An untold tale on the path to Polish freedom

  • November 6, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - The latest Polish film sensation has made its appearance in Canada, telling the gripping tale of a hero priest and martyr who risked his life to oppose Poland’s oppressive government.

Popieluszko: Freedom Is Within Us made its North American premiere with a pair of screenings Oct. 31 at the Imax Theatre at Ontario Place, with the story of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, a young and charismatic priest who spoke out against social injustice in communist Poland in the early 1980s and was later murdered by the Polish secret service.

The film is in Polish with English subtitles. It is playing at Empire Theatres in Mississauga’s Square One Shopping Centre from Nov. 6-12.

As the biggest movie to come out of Poland in several years, and one of the first to portray the clergy’s role in the Solidarity movement and the church’s role in tearing down communism, it drew more than 1.3 million moviegoers in Poland this past year.

To Fr. Pawel Ratajczak, omi, who saw the film at a private screening for priests, the movie is important not just for those of Polish descent, but for everyone.

“Fr. Jerzy is able to demonstrate what it means to be truly free, that even in the situation of outside lack of freedom, whether it be because of political systems or any other cause, a person is able to remain free in his or her moral choices,” he said, adding that it’s also a great coincidence to have it appear during the Year for Priests.

“Here is a priest who gave his life literally for the Gospel and for Jesus Christ and it’s an inspiration for me personally in my priesthood and I think it’s going to inspire many of our brother priests as well.”

Director Rafal Wieczynski said the church was the only place where members of the Solidarity movement could gather publicly and Popieluszko is renowned for having used his sermons to preach about freedom and resistance to injustice. Wieczynski, who skipped school to attend Popieluszko’s funeral as a 16 year old, said the famous priest became a hero to him, but the story of this man’s life still remains a touchy subject.

“Of course, it’s not a subject that everybody likes. I mean, Poland (has had) only 20 years of freedom — people on both sides are still alive and there’s still a struggle to name the truth,” he said.

For Wieczynski and his wife, Julita Szwiercz Wieczynska, who both studied film and produced their first movie together in 1992, this was the biggest investment of both their time and money. The film took seven years to complete, with two of those years spent searching for actors who could play the part well and looked like the historical figures.

As producers of a weekly TV youth magazine for the past 10 years, the couple covered World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto and many Catholic youth events across Poland and around the world. But it was Pope John Paul II’s call to action, to plunge into the deep, that gave them the courage to invest nearly a decade of their lives and millions of dollars into this deeply moving production.

“It’s always a challenge to make a film about a good man but of course Fr. Popieluszko was a symbol of the great role of the church in our history and after years of freedom (his story) was not being described in Polish culture,” Wieczynski said. “We thought if we don’t take up this subject, no one (will).”

The couple didn’t want to make a documentary, feeling an action-packed movie would better capture the interest of younger generations. After much research and interviewing, Wieczynski realized that making a movie about his hero wouldn’t leave him scraping the barrel for ideas.

“The life of Fr. Popieluszko was so dramatic there was no need to invent anything to make it more exciting than the story was,” he said. “We just had to make a synthesis of what the Holy Spirit already did in his life.”

Acted scenes are interspersed with historical footage, drawing the viewer into the brutal reality of the narrative, while some scenes flash a comforting glimpse of Popieluszko’s sense of humour and of the compassion he had for those around him.

“We hope people think of Fr. Popieluszko as someone similar to all of us, a man who had the same tensions and temptations but who took the right decisions in his life,” Wieczynski said.

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