papusza

Papusza

Poland (2013) Dirs. Joanna Kos-Krauze & Krzysztof Krauze

Bronisława Wajs, known as Papusza, was a Polish-Romani poet, noted for being one of the first Romani poets to be published, bringing Papusza fame for her delicate lyrical style, yet earning her the wrath and disdain of her people for revealing too much to the outsiders about their culture.

This black and white shot bio-pic from Polish duo Joanna Kos-Krauze & Krzysztof Krauze seeks to bring global recognition for this unsung heroine of the poetry world, and raise the profile of a woman who dared to buck the trend of her gypsy mores whilst providing us with a unique insight into the secretive and arcane world of the Romani traveller.

However, the choice to tell the story in a largely non-chronological order tends to muddy the narrative a little at the beginning, quite often relegating Papusza herself to the background while incidental events occur.

The film begins with Wajs’ birth, the name Papusza chosen as it means “doll”, reflecting the newborn child’s appearance. Her mother is berated for choosing such a frivolous name by an elder, claiming, rather presciently, that Papusza will bring either honour or shame to their people. We then jump to Papusza as an elderly woman (a made-up Jowita Budnik), arrested for stealing a chicken and granted release so she can attend an opera based on her poetry.

For the sake of discussing the story however, we shall adhere to the true chronology of Papusza’s life. At 15 she is forced to marry her boorish step-uncle Dionizy (Zbigniew Walerys), a harp player whom she often accompanies as a singer. Their marriage is loveless and childless until the Second World War breaks out, and Papusza finds a baby boy among the dead bodies of a German army attack on a nearby gypsy camp.

In 1949 poet Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), a member of the Polish resistance, is on the run and joins the camp, using his contacts in the city to help the gypsies get performance permits and other sundry goods. He spends two years travelling with them, learning their ways the language and of course the poetic magic of Papusza’s song lyrics which he encourages her to write down.  

This was hard for Jerzy as a gadjo (non-Roma) to understand in 1949 and it is harder for us in 2016 but education and literacy were verboten for women in gypsy culture, leaving that sort of thing to the men only. Anyone woman found with books was punished and the books burned, so Papusza was forced to get reading lessons on the quiet.

As appalling and oppressive as this may sound to us, the women in the camp are presented here being happy with their lot and to go along with this pernicious mindset – one woman even claims she’d rather her kids were drowned that go to school! However this may offend our sensibilities we must accept that this is a representation of their culture at the time, which I can only hope is not the case in today’s world.

By the later years, the war-era prohibition and persecution against travellers by the Nazis saw them move to the city, although they still eschew extravagant luxuries. Jerzy throws the cat among the pigeons by publishing a book Polish Gypsies, incorporating Papusza’s poems, which the gypsy community claim has exposed their secret world and has shamed them.

Papusza and Dionizy are excommunicated by the others for this treachery but at least are spared the violent repercussions some wanted to mete out against them. Of course it was Jerzy who revealed all but Papusza was the catalyst and her clandestine literacy now exposed to the others, another sin she has committed.

It is a rather fascinating story to our eyes purely because of how it introduces to a unique yet paradoxical culture where the people believe in the freedom to roam and live of the land as they see fit, yet deny themselves basic freedoms such as an education, a skill or even an individual point of view. Again times have hopefully changed for the better since then but in early 20th century Poland, the old traditions were sacrosanct.

Yet we are blessed to be privy to such an expose – although I don’t know what the Romani reaction was to this film – and the authenticity of how the people and their ways have been presented in this film is dutifully recreated and respectfully well observed. The music, the convoys of their caravans, the attire and even their mode of speech takes us to another world.

This world building is strong point of the film but this biggest drawback is that while it tells the story of Papusza, it doesn’t really tell us anything about the woman herself nor shares much of her poetry. She is basically just one character out of many, surely defying the purpose of the film. Jowita Budnik is good in the role during the later years but for much of the time she is expressionless and docile.

It is quite ironic then that the male actors should have meatier roles than the film’s eponymous subject, with Antoni Pawlicki providing the passion and outsider perspective as Jerzy, juxtaposed with the dogma of Dionizy’s traditionalist views as essayed by Zbigniew Walerys.

Without question the star of the film is the photography. The cinematography from Krzysztof Ptak is absolutely stunning and beautifully composed; practically any frame could be lifted and made into a photograph to hang on the wall and serve as a conversation piece. Nothing is lost through being filmed in black and white except that an HD transfer would really highlight each tableau as the visual treat it is.

The 126 minute run time feels less daunting once the immersive imagery takes hold, but Papusza lets itself down by focusing less on the story of a fascinating individual and more on being an itinerant disquisition on the Romani culture. More meat and less garnish is required but definitely a luscious feast for the eyes.

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