Kontrola: the LGBTQ TV show breaking into Poland’s mainstream via YouTube

Kontrola: the LGBTQ TV show breaking into Poland’s mainstream via YouTube
A still from Kontrola. Image: Filip Pasternak

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has ramped up in Poland in the run-up to the country’s presidential elections. Can a new web series chronicling queer love reach a new audience with a message of tolerance?

24 June 2020

Natasza Parzymies seems older than her years. Fearless and enthusiastic, with a wicked dry wit, the 21-year-old has shot to fame in Poland with the release of her YouTube miniseries: a public celebration of queer love that runs against the country’s growing homophobic rhetoric.

Comprising of seven neon-drenched films that tell a love story between two women, Kontrola has become a runaway hit both in her native Poland and abroad, with the first episode alone racking up 14 million views.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has used anti-LGBTQ rhetoric as a centrepiece of their election campaigns

Kontrola’s popularity in Poland was unexpected. The country has become infamous for a government-led campaign against the LGBTQ community, with ILGA-Europe, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, recently ranking Poland as the worst place in the EU for LGBTQ rights. The country’s ruling Law and Justice party has used anti-LGBTQ rhetoric as a centrepiece of their campaign in both last year’s parliamentary election, and in this year’s upcoming presidential election. Pride marches have been targeted, and LGBTQ citizens vilified in the press. Earlier this year, it was also revealed that towns across an area the third of the size of Poland had declared themselves “free from LGBT ideology”.

Parzymies, however, hopes her series might help change things. Created as a project for her studies at Warsaw Film School, the first two and a half minute episode was takes place at airport security, where two women, former lovers Natalia (played by Ada Chlebicka) and Majka (played by Ewelina Pankowska) accidently bump into each other.

Financial constraints meant it was an ambitious project from the start. The film centred on an airport security checkpoint — or “kontrola” in Polish, which eventually became the series’ title. “I wrote the script, and showed it to Ada — she was quite sceptical about it!” Parzymies laughs. “She loved the story but said: ‘How are you going to recreate an airport in a student film?’”

Read more In conservative Poland, gay literary couple ‘Maryla Szymiczkowa’ are cutting a defiant path

The team found a suitable alternative in Warsaw’s University of Technology, where modern, glassy building doubled up as a terminal building. The story also relied on close-up shots to obscure the set.

This practical decision however, only adds to the drama, the intense sexual tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. You can hear Natalia’s fingers slide down the linen of Majka’s trousers as she searches her.

“I really wanted an intimate feel,” explains Parzymies. “The story is in the glances, the looks they exchange. I really wanted it to be a moment between the two of them.”

This first film was written as a standalone story, with the characters’ emotions designed to dominate. In the first draft of the script, Parzymies says, they didn’t even have names. “What I really liked about the first episode was that it was very short but also very complex — it had everything a normal movie would have,” she says. “I never wanted to expand it.”

Natasza Parzymies behind the scenes on Kontrola. Image: Filip Tarasiuk

The internet, however, felt differently. The film had been on YouTube for around a week when it started to become popular, with views first reaching the hundreds, then thousands, then millions. “It’s just kept growing!” smiles Parzymies. “We were really surprised — we still are.”

The original film ended abruptly; Natalia and Majka’s sultry gazes dissipating into the air. Viewers, however, wanted more. With financial help from Panavision Poland and LGBTQ rights organisation Parada Równości, Parzymies started filming again. It took over a year before the second episode was released, and Parzymies was worried that it would not be as successful as the first.

The intense sexual tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. You can hear Natalia’s fingers slide down the linen of Majka’s trousers as she searches her

Her concerns were unfounded. The second episode had three million views, the third another two million – all the way to the last episode, episode seven, which premiered in February this year and also reached a million views. The crew has expanded from six to sixty, and Parzymies also translated each episode into English.

LGBTQ arts face increasing censure in Poland. Will this be the country’s last queer exhibition?
Read more LGBTQ arts face increasing censure in Poland. Will this be the country’s last queer exhibition?

Comments also flooded in as the series went on – and, surprisingly for an LGBTQ series in Poland, they were mainly positive.

“We get some comments from people which say: “I don’t support this whole LGBTQ thing, but I like what you’re doing – and I can’t wait for the next episode,” says Parzymies. “But we didn’t get any hate.” She attributes this to the films being neutral and non-didactic. “We just wanted to change things by showing a universal story – a normal story,” she explains. “Good love stories with chemistry on screen is something we all enjoy watching.”

Its popularity means that love story is already set to continue, with plans to start filming for the second series in autumn. Now, Parzymies is working on advertising, so that it can reach an even wider audience. “People that need to see it don’t usually watch things like this,” she explains.

But what about that title?, I ask. “Kontrola” might mean a security check, but it also translates directly into English as “control.” Could it allude to the controlling power of love; or a more sinister control over LGBTQ couples in Poland?

Parzymies smiles. “It’s such a universal title, as well as a story,” she explains. “It can mean anything you want.”

Read more

Kontrola: the LGBTQ TV show breaking into Poland’s mainstream via YouTube

Here I Come: watch the queer Russian web show that needs your help to survive

Kontrola: the LGBTQ TV show breaking into Poland’s mainstream via YouTube

#SexEdPl: Poland’s schools are failing youth on sex ed. Real sexual awareness is online instead.

Kontrola: the LGBTQ TV show breaking into Poland’s mainstream via YouTube

‘I couldn’t have made this film if I lived in Georgia.’ The queer love story inspired by traditional dance