Taking place in a city which uniquely ‘hangs’ between Europe’s East and West, Żubroffka International Short Film Festival is an event we continue to check up on; always energized by it’s entrepreneurship in Eastern Europe’s festival circuit. With the major expansion planned for their seventh edition, 5-9 December 2012, we joined fresh faced programmer Marcin Łuczaj for an early morning chat.
Leaning into the desk, hair shadowing his eyes, freshly brewed espresso dually steaming alongside an early morning cigarette, Łuczaj was a fine example of film-festival-health. We all have been there in some form, dancing from project to project, adrenaline-high in the festival lead up. We quickly learnt of the long day that lay ahead of him:
1. Talking with us about Żubroffka, then,
2. Onwards to manage guest travel and jury coordination for the Warsaw Film Festival, then,
3. Somewhere in-between he would attend to the administration of this month’s rendition of World Shorts; a filmmaker support initiative he organized, traveling every month to screen and profile non commercial short films.
These entirely separate projects, each with their individual demands, shared one thematic undertone: each offer Polish filmmakers opportunities to bridge into the West; to take their wealth of talent and skill over traditionally defined East / West borders and be celebrated on the other side. After a short introduction to these projects, I realized that, while we had come together to talk about Żubroffka, one of the major draw cards of the festival was actually Łuczaj himself.
Set in Białystok, Northeastern Poland, Żubroffka is known as a festival that has literally stayed true to its roots. ‘Our region is one of the poorest and wildest regions in Poland,’ he began. Łuczaj started the Żubroffka venture in it’s very first edition, back when he was just fifteen. As his very first film festival, we start to see how the two fell in love with each other. Now, seven years later, his enthusiasm has only escalated.
He gave us the impression this is a special homeland, not too distant from colorful Warsaw, but a place where traditions were rich and only growing richer with initiatives like Żubroffka. I asked him how, considering it’s positioning in the East, the festival came to be so popular. ‘It is in the major pipeline to Russia and the Baltic and we realized this pretty quickly when the festival began,’ he continued. ‘It reaches these neighboring eastern countries, together with pulling people from all over Poland for the occasion’.
Beginning in 2006 as a festival with more of a big brand focus, Żubroffka became quickly couped as an audience driven festival. ‘Over the years we have realized that some of the most memorable Żubroffka experiences have been due to the area’s rich sense of community,’ he told us. ‘We have been able to grow so quickly because of retaining this audience focus. Events don’t just occur in the center of the city, they are spread out over the regions around Białystok. Every year, there are translators going out to screenings and Q and A’s to really reach the community. Through this, we have been able to build the festival up in the minds of a really large cross section of people,’ he continued.
There are three major competitions at Żubroffka: the Grand Prix, the International prize and the National prize. All are awarded major prizes, funded by the festival, with the major prize money of 2000€. Included in the International prize is the Eastward Window award which, for us, is a clear part of the festival’s uniqueness for the industry. Collecting films from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Slovakia, this award is exactly in line with profiling eastern filmmakers to the West. ‘It allows us to invite some festival people and filmmakers from Eastern Europe to turn a spotlight on the sometimes forgotten or unrespected cinematographers from these regions,’ he told us.
Since it’s inception, Żubroffka has grown rapidly, developing international networks and building more reach outside of Europe through it’s focus on doing things right. They receive approximately 1000 submissions each festival round, with 100 of them granted the opportunity to feature. Supported by the cultural center and funded fully by the city, it has a particularly refreshing approach to supporting filmmakers with no application fee, no premiere policies and all accommodation costs covered. The festival also runs workshops for filmmakers in Lithuania, Germany, Georgia, Crimea and Kazakhstan. As an emerging producer himself, Łuczaj is largely interested in these ethical practices favoring filmmakers.
‘It is really fantastic that Żubroffka has such fair prizes. It is also a really nice festival to be part of, with really great, warm audiences. If I was a filmmaker paying for my flights and going to a new place for my film’s screening and I attended and there were only five or so people in the cinema, I would be pissed. Żubroffka continuously has full theaters. The way we program is also favorable to the filmmakers. If we invite someone from the other side of the world we try not to have many more competing events on. We want to give everyone the opportunity to have a full house, meet their audiences and get the most out of the experience.’
Nearing the end of the proposed interview time, we finally approach the Polanski subject. He wore a white T shirt with his name. ‘Oh you like Polanski?’ we asked. He looks down at his T shirt and says ‘Yes! I love Polanski. I like to sleep in this.’ ‘Oh yes, you sleep with Polanski do you?’ He laughs and tells us about when he was seven and he met him, ‘He brought me a Coca Cola and I immediately fell in love.’
Well, we too fell in love: with all things Marcin Łuczaj and the festival so clearly in his blood. No matter what his adventures with festivals over Europe, he will always be part of Białystok at this time of the year, preparing for submissions, programming, administrating and then, finally fueling the party.
‘You girls should come!’ he adds.
In the coldest part of Poland, sometimes – 32 degrees at that time of the year, we surprise ourselves when we are so completely charmed and say:
Zubroffka submission deadline: 1 November 2012
All application information here