Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski, whose sixty-year career in cinema has included the highest honors of the Berlin, Venice and Cannes film festivals, received an invitation to attend China’s Shanghai International Film Festival earlier this year while he was in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards. , where his latest movie, EO, was nominated for an Oscar. Skolimowski says he accepted the surprise invite — which included serving as Shanghai’s jury president for the festival’s 30th-anniversary edition — for reasons both “very private and a little sentimental.”
Skolimowski, 85, revealed those reasons on stage Friday at the Shanghai Grand Theater, during the festival’s opening ceremony.
“My father was born in North East China over 100 years ago, where my grandfather, the famous Polish architect, Kazimierz Skolimowski, devoted himself to designing the urban plan for one of the cities 1,000 kilometers from here,” said during brief remarks. “I haven’t had a chance to visit,” he added. “But being right here makes me all the more grateful to be able to immerse myself — even for a brief moment — in your magnificent culture, to feel your country’s dynamic energy.”
Like many of Poland’s great artists of his era, Skolimowski’s life, and that of his family, was deeply scarred by the cataclysms of 20th-century history. His grandfather, Kazimierz Skolimowski, arrived in the Chinese city of Dalian in the early 1900s when the city was known as “Dalniy,” the Russian word for “distant” or “remote.” The city was then under the control of an expansionary Russian empire, as part of the country’s occupation of Manchuria, and the faraway city of Daliniy was designated for development as a potentially lucrative trading port.
Kazimierz Skolimowski famously drafted the city’s modern urban plan, which remains present today. Jerzy Skolimowski’s father, Stanisław Skolimowski, born in Manchuria, returned to Poland and also became an architect, later joining the Polish Resistance during World War II. As a small child in Warsaw, Jerzy Skolimowski witnessed the horrors of the war firsthand. His mother hid a Polish Jewish family in their house, and his father was later captured and executed by the Nazis.
As a young man, Skolimowski gained his entry to cinema via the young Polish pro-hipster cultural set that included Roman Polanski, composer Krzysztof Komeda, actor Zbigniew Cybulski and filmmakers Andrzej Munk and Andrzej Wajda. He would go on to write the screenplays for Polaski’s early landmark, Knife in the Waterand Wajda’s masterpiece, Innocent Sorcerers. Skolimowski’s own career as a director was quick to take flight — and although his output would experience some lengthy hiatuses, he never stopped. He won the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear for Le Depart in 1967, Cannes’ special jury prize for The Shout in 1978, Venice’s jury prize in 1985 with The Lightshipand again in 2010 for Essential Killing — with many accolades in between. Skolimowski’s most recent feature, EO (2022), an impressionistic road movie that follows the life of a donkey in a Polish circus, won Cannes’ jury prize and gave him his first Oscar nomination after 27 features as a director.
At the Shanghai ceremony, Skolimowski shared the mission statement of sorts that has guided him as a director over the decades.
“We are here to celebrate film, an art form that, like none other, has the power to transform us — to make us reflect, dream, and, sometimes, strive to be better,” he said. “Which has the unique power to bring people closer together, teach us empathy, and bridge distant cultures. It shows us how much, despite all our differences, we have in common — how universal are our passions, our problems and our desires.”
He concluded: “So, let’s cherish this celebration of cinema.”
The 2023 Shanghai International Film Festival runs June 9-18. Skolimowski is leading the jury for the main competition, which also includes India’s Nandita Das, Indonesia’s Garin Nugroho, German director of photography Lutz Reitemeier and China’s Song Jia, Vivian Qu and Zhang Lu. Together they will select the festival’s top prizes from a pool of 12 films in the main competition lineup.
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