13 June 2011

Polack, the Film: A Review and Interview


I see this word and my defenses come up.  As they do for anyone who has been the victim of a racial slur their entire life and then sees the racial slur as the title of a movie.

Because I am a person who will not sit still and tolerate a racial slur of any kind against any group of peoples, I decide to do some investigate into this film.  And I'm glad I did.

 Jim Kenney, the man behind the film, takes you for an emotional and intellectual ride with Polack.  The movie starts off talking about being Polish American and being subjected to Polack jokes from other Americans.  And from the main stream media.  Many many times.

The history of Poland during this time is discussed, including the discussion of how incorrect Polack jokes actually are.  That we aren't racist, stupid, meatheads, who all love bowling (by the way, I have to interject that nobody in my family likes bowling.  I've actually never met a Pole who does), etc.  From my own perspective, I think he does a brilliant job of discussing it, to be frank.

"Polack: the Film" also gives an idea of what it has been like to be searching for identity.  And what it's like to be gay.  Jim Kenney is a gay Polish American man. 

In the film, Jim visits Poland, meets other gay Poles and discusses the issues surrounding being gay in Poland right now. 

I was in tears throughout the film.  For several reasons.  As a proud Polish American.  As a victim of "polack" jokes from childhood and into adulthood.  And as a woman who went to school in the US and had several gay friends, whom I am still friends with.  But with no homosexuals in my family.

After watching the film, I felt that to review it on Polish Mama on the Prairie is something I need to do.  But to interview Jim would give the film more justice and perhaps entice more people to see the film.  Whether you are homosexual or of Polish descent, I hope this peeks your curiousity, that you watch the film, and that discussions arise from it.

Let's begin the interview, shall we:

1.  How did you originally decide to do this film?
My father had an elderly distant relative give him her notes on the Polish family history. These sparked my interest in understanding why I had always been ashamed to be Polish. As a kid, I was an in-the-closet Polish-American because of Polack jokes. I wanted to find out why. 

2.  Where did you grow up?  Did you grow up in an area with a Polish community?  Or did you grow up as I did, relatively isolated from other Polish Americans?
I grew up in Peoria, Illinois; so oddly, I grew up both in the Polish heartland and isolated from the community; ie, the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin was a common tract for Polish-American settlement. In Peoria, the Polack jokes were rampant, however, if there was ever an identified Polish-American community there, I didn't know of it. 

3.  When did you finally decide to accept being Polish American, as you state in the film that in the beginning you hid this part of yourself from others?
I don't think I fully accepted being Polish-American until I knew what our true last name had been. My grandfather changed it and said that he couldn't remember the original. The actual name has so much meaning and history, that I was proud of the identity it gave me. I now have it tattooed on my arm. 

4.  How did it feel to come out?  First, as a Pole.  Second, as a gay man.  I ask this because the film tackles both subjects together and separately, in a sense.
Coming out as a gay man in America was very difficult for me some twenty years ago. I believe my true coming-out as Polish only happened when I first traveled there in 2005. Poland then was still adjusting from Communist life. It was a very foreign place, and yet, I had studied their history enough to have pride as a returning "son." I had a hard time connecting to the Polish, so I relied on my other "family", the gays there. It was only in living this experience that I eventually made the parallel connections between these two groups. 

5.  Is this meant to be, as I see it, a film for opening discussion on something some feel to be taboo to talk about?
I've always been interested in seemingly arbitrary intersections. So I am interested to see how the film can encourage thought by comparing Poles and gays. The comparative taboo is also interesting to me; Poles everywhere are sensitive to the jokes, and Poles in Poland are challenged with the visibility of gays in their country. 

6.  In your visit to Poland, what did you come away with as an overall impression of the country?
I feel that the Polish people are highly educated and refined, and yet in their adolescence as a reborn country. They have been manipulated by so many foreign powers for centuries, that they struggle to determine their identity. 

7. Do you plan on visiting again?
Yesterday, I saw photos of gay pride in Warsaw. I recognized a lot of locations and yet the city is changing so quickly. I miss it and would love to visit again soon, before it starts to feel foreign to me again. 

8.  I know in the film, you discuss how you thought that you would just be walking down the street and someone would grab you and proclaim you to be their family.  Did you end up finding and connecting with any of your family?
My father joined me on one of my trips to Poland. We drove to the small town that was in the family history notes, and we found families with the same last name. We were not able to connect a gap of a few generations because the records at their church had burnt in a fire. We were invited into their home and had coffee with a large number of their family; and I was excited that I was able to translate the conversation with the basic level of Polish that I had learnt. 

9.  I know you said Poles seem distant.  I know that we tend to be rather formal with a stranger until we become familiar with them.  Do you think that it was the cultural difference between America and Poland that made you feel that way?  Or was it a thinking that in Poland, perhaps the population is smaller and therefor easier to find others you are related to?
Poles do seem distant until you meet them and then they open up very quickly. I do think it is cultural. Although I consider myself to be shy, Americans are very relaxed and extroverted by comparison. It was actually a nice change for me to be the loud one. 

10.  When I first went back to Poland after leaving as a child, the feeling of being surrounded by other people who looked like me was overwhelming but in a wonderful way.  How did you feel at that moment?
I actually didn't really have that moment. I had hoped to, but I now don't think that I look absolutely Polish, the way that I can sometimes identify a Pole just by looking at one.

11.  Do you think that our large majority being Roman Catholic has anything to do with the general attitude that homosexuality is something to discourage?
Absolutely. In Poland, Catholicism is more than a religion. It is the culture. Most of the gays I met in Poland profess to being Catholic. They consider themselves born and raised Catholic; whether they attend church or even believe in the religion. What was most sad is that some of the gays I met there still believe that they will burn in actual hell for their sexuality. 

12.  How did it feel hanging the signs?
The street activism that I did was extremely scary. It is somewhat thrilling to look back on now; but at the time, it took me three nights to convince my cameraman to go out and do it with me. The idea of it now seems easy as I sit here and write, but I have Polish friends who still tell me how offensive my subversion of the Polish anchor symbol is to many Poles. 

13.  Have you read the book Hollywood's War With Poland, 1939-1945 by M. B. B. Biskupski, released last year?  I have not yet read it but I think it would be a great companion read to the beginnings of the film.  What is your opinion?
I didn't know of this book, and it adds to my worry that the film should never be finished, because I keep discovering more... I can't wait to read it. 


14.  This really probably has nothing to do with the film, but I noticed a worried look on your face, in your eyebrows, in the film.  What could you tell me that is from? 
That's funny. I think it's my natural state: worried. My eyebrows give everything away. When I started the film, I didn't want to be in the actual story. I thought I was just making a film about Polish jokes. Eventually others helped me to see that to connect the jokes and gays, it would need a character to combine them, and that my personal journey was the most natural and available outlet for that. In the film, you mostly see me in stop-frame animations on train windows; this was my way of not fully being on camera... and yet, the worry still came through : )  The film is a lot about belonging and acceptance. I don't think I'll ever feel either completely. 

As honored as I felt that Jim agreed to the interview, his answers left me feeling more that this is a film worth watching, talking about, researching various facts to better grasp the topics, and perhaps bring about a social change.

Images and links used in this article come from the film's website and are used with written permission from Jim Kenney.


Stasha said...

Lovely interview. Will put this film on my to do list. Thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

thanks for the review. We're going to watch it! After I came here I didn't know that is US Polish community is a subject of those kind of jokes. My husband told me all about it... That's really sad...
Anyway thank you.


KaraAtkinson said...

Could you tell us where to find the film?

Unknown said...

KaraAtkinson, please click on the link highlighted in orange near the top of the story "Polack", it will direct you to the site responsible for the film. Enjoy!

John Guzlowski said...

Interesting post. I remember reading about this film. Have you read the book bieganski, a study of the anti Polish stereotype? Written by danusha goshka.

Also if you are in Facebook, you might be interested in joining the Polish American writers and editors group.