Greater Polish representation with subverted expectations
Ben Sixsmith reviews My Friend the Polish Girl
“I decided to focus on Alicja’s situation as a Polish migrant in London,” says Katie, with clinical detachment, in Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek’s clever and moving film My Friend the Polish Girl.
My Friend the Polish Girl is a pretty flower that stings when touched. The story of a Polish part-time actress in London with a cancer-stricken English boyfriend sounds like the stuff of gritty BBC drama but the film is not what is appears. The actress is being filmed, within the film, for a documentary about “immigrants, Brexit, and how people are used and disposed of” being recorded cinéma vérité-style by the rich,War young American Katie.
Katie is not just documenting exploitation. She is being exploitative.
But Katie is not just documenting exploitation. She is being exploitative. Filming Alicja and her boyfriend, Michael, eating dinner, she grows impatient with the fact that neither Alicja’s plight as an immigrant or Michael’s as a cancer victim are offering her film its necessary emotional substance. “I made a bold decision to provoke the situation,” she explains, with comical matter-of-factness, before ruining their meal by asking about their sex lives. Soon, Alicja and Katie are locked into a poisonous symbiotic relationship, all captured on film.
Alicja is not a wholly innocent victim. She likes the attention, and the sense of being important. She is an actress, after all. When Katie asks her to film Michael in his hospital room it is cruel and opportunistic, but she agrees despite knowing that it is wrong. Aneta Piotrowska, as Alicja, does a masterful job of portraying her self-absorption and her frailty, her mingled attraction to and fear of the camera. “I don’t actually know most of them,” Alicja says about the “friends” on her Facebook page, in one of the many brilliant lines that slip throughout the film, “They’re more like fans.”
“Do you even like me?” Alicja asks Katie with childlike desperation at the end of the film. “Yeah,” Katie replies, with all the iron-clad conviction of a teenager promising to be home before ten.
Poles are infrequently represented on British screens. Despite being more numerous than people from any other non-British nations, Polish migrants rarely appear in dramas, soaps and sitcoms. World on Fire was set in Poland, but it was about history rather than the modern world. Poles crop up here and there, but often according to stereotype. “Sadly,” the actress Edyta Budnik told the Guardian, “Almost all of the roles I’ve been getting are of cleaners, prostitutes or migrants who barely speak English.”
My Friend the Polish Girl satisfies the desire for greater representation and subverts it. Katie is interested in “Alicja’s situation as a Polish migrant in London” only inasmuch as it conforms with an archetype. She is not – at least at first – interested in her. “Do you feel accepted by British society?” she asks, with the ice-cold detachment of a doctor inspecting a mole on a patient’s back.
Of course, one should not be prissy. No one is a pure island of individualism, sharing no common traits and interests with groups of people. But Katie’s desire to shape Alicja’s life to make it fit a tight thematic structure hints towards how representation can be reductionistic, and how people we are outwardly sympathizing with towards can be pawns for our private and public ambitions.
We have all seen, for example, the proud cosmopolitans whose deep concern for EU migrants in a post-Brexit world collapses into plaintive worries about who will serve croissants in Pret a Manger. Care for migrants as an abstract class, in some cases, does not translate into care for them as different human beings. Ironically, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian made his review of the film a well-meaning symptom of this tendency when he wrote that it “casts a compassionate light on London’s migrant workers.” Alicja is quite obviously not a representative of migrant workers. For one thing, she spends very little time working.
One feature of Katie’s attitude towards Alicja is relentless condescension. The title suggests as much. A 32-year-old woman might be a “girl” to her partner or her friends but not to a meddling documentarian. From the beginning of the film, Katie is snapping at Alicja to be louder, or quieter, or more expressive. The director assumes transcendent power over the subject.
But the director needs the subject. Cleverly, on the filmmakers part, Katie does not just exploit Alicja’s fragility but seems fragile herself. She wants Alicja’s life to give meaning to her own, and as the more expressive, sexual and experienced woman, Alicja knows and uses with this.
“Do you have friends who come over and have wine and dinner and stuff?” Alicja asks, gesturing vaguely towards upper-class life, “Do you have lots of friends like that?” “I don’t know,” comes the blank reply. Whether such people do not exist or whether they are not her friends goes unanswered.
“I am alone without her,” says Katie at the end of the film, as she returns to an American city that makes her as suffocatingly anonymous as London did. Sometimes, the compulsion to tell “truths” about the lives of others veils the need to hide from truths about our own. Sometimes there is a lot more in front of the camera than behind it.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe