Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival 2020: ‘I Never Cry’ and the bureaucracy of death

Sunday, November 8, 2020 - 5:06pm

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In its 27th year, the Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival has been virtualized as a result of COVID-19. The slate of shorts, feature films and documentaries are streaming on the Michigan Theatre website in lieu of live screenings. One of this year’s feature films is “Jak Najdalej Stąd,” or “I Never Cry” in English. Written and directed by Piotr Domalewski (“Silent Night”), the film explores the cruelly ubiquitous loss of a parent through the eyes of a young woman. “I Never Cry” prompts the viewer to reconsider their role in the lives of others. 

Ola (Zofia Stafiej, “25 Years of Innocence”) is seventeen years old, and desperately wants a car. She has failed her driving test three times (though the last failure was definitely not her fault), and can’t afford to take the test a fourth time. She wouldn’t be able to afford a car, either, but her father promised to send her the money as soon as she gets her license. Ola’s dad is in Dublin, working for a shipping company and sending money home to Poland where Ola lives with her mother (Kinga Preis, “53 Wars”) and brother (Dawid Tulej) who has a disability. Coincidentally, Ola misses a call from her father during driving test number three, and finds out later that same day that there was an accident involving a shipping container. Her father had been crushed.

Thus begins Ola’s journey. Since her mother does not speak English, Ola must be the one to fly to Ireland and retrieve her father’s body. At 17, Ola must rescue a man she hardly knew from the purgatorial bureaucracy of death. Confronted by long lines, expensive cigarettes and unfeeling doctors, the Polish teenager must grapple with the life lived by her father, independent of his role as absent patriarch. Through such a struggle, Ola gains perspective on herself in relation to others.

“I Never Cry” is a poignant meditation on loss and the sometimes strange distance between kin. As she meets the people who knew him, Ola seeks to reconcile the father she knew with the man she did not, but comes away with little more than limp placation: “He did his best.” Despite the mundanity of this remark, uttered first by the foreman of the shipping company where her father worked, it becomes something of an anchor for Ola as she faces her father’s flaws, flaws which help Ola come to terms with her father’s interiority and selfhood. A life only appreciated in death is the film’s sad irony. 

As a coming of age tale, the film has an unconventional rawness. The challenges faced by the protagonist are not contrived, rather all too real. Ola’s growth culminates in a moving catharsis at the film’s end, as her relationship with her father is grounded in personal significance. As a criticism of a very-contrived bureaucracy, the film lands precise blows. Investigating all of the gratuitous processes surrounding death, civid, sacred and social, Domalewski recenters the emotional.

Watching Ola endure the death of her father in international isolation, those of us in some degree of COVID isolation may be able to empathize. Those who have lost a parent can empathize with Ola on another level. No matter one’s situation, the viewer is encouraged to pause and appreciate the lives of others, especially the lives of our parents. As we tumble through even the most quotidian bureaucracies of modern life, seeing the interiority and humanity in one another demands a concerted effort, one we all ought to eagerly make. 

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.

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