Through the Controversy: How “Aftermath” Found its Way to Audiences

BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA

aftermathAs part of the 11th JCC Rockland International Jewish Film Festival, the event will be screening the controversial film “Aftermath,” which is directed by Polish filmmaker Władysław Pasikowski.

The story unfolds as a Catholic construction worker from Chicago, Franciszek Kalina (Ireneusz Czop), returns to Poland to visit his family’s farm, only to realize that his brother, Józef (Maciej Stuhr), has been made an outcast by the town’s inhabitants. The brothers are then thrown into an investigation involving their town’s secrets about its long-deceased Jewish residents.

The film is fictional, but takes its inspiration from devastating incidents that came upon Jewish villagers in the town of Jedwabne in 1941 during World War II. It’s loosely based on Jan T. Gross’ 2001 book, “Neighbors,” which details the events that took place in Jedwabne.

Neil Friedman, founder and president of Menemsha Films, first found out about “Aftermath” when reading Tablet Magazine.

“I read in Tablet Magazine about the great amount of controversy with the film upon its release in Poland,” said Friedman. “The subject matter of the film peaked my interest to pursue the film, seeing as the storyline of the film was one I had not seen in any prior film about the same period.”

It took quite some time to encourage the film’s producer, Dariusz Jabłoński, to send the film to Menemsha because of the significant backlash that the film suffered from the Polish right-wing. The film was labeled as being “anti-Polish” and the film’s main actor (Stuhr) was on the cover of an issue of Wprost, a top magazine in Poland, with the Star of David across his face, despite him not being Jewish. This all gave the impression that this was a film made by Jews against Poland against the Polish nation, according to Friedman.

Besides the negative publicity he received in Wprost, Stuhr also received death threats from people who disliked him for having taken a role in the film.

“With this film in Poland, the controversy was so intense, and the fight was so overwhelming, in terms of just being difficult, and the producers would normally be thinking about hiring a sales agent and have the film see if it could be shown at film festivals and certain markets for it to be bought by distributors,” said Friedman. “They were exhausted from that experience, and they didn’t move to step two and get a sales agent involved, but for that Tablet article, I probably would never have known about this film.”

Over the course of a couple of weeks, Friedman was able to encourage Jabłoński to let the studio have a look at “Aftermath,” and once Friedman and his studio saw the film, he convinced the producer that Menemsha would be the ideal studio to share the film with the rest of the world.

From the time that Friedman and his studio spoke with Jabłoński to the time that an actual deal was made, it took about five months because of the difficulties that plagued the film’s Polish distribution, including backlash from people saying that the film should not have been released.

Besides the difficulties the film had with being distributed, it also had a few problems to tackle before it began filming. According to Katka Reszke, a filmmaker, author and photographer working in the U.S. and Poland, there was much controversy when trying to acquire the money that was needed to start production.

“The film was labeled by many people who were in the decision-making chairs as ‘anti-Polish’,” said Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Slawomir Grünberg. “This label followed the story, and that’s why it took seven years to make this film, against all the obstacles.”

“The film was produced in Poland, by only Polish artists, Polish writers, actors and filmmakers,” said Friedman. “The film was financed by the Polish Film Fund after many years of trying. There were many in Poland who did not want the film produced to begin with, and once it was released in theaters, there was a tremendous backlash against the film by many Poles.

“You’re talking about a small group of people that pulls up against the overwhelming thought that this movie should not be made, and the courage that it took for these people to marshal their energy and hard work and passion to get this movie made,” he said. “I thought this needed to be cherished and rewarded. Who the heck are we, if we’re not supporting those people with that kind of courage?”

Although the film is loosely based on actual events, it’s still said to have an influence on the viewer when thinking of the history behind this story. The release of Gross’ book helped these unfortunate periods of Poland’s history to become more noticed.

“After the book came out, this is when most people in Poland only realized that these darker chapters of Polish-Jewish relations existed,” said Reszke. “For many people, it was very difficult to deal with, and there were aggressive reactions to this, basically disbelief and outrage.

“The fact that ‘Aftermath’ is fiction makes it a different kind of tool,” she said. “It’s the very uncompromising rhetoric of the film that makes it sort of difficult to deny that a scenario like this has a level of likelihood in Poland…It didn’t happen, but could it happen? That’s what makes it so very emotional, and also very difficult to accept for many people.”

One of the main criticisms that the film has faced is that it doesn’t display enough of a balance between showing the Poles in a positive and negative light.

“It really only just talks about a dreadful, dreadful scenario which technically didn’t happen, but at the same time, it hits really close to home after everything that we’ve been learning about from historical facts for the past 15 years or longer about the darkest chapters in Polish history,” said Reszke. “In a sense, the film is merciless because it doesn’t try to bring balance. It doesn’t try to heal wounds. I think that that’s a way of dealing with this. I think it’s very important for people in Poland to be able to take a blow like this with a level of dignity.

“I think the purpose is really to shake the conscience of the Polish people,” she said. “It sounds cruel, but the film is cruel, and perhaps it’s films like these that we need in Poland to advance mutual understanding.”

According to Reszke, it’s important for viewers to appreciate that films like these are coming out of Poland, in the efforts to create healthy Polish-Jewish relationships, and to expose people to Jewish history in Poland.

“Aftermath” will be screened on Thursday, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Lafayette Theater in Suffern, and on Tuesday, April 8 at 2:30 p.m. at JCC Rockland. Be sure to order your tickets in advance at jccrockland.org.

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