Kinoteka 2015 – Joanna – Review ****

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The Kinoteka Film Festival is, of course, a celebration of Polish cinema both old and new. And one of the perhaps most noteworthy events of the festival was a double-screening of the two polish Oscar nominees of 2015. As you may know, two Polish short documentaries were nominated for the Best Documentary category at this year’s Academy Awards, one was Tomasz Sliwinski’s heart-rending and personal documentary Our Curse (click here for our review of it) and the second was Joanna.

Joanna, it would seem, is quite a celebrity in her native Poland. She is known largely through the blog she started when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. The fly on the wall documentary follows her as she goes on with what is now her day to day life, trying to keep up a semblance of normality for her six years old son. In the meantime we see Joanna trying to come to terms with her own mortality and preparing her partner and son for life after her…

I have read mixed reviews of this film, mainly complaining that “they just couldn’t connect” with the film and I can sort of see why. If you expected the film to deliver you long, teary monologues from Joanna and to tug on as many of your heartstrings as it can (after all it’s a documentary about a mother with cancer) you will be sadly, sadly disappointed. Joanna (the documentary) is not a tearjerker. And Joanna (the person) does not, at any stage, ask to be pitied in any way. No doubt it was this attitude that made her a symbol of strength in the face of adversity. Instead of bewailing her fate, Joanna sets to work, trying to be as “present” as she can be in her son’s life, writing long essays about life for him, which we assume he’ll read when he grows older, and joking with her husband about auditioning for his second wife on her blog. I have to admit, though, that while the minimalism of the film is poetic and beautiful, I would have had trouble following the first half of it had not researched the topic beforehand. I suspect that the film may have initially been aimed for an audience who already knew who Joanna was. Otherwise, the reveal that Joanna is sick and dying is a little too subtle and even hard to pick up on. Be it in the domain of editing (shot pretty close to the style of a home movie), of lighting (mostly natural light or pretty close) or of just “camera presence” itself, this little documentary is as minimalist as it gets.

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Overall though, whether you are a fan of minimalism as a style or not, the style doubtless serves to enhance Joannna’s efforts to cope with her condition, which are dominated by more serenity than I would imagine myself having in her shoes .Yes, a voiceover, or maybe some leading questions would no doubt have made the film “clearer”, but then again, in real life we rarely have handy voiceovers to show us the way. More often than not we simply watch events unroll and read meaning into them as we go along. Looked at in this sense, Joanna is a beautiful slice – and a celebration of life…

A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Sedef moved to London three years ago to get her MA in Film Studies and never quite got round to going back home. As she once worked in a DVD company and watched films for a living, she started a personal blog (essiespeaks.blogspot.com) as a short answer to being constantly asked “watched anything interesting recently?” and loved blogging so much she just kept typing . She is the biggest Tarantino fan she knows and would be unable to choose a single film of his as a favourite.