the working-class electrician who went on to make huge changes in Polish society and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Papusza is a much different film about a much different person, a published poet of Romy-Polish descent named Bronisława Wajs. Papusza, which means “doll” in Romy, was born in 1908 and died in 1987, thus making her a witness to both world wars, the occupation of Poland by the Soviets, and the forced settlement of the nomadic Romy in permanent homes. That she learned to read and write is remarkable in itself. That her poetry found a wide audience and acclaim in Poland and other countries is a near miracle. Yet, unlike Lech Wałesa, her life did not change for the better, and the hardships she suffered as a Romy woman dogged her to the end of her life.
The film begins in 1971, when the assistant to the Polish cultural minister goes to a prison where Papusza (Jowita Budnick) is incarcerated. A performance of her poetry set to music is about to take place, and the assistant tells the warden that she will not tell the minister that the guest of honor can’t attend because she stole a chicken. After securing Papusza’s release, the women get in a car that will take them to the venue. We flash back to 1909, to a young, pregnant Romy who walks through a muddy street and out to a meadow. She lays down and yells for her mother, followed by a baby’s cries. The scene cuts to the new mother cradling her child and giving her the name Papusza. A fortune teller says the child will live a momentous life, but she cannot say whether it will be one of greatness or despair. In fact, it will be both.
The film jumps to 1949. Papusza’s much older husband, Dionizy Wajs (Zbigniew Walerys), watches as his friend and harp tuner Czernecki (Artur Steranko) rows across a lake, harp upright in the boat, to the Romy camp. He asks Wajs to hide a young man who is on the run from the police. Wajs is reluctant to take in a gadjo (outsider), but he owes Czernecki the favor. The man, Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), is a writer who travels with the Romy for two years, until he learns the warrant for his arrest has been vacated. He becomes a natural companion for Papusza, who, we learn in another flashback, got a Jewish woman to teach her to read and write when she was of school age. “Little Brother” encourages Papusza to write down the poetry she composes orally. Once he gets established in Warsaw, he collects the poems for publication. By this time, the Wajses and others in their camp have been forced to abandon traveling and have settled in a slum in a small Polish town.
The film’s scrambled chronology keeps us waiting to see what is only mentioned in the 1949 section—the extermination of the Jews and Romy by the Nazis. We see little graphic violence, but the Romy are clearly being hunted. The Wajses and some of their camp hide in the woods in dugouts covered by leaf mats; Papusza ventures out of her hole and into a barn where a group of Romy have been herded and killed. She finds a baby crying, almost an echo of her own birth, and brings the boy back to Wajs as the son they haven’t been able to conceive. Later, when Papusza is shunned by the Romy for helping Jerzy share their secrets with other gadjo in his book The Gypsies in Poland, written in Polish and Romy, her son disavows her as his mother because he is a foundling.
There is a great deal more to the film, filled with details of Romy life, that make it seem more interested in Ficowski’s work than in telling the story of a remarkable woman. In many ways, the approach is intriguing. The beauty of the lush black-and-white cinematography brings both a harshness to Romy life, particularly when they are cooped up in their tenement, and the romance and beauty of the open road and living in nature. We see a Romy orchestra play at a posh event in the 1920s, reminiscent of how African Americans were allowed to entertain white Americans, but were persecuted outside the performance arena.
The superstitions of the Romy come out in everything from fortune telling to pouring wine on the ground before drinking. The subjugation of Romy women to their men is shown in the segregation of the sexes, the commonplace of child brides, and a king making rulings for the entire community. Wajs threatens Papusza with a beating when she says she is not a poet and will not attend the state performance in her honor, and it’s clear this is a default position for him.
As much as I enjoyed looking at this film and learning about how the Romy lived during most of the 20th century, I kept looking for Papusza and her poetry to take center stage. Her art was barely quoted, and her life was massed in with the rest of the Romy, to the point where, despite a great performance by Budnik, it seemed like her husband was the main character. We do see her grieving over her marriage to a man 25 years older than she and falling for Jerzy. She is put in a mental hospital at one point, something that seems to go with the territory when a woman tries to do something her society finds offensive, like speak for herself through her art (see Séraphine  for more on this type of narrative). But this film doesn’t really get at the heart of the woman who made such a deep impression on Ficowski and the outside world. She just becomes more abject and poor, doomed and demented, setting her poems on fire on her kitchen table and begging for a few złotys in her old age in exchange for a tarot reading. She becomes a figure of pity when she should have been someone women could look to for inspiration. While I can encourage people to see this film for the richness of its imagery and scope of its story, both of which might have been meant to evoke Papusza’s writing, if you want to know who Papusza is, read her poetry.
Papusza screens Wednesday, October 16, 6:25 p.m, Thursday, October 17, 5:30 p.m., and Friday, October 18, 2:455 p.m., and at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actress Jowita Budnik is scheduled to attend all three screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
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