It was in March, right around the time of the Emerson Film Festival, when Molly Benjaminson ’16, whose film Terranaut won Best Narrative Short, got a message from Jim Lane, senior scholar-in-residence in the Visual and Media Arts (VMA) Department in Los Angeles.
“I want to Skype with you,” Benjaminson remembers him writing. “I want to send you to Poland.”
Lane was taking a small group of Emerson VMA students to a student film festival in Warsaw. The other three students and Lane would be flying from LA, so Benjaminson would have to travel from Boston alone, but “don’t worry, when you get to the airport, someone will be waiting for you.”
It was a “leap of faith,” Benjaminson said, but one she’s glad she took.
“I thought the experience of going there and being there was one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of my time at Emerson,” she said.
From April 13 to 19, Lane, Benjaminson, seniors Gabriel Volcovich and Emily Pietro, and graduate student Sean Temple visited the Łódź (pronounced “woodzh”) Film School and toured Warsaw, where they visited the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, on the site of the former infamous Warsaw Ghetto.
But the focus of the trip was on the Łodzią po Wiśle (Boat on the Vistula River) Film Festival, held in Warsaw and organized by the film school. The trip was through the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a Polish cultural organization that works with colleges and universities in the United States to build relationships based on the arts. Magda Romanska, associate professor of performing arts, initiated Emerson's connection with the Institute last year. Ten short films by Emerson students, including Benjaminson’s Terranaut, were screened (but not entered into competition) at the festival.
The Emerson students had a chance to mingle with Łódź students at the festival and learn how filmmakers in Poland are educated at the school that produced such cinematic heavyweights as Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrzej Wajda, and Roman Polanski.
“I wanted my students to experience an international film festival,” Lane said. “I wanted them to be exposed to a culture and history that perhaps they might not be familiar with.”
Lane said Emerson already has a strong connection with one renowned European film school in Prague, a program he directs, and he hopes the College can build a similar connection in Poland.
“It is an opportunity for Emerson College in general to expand its international scope,” Lane said. “This is one of the president’s five points, part of his overall vision for the College.”
Benjaminson said it was valuable to connect with the Polish film students and compare the work of the two schools.
“It was interesting to have conversations about how these films were made in different places, but they resonate,” she said.
Gabriel Volcovich said he was astounded by the quality of work his colleagues in Łódź were producing. The students there enter an intensely competitive five-year program during which they study just one discipline: directing, cinematography, production, or acting. Everything is paid for by the government, including the incredibly expensive 35mm film they learn on.
“Technically and aesthetically, they just know what they’re doing,” he said. “The cinematography, the kinds of stories they’re telling, are really, really impressive. Really eye opening…They have a strong animation program [that] just blew me away.”
But for Volcovich, the trip wasn’t just about international exchange—it was also highly personal.
Volcovich skipped the Warsaw tour because he had already been when he was 16. In fact, Volcovich had filmed some of the footage used in his film, My Yizkor, about a Holocaust survivor, on that trip.
Instead, he visited Kutno, a town about 90 minutes away, which was where his grandfather grew up. He was the first member of his family to return in 87 years.
He walked the streets where family members lived and visited the nearly destroyed Jewish cemetery, where many of his ancestors were most likely buried.
“It was kind of all coming together, that I was presenting a movie about the Holocaust that was partially shot in Poland to a Polish audience,” Volcovich said. “It was interesting.”