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Regime criticism as entertainment

Four Polish women have created an entertaining TV series where sharp regime criticism is the theme – with the talking title 1983.


Award-winning Agnieszka Holland fronts with the TV series 1983 a stellar team of female Polish directors: Agnieszka Smoczynska, Kasia Adamik and Olga Chajdas – who together have created a brave and very system-critical drama for Netflix. Polish websites boil over into harness. However, the endless heinous and hateful statements get precise answers to the accusation from director Holland, who has asked "haters to go back to their video games" and ironic that American film critics have paid tribute to the series – "but they have no clue for quality".

Brave of Netflix

1983 is a sci-fi drama based on our near past. A so-called terrorist attacks i Poland in 1983, 20 years later, in 2003, the country has become a seamless, Orwellian dictatorship. Most citizens live on a (albeit well-functioning) illusion: in material prosperity, but also in a well-hidden freedom. Since Poland in the series universe remained behind iron curtain, the legacy thereof is also in relatively good preservation, including the surveillance community. The title's reference to Orwell's 1984 is clear. With Poland's lack of freedom of speech as of 2018, and the non-system faithful exclusion from both the TV and film industries, 1983 is a very bold venture on Netflix's part.

Film The Clergy (2018), which dealt with sexual and systematic concealment abuse against children within the Catholic Church, were exposed to the same type media sake that 1983 now do. However, the Poles responded by storming to the cinemas in millions. Maybe Netflix has been more on the pulse of the Polish population than the Facebook suspension gives the impression? It is mainly the pro-regime wing that comments on the series, but they tend to criticize "rigid dialogue" and "bad script". That 1983 taking up today's oppression – a situation the Poles throughout much of their history have known on the body – is elegantly mentioned.

For me, it is precisely in the close, character-driven parties the series sparkles most, since freedom and revolt are communicated in such close contact with the environment that paid the highest price to oppose. The oppression and the consequences it has are portrayed in a credible and engaging way, and what is at stake comes out well.

TV series 1983, episode 1.
1983, episode 1.

Freedom vs. safety

In that way, pose 1983 in a completely different category than the well-made but more exterior series The Americans – also watching Netflix – about effective KGB agents in the United States. Where the latter becomes mechanical in its outer plot and the explanatory models on which it is based are 1983 more organic in both course of action, grades and environmental descriptions. The series' talking details and personal stories drawn from the long resistance story of the Poles draw the audience closer to what is happening on screen. The filmmakers play with frequent references to the sins of other dictatorship regimes, such as the adoption of opponents' children. And today's threat propaganda is in the spotlight from the first picture: Poland's largest iconic building is blasted one by one in a frighteningly realistic opening sequence.

1983s theme is dangerously relevant, not only to the Poles, but throughout the world today: freedom or security, truth or justice? In this way, this drama gives us a melodramatic, but well-conceived, sometimes thought-provoking subject with a delicious political streak, presented in beautifully photographed, fast-cut sequences.

"Netflix didn't care about its ideological content as long as the creators followed the exterior, lavish convention," says one of the directors in an interview, which also asks the mandatory question of whether the four women quarreled during the collaboration. Humor and smiles are met before they unanimously respond that they stood together throughout the production, with no smiles.

Wing to wing

Another bold move the series makers have taken is to merge the Polish party and church state. The Catholic Church has been a strategic alliance partner in Poland over the centuries, but this side of 1983 nevertheless becomes too difficult to swallow for many. Precisely the freedom to make such a re-election – to draw lines between the various groups on the political outer wing – illustrates the many similarities between now and before: Why should we give freedom of expression and equality to from flew when min didn't get it from you? Unfortunately, this attitude is not so unusual neither on the right nor the left in Polish politics.

Writing a script for such a complex and double-bound story always presents a number of challenges. Here, the translation from the original script in English has not consistently become as musical in Polish. To see the Polish series dubbed into English I would not recommend either. The language choices in the settings offer both options.

As a whole, the series is polished and well-crafted, although some of the text pieces are too heavy and some acting manners. Oddly enough, some Polish actors still use a diction that is best suited in a theater hall in the country where actors and movie stars are worshiped as gods. No wonder it goes to the head of some. Nevertheless, both the supporting and other important roles are in 1983 alive, captivating and complex.

From Big Brother to Uncle

The fact that women are behind the camera gives quality on many levels. Much is, as mentioned, taken from Orwell's 1984, but the story is just as smart and surprising. The introduction of an integrated Vietnamese population as an active third party in the series' conflicts is exciting. The political regime of the series has had a long-standing Vietnam relationship, and "Little Saigon" has become a separate neighborhood in Warsaw – a refreshing grip that excludes the usual coercive jersey of real-life faithfulness.

Of the most enjoyable characters is "Uncle" – a Vietnamese mafia father who monitors and influences or – and several fast-paced, raw and elegant women figures, including the delightful, resourceful and at times (too) unscrupulous master brain behind the opposition. Without revealing how it all ends, I wish this line was kept consistent throughout.

 The series appears on Netflix.

Watch the series on Netflix

Also read: Polish film art on the poster

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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