The award-winning film “Hi, Tereska” shines a spotlight on the underbelly of modern-day Poland. It’s a gritty world of anonymous apartment blocks and children caught in a downward spiral of poverty and violence.
The bleak, hard-edged anonymity of life in huge apartment blocks kills kids' hopes in "Hi, Tereska"
Fifteen-year-old Tereska lives in Warsaw’s concrete jungle with her alcoholic, abusive father and long-suffering, silent mother. Despite the bleakness that has marked her life, she’s a shy and sensitive girl, and has managed to hold on to her dreams of being a fashion designer and escaping to Paris.
Against the odds, Tereska gets into a fashion trade school. There she meets fellow student Renata, who introduces her to cigarettes, sex and life on the streets among the "blockers," Poland’s own "Generation X". They’re named after the grey tower blocks where they grow up – without values, without goals, without hope.
Soon thereafter Tereska becomes ensnared in the vicious cycle that captures so many of Poland’s disaffected urban youth. She begins to hang out on the streets, starts stealing, and enters into a bizarre relationship with a paraplegic guard that is at times tender, at times sadistic. The slow burn of Tereska’s environment drags others with her as this once bright, inquisitive teenager falls deeper into a pit of cruelty and despair.
With "Hi, Tereska" (Polish, "Czesc Tereska"), Polish director Robert Glinski has made a seering portrait of a loss of innocence. The topic itself is nothing new. But Glinski injects an honesty into his portrait of a sharp-edged world and its corrupting bleakness that makes the film stand out among others of the genre.
Part of the film’s honesty comes from Glinski’s casting. He searched for his two leads for a year before finding them living in a local reform school. The two non-professional actresses give the film a gritty veracity. During filming they spoke in their own dialects and often worked without scripts, bringing their own experiences from the street to the screen. The audience feels they are watching real lives being lived.
"But after the shooting was done," recounted director Glinski, "[the actors] said to me, ‘reality is nothing like this film, it’s much worse.’"
A Chance Wasted
The actress who portrays Tereska, Aleksandra Gietner, became the toast of the town after the film won high praise and several awards in Poland. The Los Angeles-based Young Artists Foundation awarded her its prize for Best Foreign Actress and invited her to the ceremony in California.
But Gietner had meanwhile disappeared from her reform school home, sucked back into the concrete jungle that is just as much a part of her real life as it is the on-screen Tereska’s. After a two-week search, Gietner was picked up by police after attempting to hold up a store.
"Hi Tereska" is an unsparing, but compassionate portrait of a society in transition, of the losers in Poland’s transition to capitalism.
The fact that the losers in this case are children just beginning their lives makes the subject that much more tragic. The knowledge that the bleakness of this environment can rob even the film’s acclaimed young actress of her own hope for the future makes it simply overwhelming.