When Polish lawmakers tabled a contentious new bill last fall that would all but make abortion illegal, tens of thousands took to the streets across the country in protest, voicing their anger at the steady erosion of women’s rights in the conservative, Catholic nation led by a right-wing government.
Among the demonstrators on the front lines was Agnieszka Holland, the three-time Oscar-nominated director, who has become almost as recognized in recent years for her staunch opposition to the ruling Law and Justice party as her prolific output across a long, celebrated career.
“This anti-abortion law is so unbearable and so brutal that it, by now, is a tragedy,” Holland tells Variety. But the director adds that the protests have also sparked an awakening, particularly among the younger generation. “It’s quite a strong voice,” she says. “This change is happening.”
For the Polish film industry, that change has been a long time coming. Though some of the leading names in the business are women—including Holland, Oscar-winning producer Ewa Puszczyńska (“Ida”), two-time Berlin Silver Bear winner Malgorzata Szumowska (“Mug,” “Body”), and rising talents like director Agnieszka Smoczyńska (“The Lure”)—many say they’ve had to fight an uphill battle. “[A woman] has to be twice as good and active and persistent to succeed” in Poland, says Holland. Szumowska (pictured) adds: “I think we are still a few steps behind compared to other countries.”
Yet there are encouraging signs that barriers have begun to come down in the male-dominated industry. The membership of the Polish Film Institute’s influential executive council has approached gender parity in recent years, while all seven of the PFI’s heads of department are women. Holland says that when it comes to “women’s possibilities to produce and direct, I think that slowly but surely, it’s growing.”
Magdalena Kaminska and Agata Szymanska, of Balapolis (“Werewolf”), note that solidarity among women is commonplace across the industry—nowhere more evident than in the Warsaw-based production outfit the two women set up a decade ago. “Because we are two, it’s sometimes easier to solve problems,” says Szymanska. “We can support each other.” Kaminska credits their unique partnership with helping the duo get their fledgling company off the ground when it launched. “We found strength in it.”
Among the generation of women that led last fall’s protests, Holland sees future leaders who are “much more sure of themselves, and much more aggressive in pursuing their rights.” The ripple effects are bound to be felt in the film industry, where already a host of emerging female voices are ready to take center-stage.
“With this wave of female directors, I think the behavior [around] abuse and sexual harassment starts to change,” says Szumowska. “I think the next few years, it’s going to be a revolution in Poland.”
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