My Friend the Polish Girl

My Friend the Polish Girl, Kinoteka

The relationship between a filmmaker and her subject becomes problematic in this faux-documentary.

Alicja is a thirty-two-year-old Pole living in London, in a flat off the Edgware Road with her boyfriend Michael. She works part-time in a cinema and seeks work as an actress. It looks like she’s up for a role as a Russian prostitute in a low-budget gangster film. This is her story, told to American filmmaker Katie, who is using her as the subject of her documentary about the lives of Poles in the capital.

My Friend the Polish Girl has the documentary moves down pat, shot on digital video in Academy Ratio and mostly in black and white, with brief sketchlike animated interludes punctuating the action. But this is in fact fiction. Alicja, Katie and Michael are played by actors (Aneta Piotrowska, Emma Friedman-Cohen and Daniel Barry respectively), as are everyone else we see. The film is co-directed by Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek, and it’s a credit to their work that it’s sometime into the film that we realise that this isn’t in fact real.

We’re in the territory of the faux-documentary – like Man Bites Dog, for example, though Alicja is something of a fantasist but not a serial killer, or David Holzman’s Diary – which intentionally blurs the line between fiction and reality, and asks questions between the two. In all of these the relationship between filmmaker and film subject (in Holzman, it’s the same person) becomes problematic. To what extent is Katie exploiting Alicja and those around her? When Michael is in a hospice – the cancer Alicja told Katie about near the start, initially economically with the truth, turns out to be real – Katie makes Alicja film him on her phone while she visits. And later on, Katie moves in with Alicja and their relationship takes on quasi-sexual and possibly actually sexual overtones.

As I said, fiction, and the two lead actresses have had roles in other films and television productions, if you hadn’t recognised them. There’s some presumably hidden camerawork in recognisable London locations, with now and again bystanders in shot having their faces digitally blurred. Yet it’s also clear that this isn’t fly-on-the-wall stuff and is a construct: Katie even gives her film a false ending, which toys with melodrama, before backtracking to tell us what “really” happened.

Needless to say there will be those who will find the central characters not people they’d want to spend an hour and a half with. But in its low-key way, My Friend the Polish Girl treads the line between film forms with quite some accomplishment, and as such it’s often fascinating.


Updated: Jul 19, 2019

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