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Central Europe: New U.S. Film Festival Features Movies Past and Present

Washington, 4 December 1997 (RFE/RL) --More than two dozen people in Washington did something Tuesday night that few film-goers ever do in the American capital -- they joined a line of those without advance reservations, hoping to get into a sold-out showing of an obscure movie that has never even been advertised in the U.S.

The film, "Poznan '56" by Polish director Filip Bajon, was nothing like the special-effects thrillers that usually fill American movie houses, but a sensitive and involving story following the events of a failed strike by some Polish workers as seen through the eyes of a pre-adolescent boy as remembered by his adult self.

It drew the crowd to the American Film Institute's theater in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts because it was the opening film in a new festival described as a celebration of film from Europe's new democracies.

The Freedom Film Festival has been organized by the Los Angeles-based American Cinema Foundation as a way to bring both new and classic films from Central and East European film makers to the attention of American audiences. The festival, to present nine films over six days, will be repeated in February in Los Angeles, California.

The executive director of the Foundation, Gary McVey, says the goal is to present films that have "made a significant contribution to our understanding of freedom, to memorialize the victims of tyranny and to continually celebrate the priceless gift of a free and pluralistic culture."

The president of the Foundation, American film director and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, told the opening night audience that Hollywood had been the institution which projected America's sometimes garish personality around the world. But he said Hollywood also carried America's best values -- honor, self-sacrifice, self-respect, pride and liberty -- to film-goers everywhere

The Freedom Film Festival, he said, is to show that these same values are strongly ingrained in nations which survived the darkness of the cold war and the iron curtain. They are part of the stories, he said, that must be passed on from one generation to the next. This is about "what it means to be alive, to be an artist, to be spirited and most of all to be free," he said.

The films featured in the festival this week in Washington include three from Poland, two from the Czech Republic and one each from Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary and Cuba. Cuba is obviously not in Europe, but organizers included it as a special "case study in censorship."

They were selected from those shown at the 32nd Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic by that festival's Program Director, Eva Zaoralova. She told the opening night crowd that the films chosen include work inspired by contemporary issues as well as those which look back to the past.

"Since I belong to the generation that grew up in the 1950s," she said, "I clearly remember the atmosphere of each of those four decades preceding the disintegration of the dream of the bright communist future...when the official Marxist-Leninist ideology stressed the notion that human rights and freedoms were crushed only in the imperialist countries such as the U.S."

Zaoralova said she herself nearly joined the communist party in the spring of 1968, but that "this experience of years of hypocrisy and lies" stopped her. "History has shown I was right," she said.

The festival's opening film, directed and co-written by Bajon based on his own growing up in Poland, centered on one day -- June 28, 1956 -- when a workers strike protesting low wages in Poznan grew into a brief but bloody uprising against the communist authorities. The story is told through the eyes of 12-year-old Darek, who teams up with a classmate to dodge parents, police, thugs, bullets and explosions to join the workers as their strike escalates at first into a joyous air of new freedom, but begins by afternoon to degenerate into the chaos of street warfare. By the end of the day, the authorities retake control, and as the losing strikers begin fighting amongst themselves, take severe revenge on those police have rounded up as "ring-leaders."

At the film's end, show trials are being broadcast from street loud-speakers, but the real leader who escaped capture, has recovered from serious wounds and is only interested in the new apartment his now-pregnant girl friend has acquired.

Radio Free Europe played a small part in the film. At one point, the young uprising leader and Darek go to the local radio station to convince the manager to report on the workers revolt, but he says he has no direction from authorities to do that. Whereupon, Darek tunes a radio to hear: "This is Radio Free Europe, the voice of free Poland." See, says the young leader of the uprising, "they've turned off the jammers."

Bajon, who attended the showing, told our correspondent he included the RFE reference based on his own experience of growing up in Poznan in the 1950s and 1960s.

The other offerings at the festival include a Ukrainian film set in Munich in 1959, Czech films set in 1958 and 1985, and a Hungarian movie set in 1961.

McVey calls the launching of the festival "a significant point in film history" and predicts it will become a major venue for "this century's most significant explosion of film-making talent."