12-10-2016

FIPRESCI Warsaw Critics Project Review: Playground

By Paraskevi Karageorgu
Playground directed by Bartosz M. Kowalski Playground directed by Bartosz M. Kowalski

One of the most divisive titles so far at the 32nd Warsaw Film Festival has been Polish production Playground, Bartosz M. Kowalski’s debut feature, which explores the topic of child crime and is inspired by actual events. 

Through numbered chapters, the film introduces its characters, 6th graders followed through their last day of school: Gabrysia (Michalina Świstuń), a chubby girl from a well-off family, preparing to confess her love to a schoolmate; Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda), the object of Gabrysia’s love, forced to take care of his wheelchair-user father; and Czarek (Przemek Balinski), a school bully whose dysfunctional family receives social benefits.

Set in a nondescript town, looking so universal that it could be anywhere, we follow these three characters in their homes and in school, clearly distinguishing their family and social class backgrounds. Throughout, the director leaves hints that signal the unstable behaviour of the two boys: insect torture, theft, bullying. The film becomes progressively dark, culminating in a scene where the three children confront each other and the first extensive act of violence occurs. After this scene, it seems that the film shifts and feels detached from the preceding narrative, as the character of Gabrysia is left unresolved. This shift is also marked by a scene, very different from the rest in its surrealness: a line of adults looks straight at the two boys passing by them in slow motion, judging but not doing anything. Here comes across a provocation for reflection on parenting, negligence and social responsibility.

The climactic scene reveals that the events we have been following have served as a probable explanation for the horrifyingly brutal violence, in which Szymek and Czarek commit murder. While the film could be defended on the grounds that it is based on an actual crime, and the strong performances of the young children, it is not difficult to outrage an audience with such imagery. Making a scene of a long, still shot of extreme cruelty committed by children, therefore understandably dividing the public, prompts a question: is this way of portraying violence the only way to convey the message of existing problems, or is it a simple strategy to shock? The film recalls Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or winner Elephant (2003), however while that film left the horrific images to the imagination and therefore made an inner reflection necessary, the explicit violence in Playground, risks causing us to look away – and this is exactly what the film is attempting to criticize.

Kowalski successfully transmits the message of the powerlessness of institutions and specifically schools in helping children with issues of domestic neglect and alienation. But if the film’s purpose is to address real crime and real events, it does not question how we are to react in the aftermath of such crimes. It simply frames them much like how the mass media covers them, relying on shocking events to get the desired attention today, without a deeper reflection on what we, as a society, can do to protect children from criminals and from becoming ones themselves.

Last modified on 12-10-2016