My Friend the Polish Girl confronts immigration, identity and Instagram in Brexit-era Britain

22 May 2020

On Friday 29 May, The Calvert Journal will be running a special 24-hour film screening of My Friend The Polish Girl. Self-referential and bold, the movie follows one amateur filmmaker’s plight to make a meaningful documentary on immigration in Brexit-era London, with the messy relationship between director and protagonist revealing just how quickly opportunism can spiral into exploitation.

The film will be able available to stream for 24 hours on The Calvert Journal website, starting from 17:00 BST on Friday 29 May. A live Q&A with the directors will also be streaming on our Instagram page shortly after, at 19:00 BST. Click here to reserve a ticket and to get an email reminder.

My Friend The Polish Girl is a Brexit-era film about “how people are used and disposed of” — but all is not what it seems. Told from the point of view of inexperienced American filmmaker Katie Broughton (Emma Friedman-Cohen), it is a fiction film shot in the style of a documentary, following Polish part-time actress Alicja Dąbrowska (Aneta Piotrowska) as she lives in London.

“There are a lot of mockumentaries out there, and they’re always a bit fake,” says Mateusz Dymek, who wrote and directed the film with his wife Ewa Banaszkiewicz, with whom he lives in London. But My Friend The Polish Girl isn’t trying to be more convincing than some of the comedic or rock ‘n’ roll mockumentaries out there. Rather, the filmmakers employed the format to delve deeper into certain issues — the powerplay between filmmaker and subject; between women of different economic means. “Our intention was to make it as real as possible,” says Dymek. “We were very much avoiding made-up conflict, the neatness of drama, the poetry of fiction films. But at the same time, we wanted it to be kind of watchable. That was the challenge.”

Alicja is 32 and has lived in Britain for 12 years, but seems unsettled. Watching her through Katie’s greedy lens, which evokes the 1960s observational film movement of cinéma vérité, we follow Alicja’s ever-more desperate existence as she splits up with her boyfriend, searches for a flatmate, and scrolls through Facebook friends she doesn’t really know. We also learn about Katie, the rich kid poking around in someone else’s life for some kind of truth. She provokes Alicja into providing her with a film-worthy story, her increasing involvement in Alicja’s life not dissimilar to the camera crew in Man Bites Dog, the Belgian crime mockumentary Dymek cites as an inspiration. “Nothing much else was happening in the film,” Katie admits in voiceover, as she films Alicja vacuuming her flat. Then seconds later, she asks, “What if I could change Alicja’s life? What if I could introduce her to a completely new world?” But Katie scuppers her chance of a real scoop, perhaps overwhelmed by the responsibility of what her time with Alicja might reveal.

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In the end, the women are not so different — each lonely and desperate for validation — but they can’t get along; they don’t connect. The relationship brings to mind recent pop culture’s toxic onscreen female friendships. In particular, there’s something of Girls’ Hannah and Jessa in Katie and Alicja; Hannah’s disregard for her friends’ privacy through her writing in Katie’s dogged pursuit of a narrative, and something of Jessa in Alicja’s superior and unapologetic sexuality. Alicja’s sultrily-delivered commitment to “do anything you want me to,” we see through the screen of Katie’s MacBook Air, is also almost like a teaser for a-day-in-the-life-of a cam girl. As Alicja wields her erotic capital to varying degrees of success (“This is my seventh part as a prostitute,” she says in one memorable scene), we’re reminded of the precariousness of the spectator-reliant gig economy.

Shot mostly in shaky black and white and permeated by emojis and haphazardly written snippets of text, My Friend The Polish Girl is aesthetically evocative of a filtered Instagram Story, and the myriad ways this medium conveys meaning. This layered storytelling — through camera angles, sound design and the film’s graphics, leads to another quality of the film: an omnipresent but never directly acknowledged friction between what Katie’s documentary film is and perhaps what the fiction that frames it is not. “Do you feel accepted by British society?” Katie asks Alicja. “[But] what does Alicja know?” says Banaszkiewicz. “She’s just trying to make the rent, she’s not asking these existential questions.” But are Banaszkiewicz and Dymek?

It’s been almost a year since My Friend The Polish Girl was screened in British cinemas. The feature debut has amassed impressive accolades for the directors, who met at the prestigious Łódź Film School in the late 1990s and have been working together since 2007. Nominated for Best British Feature Film at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2018, My Friend The Polish Girl also won the Grand Prix at Koszalin Debut Film Festival in 2019. But at times, British reception of the film has almost been as meta as the film itself, as reviewers have referred to and disagreed with each other’s appraisals. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described it as casting “a compassionate light on London’s migrant workers,” while The Critic’s Ben Sixsmith countered this by saying the film “satisfies the desire for greater representation and subverts it.”

My Friend The Polish Girl is aesthetically evocative of a filtered Instagram Story and the myriad ways this medium conveys meaning

Indeed, Alicja isn’t the stereotypical Pole we sometimes see on screen in the United Kingdom, where Polish characters are typically hardworking builders or cleaners (such as the characters of Konrad Topolski in EastEnders, or Jan Lozinski in Coronation Street) but she does fit the archetype of the post-communist émigré in Polish film as someone lacking a stable home and identity. Dymek, however, attributes this not to Alicja being a Pole in the UK, but other facets of her identity. “I think Alicja is rootless because she’s a mess, not because she’s Polish,” he says. The pair both say they didn’t set out to make a film about the Polish migrant experience, although both are the children of migrants — Banaszkiewicz, the London-born daughter of a Sri Lankan mother and Polish father, and Dymek, the son of Poles who defected during communist rule to live in Sweden.

The film appears to be more about the danger of pursuing the representation of Poles in British society, or as Poles as émigrés: “I think that filmmakers are usually fairly privileged people, and even though they want to tell the story, they don’t know the person. They romanticise the Other,” explains Banaszkiewicz, citing this view as the seed for what became the script for the film. “They’re not really there to delve into the human condition in some way. They’re there to make a political point, which is possibly noble but not possibly the truth.” At the same time, Dymek says, “In Sweden, I always wanted to fit in, but always felt a prejudice towards me. In Poland, I also felt a bit of an outsider. Now I come here, and suddenly I’m this white privileged male. So I think the risk with Poles is just that, because they’re just white, they might get forgotten, which I think is sad.”

Playing up one’s Polishness isn’t without problems, however. The duo hazard a guess that most Poles in Britain would rather just assimilate — indeed, it’s what they’re writing about in their next feature film, an adaptation of their 2018 BBC Radio 4 drama, The King of the Flat White as Narrated by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. For them too, their Polish roots and subject matter, has been professionally perilous. In a previous interview with me, the couple talked about My Friend The Polish Girl not being recognised as a British film for funding purposes, despite being an English language feature with a predominantly British cast and crew. “So just because you have a Polish surname, you can’t be British?” asks Banaszkiewicz. “It’s deeply offensive.” But, if the confusion points to a lack of acceptance of Poles as fully paid up members of British society, then it also highlights the need for a greater exposure of the emerging British-Polish voice.

In My Friend The Polish Girl, Katie’s film doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, but proves Banaszkiewicz and Dymek’s point about the dangers of eschewing the personal for the political. “Katie wanted to make a worthy film about an immigrant and Brexit, but Alicja doesn’t come across as any more than an individual,” concludes Banaszkiewicz. Defying Katie’s desire for her to be a vehicle for a film about immigration, Alicja is a multifaceted, dark and completely engrossing character — a human being rather than the “Polish girl” of the film’s title. Through her, however, viewers can learn something about Poles in the UK today — not least that we’re all different.

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