Poland (2020) Dir. Iwona Siekierzynska
To succeed in the acting world you need heart, talent, and many would say looks. Some actors have managed to make it with the first two alone, although the aesthetic part is purely subjective – unless you are in Hollywood, where it is largely considered the only requirement.
A small theatre group in Gdansk, Poland, named the Personal Property Office, comprised entirely of intellectually challenged or Down Syndrome actors and founded by Krzysiek (Wojciech Solarz), wins a government grant to put on a show in a professional theatre. The group have been working on a new play, Zorba, and are keen to realise their dream of performing on a real stage.
However, as it is a Shakespeare theatre, the director (Mariusz Bonaszewski) insists they perform a Shakespeare play and professional actors are added to the cast. Aging actor Bartoszek (Krzysztof Kowalewski), former star Olbinska (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska) and current hot property Wiktoria (Roma Gasiorowska) join the group and begin rehearsals for Hamlet, but it is a clear case of never the twain shall meet.
Over the past few years we have seen film casts made up entirely of deaf actors, leading to blind, physically handicapped, and Autistic actors also representing themselves on screen instead of being played by able actors. Amateurs may be the first time in which the cast is predominantly people with Down Syndrome or learning disabilities – and yet it doesn’t feel like an exploitation film at all.
Writer-director Iwona Siekierzynska in her feature debut has chosen to use this platform to paint a positive picture of being different and how much they can achieve in the world in spite of their handicaps rather than seeking sympathy from the audience. The closing credits have a dedication to Siekierzynska’s mother and sister, which may mean nothing or perhaps it indicates the subject of this film is a deeply personal one.
Something that immediately stands out is the lack of overt prejudice, pejorative name-calling, and bullying towards the actors. You won’t hear them being called “retards” or mocked for being “special”, nobody flinches or avoids them as if they have the plague, the attitude being one of acceptance as it should be. Obviously, it is a point of discussion when it has to be, but the tone is generally one of societal normalcy.
Krzysiek founded the group 21 years ago, because his sister Mary (Marzena Gajewska) wanted to be an actress. By bringing similarly impaired people together, he has created an opportunity for the overlooked to realise their dreams, and in the process, shatter the perceptions and stigma of their condition. This has fostered a tight group dynamic of charismatic boisterousness and mutual support, and bespoke rehearsal practices they can relate to and help with their acting.
Naturally, when the professionals join the group, their standard approach doesn’t fit in with their quirkier methods. The grumpy theatre director tries to run things “properly”, not appreciating the group usually do their own written or specially adapted plays. The loquacious classical poetry of the Bard proves a little tough for them to get their heads and tongues around and its stiffness less inspiring, so Krzysiek tries things his way.
Bartoszek and Wiktoria are happy to embrace this different method but Olbinska refuses to adapt and quits. Meanwhile, Wiktoria begins to annoy the others with her constant lateness and not learning her lines, but earns a temporary reprieve by inviting the group to the premiere of her latest film. It may not result in Marx Brothers level anarchy, but their presence does bring a fresh energy to the event, topped off by the catastrophe of interrupting the second screening after Mary loses her false teeth in the cinema!
Unfortunately, this jovial mood doesn’t last, with personal issues causing conflict within the group, culminating during an embarrassing live TV interview where this dirty laundry is aired in colourful fashion. But the play still has to go on and the theatre director tries to take over with minor results. The night of the play arrives, belonging to the group and their own unique style of theatre, delivering The Bard as you’ve never seen before.
For much of the film, the subject of the disabilities is largely left alone, coming to the fore during a discussion about how much leeway disabled people are given, after one of the men, Marcin (Marcin Wenta) grabs Wiktoria’s breasts during a rehearsal. Wiktoria is rightly affronted yet Marcin is posited as a man reacting to his natural urges; She rightly questions if he should be shown leniency because he is disabled.
Don’t expect an answer though; the discussion is handled differently from how you might expect it to go but is thought provoking nonetheless. I might be completely wrong in this interpretation given the nature of the dialogue, but Siekierzynska might be using this scenario to show Downs men can be libidinous, whilst also saying they need to be held responsible for their actions if they want general acceptance.
Like I said this could be construed and analysed in many different ways, the ambiguity being whom the audience should side with morally or objectively. In a similar vein, we get a glimpse of the emotional balancing act of Krzysiek and Mary’s mother (Anna Dymna), appearing as a long suffering and tired woman from raising someone different, yet fully supportive of her daughter’s aspirations.
In an expected meta move, the disabled cast are all unprofessional actors, most keeping their real names for their characters, although it really doesn’t show s they all turn in strong and enigmatic performances. Siekierzynska doesn’t go big with the production, her modest vérité approach in keeping with the am-dram theme of the story, as well as putting the cast at ease.
Amateurs is a progressive piece of cinema that doesn’t need to be didactic to serve as a life-affirming celebration of those usually written off by society, nor does the disabled casting feel like a cynical gimmick. Vive la difference!