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BERLINALE 2013 Forum / Germany / Poland

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Sanity, mental illness, reality and surrealism overlapping in Sieniawka


- In Sieniawka, first-time Polish director Marcin Malaszczak crafts a puzzling mix of documentary and fiction, exploring the borders of sanity and mental illness

Sanity, mental illness, reality and surrealism overlapping in Sieniawka

Sieniawka [+see also:
film profile
, the first feature film of Polish-born director Marcin Malaszczak, while apparently being an observational documentary set in the eponymous psychiatric hospital, is actually a puzzle of loose structure blurring the boundaries of sanity and mental illness, and probably many other boundaries too. Basically, it is up to the viewer to pick the categories on both sides of the border.

The film starts like an absurdist fiction short, with the central figure of mental patient Stefan Szyszka wandering around post-industrialist landscapes in a straitjacket. Some dumbfounding incidents happen to him, and it is clear we are far from the territory of realism. Actually, it takes us to reach the documentary part of the film set in the hospital to realize these are probably dreams or delusions of an insane man.

Once in Sieniawka, which is both the name of the village on the border of Poland and Germany and the hospital, we are observing the patients in their everyday activities. But this part is not rooted in realism either, because Malaszczak clearly picked the stranger, perhaps more mentally ill patients, and their own peculiar habits and ticks to edit into the final film. Also his choice of lighting, camera angles and filming technique suggest he is not after reality.

A comparison with Ulrich Seidl and the “staged reality” of his film Import/Export [+see also:
film profile
is inevitable, as will probably be the accusations that Malaszczak is exploiting the mentally ill patients. But this can hardly be the case as the director actually grew up in Sieniawka. However, his case will not be helped by the fact that the film on the whole is so surreal that an affection for the subjects is, for the director- hard to express, and for the audience- hard to feel.

But this was clearly not Malaszczak’s goal anyway, he is more interested in the relation between real and surreal, sane and insane, “normal” and “not normal”, and there are obvious hints at the vagueness of categories such as time and space. Sieniawka is not an easy film to watch, or to understand, but is a welcome challenge for audiences looking for fresh cinematic expressions.

Sieniawka was co-produced by Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin and Berlin-based Mengamuk Films, with the latter also handling international rights. 

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