On Wednesday 11 April, as part of an ongoing programme (4-24 April) of weekly screenings of films from Visegrad Group countries (Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary), the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Cairo showed the Polish film, Breaking the Limits (also called The Fastest, or Najlepszy, literally translated as “The Best”).
The screening was a unique opportunity to watch a movie from a country whose cinema, though remarkably accomplished, with a long list of achievements, is not exactly a staple of Egyptian screens.
Within the Oscars alone, Polish cinema – some of it well-known to Egyptian film buffs – Honorary Award winning directors, Leopold Stokowski (1942) and Andrzej Wajda (1999), nine Polish nominations for Best Foreign Language Film including Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land, The Maids of Wilko, Man of Iron and Katyń, Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (his The Pianist was nominated for a regular Best Picture), Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Faraon and Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness; Paweł Pawlikowski won an Oscar for his highly controversial film Ida (2014) and the Polish-born Janusz Kamiński won two cinematography Oscars (for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan); this, in addition to the Scientific and Technical Award going to Stefan Kudelski three times.
Despite their presence in film festivals or in special screenings by such entities as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Arts Centre, too few of these or indeed any other Polish films have been covered regularly enough for Egyptian film lovers to have anything but the most sporadic idea of the Polish film industry.
Anna Prochniak as Kamila in Breaking the Limits (Najlepszy, 2017) (Photo: IMDb press files)
Breaking the Limits premiered in Poland in November 2017; it has already been screened internationally, winning the Best Debut Actor award (Kamila Kaminska in the role of Górski’s girlfriend) and Best Production Design award at the 2017 Polish Film Festival. Its choice for the Czech Embassy screening is interesting – not to say timely.
Łukasz Palkowski’s directorial debut, with a script by Agatha Dominik and Maciej Karpiński, it is the story of Jerzy Górski, a man who until the release of Breaking the Limits was virtually unknown to the Polish audience.
The movie takes us from the darkest depths of Górski’s drug addiction to the 1990 World Triathlon Championships Double Ironman competition, where he set the world record (24:47:46). As the 29th Polish Film Festival in America describes it, the film is an “extraordinary story of a man who found himself on a verge of self-annihilation only to overcome his addictions and succeed in the most unbelievable way”.
For the Egyptian viewers, Breaking the Limits is a great combination of discussions about drug addiction, raised over the past years throughout many media and cinema and television productions, with the always attractive element of achievements in sports. Even if the drug addiction was a hot topic in the European 1970s and the 1980s (also time of the film’s plot), for Egypt this previously hidden dilemma is now wide in the open.
As I wrote in a recent article for Bhekisisa, South Africa’s Centre for Health Journalism, over the past few years, Egyptian celebrities such as the footballer Mohamed Salah, singer Hisham Abbas and actor Mohamed Ramadan became the faces of star-studded anti-addiction campaigns.
The strong social and cultural stigma of drug addiction in Egypt is also addressed through documentaries produced or supported by the Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction (FDCTA), part of the government’s battle against drug dependence, including 10-minute mini features shown in schools. The awards are given on an annual basis to filmmakers who shed light on the topic, whether through independent works or by incorporating addiction, even if briefly, in works with broader themes. On the other hand the fictionalised television series Taht Al-Saytara (Under Control), aired during Ramadan in 2015, was the first large-scale creative work unveiling the world of drug addiction in 30 episodes.
Arkadiusz Jakubik and Jakub Gierszal in Breaking the Limits (Najlepszy, 2017) (Photo: IMDb press files)
In this context, there could’ve been no better choice than Breaking the Limits: it hits a nerve in Egypt, bringing about a different perspective on a known topic, and adds an exciting sports element to boot.
“The film takes us back to the days that we can describe as ‘the real beginning of drug problems in Poland’. In the second half of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, the Polish government did not know what to do with this problem and at first tried to sweep it under the carpet,” Krzysztof Szpetmański, the film’s producer, who visited Egypt for the screening explains.
“We were aware that the story is shocking to many viewers and chose to simplify some elements and images. As the film is not just about drug addiction, it presents the whole painful journey and the many implications of being part of this world: the theft, the aggression, the rejection, the inner struggles, the impact of the surroundings and need for a radical change in environment and even friends; the frequent cutting of ties with the family, the addict’s never-ending struggle even years after he is clean.”
This inner struggle is indeed poignantly captured through an element of a mirror, on which the protagonist meets his alter ego: one of the film’s strong creative components. “The director’s idea was that Górski should meet his own demon in the mirror, the element that shatters his psychology and accompanies him throughout his life, even after recovery. This mirror allowed us to show what this inner life looks like.”
The portrayal of a direct relation between drugs and devastating physical and psychological experiences is among the factors that make this film an important document as well as flashing the red light, particularly in countries where drug addiction is finally being tackled in the media. This was not the first attempt by Polish filmmakers to make Górski’s biography into a film, but none saw the light except for a project by Maciej Karpinski in which he presented only a fragment of the character’s life.
“We were lucky that the course of history brought us close to Jerzy. The previous attempts had induced in him a lack of interest in the work, maybe a kind of disbelief that it would ever happen, but he soon grew enthusiastic and very involved. As we progressed and Jerzy began to realise that this time it is for real, reliving the details of his addiction turned out to be a difficult task. Even though he never hides his past, getting into the many layers of those devastating times, walking us through all the traumas, the problems with his family, the death of his first love – to whom he introduced drugs, the challenges of the rehabilitation, the price he and those around him paid for this addiction – all this was very hard.”
Jakub Gierszal as Jerzy Górski in Breaking the Limits (Najlepszy, 2017) (Photo: IMDb press files)
Addicts’ lives tend to have a meandering course, but by focusing on the main storylines and stepping stones it was possible to create a single, solid dramaturgy that presented 90 percent of Górski’s life in a convincing way. It is an enlightening and inspiring yet terrifying experience that benefits from an excellent performance by Jakub Gierszał, a young actor previously known for his roles in Suicide Room (2011) and Dracula Untold (2014).
“Undeniably the character of Górski was a great challenge for Jakub too. In fact his task was doubly difficult. Not only did he have to understand the psychology and physiology of a drug addict, he also had to become an athlete. The film includes many scenes in the swimming pool and, guess what, Jakub Gierszał is not even a swimmer. As Jakub himself puts it, ‘I know how to float on water’,” Szpetmański laughs, adding that this complicated the herculean job expected from the lead role.
The six months of preparations included a lot of training, visits to rehabilitation centres and discussions with specialists, with great support from Górski himself, who allowed the crew into his life.
Thanks to intelligent choices and presentation, the story remains universal even though its subject is a Polish citizen and it was shot fully in Poland, with scenes in Wrocław, a historical city in western Poland, and Legnica in the country’s southwest.
In Breaking the Limits, Jerzy Górski as an addict who becomes an athlete is not restrained by time, social, cultural or geographic borders. The person we see carries no nationality, but is marked by human tragedy and stands on the verge of self-annihilation and seemingly inevitable death before his life takes an unexpected turn. After years of struggling and pain, he is brought back onto his feet, and eventually makes great personal achievements.
In this sense, despite the fact that the film tells the story of physical and mental agony through which the protagonist and all those surrounding him had to go, it also provides a lot of hope. Not only is this a value that needs to be communicated to thousands, if not millions, of people in same circumstances, it is also fresh proof that art can stimulate positive emotions and inspire those who feel irredeemable. On the other hand it heightens the awareness of those dealing with an addict among family or friends, helping them to understand the depths of the problem and reverse their judgmental and rejection instincts.
“Jerzy is like a highly dynamic electron. Even today, at over 60 years of age, he remains extremely active. Unlike many recovered addicts, he did not establish any rehabilitation centres or circles, he has not chosen to work in therapy. Yet he gives a lot of motivational talks. I think that Jerzy would not be able to stay still in front of a group of patients and would probably take them for a run and the therapy would end in some kind of a marathon,” Szpetmański giggles.
And it’s true: Górski’s real passion is sport; he has established a company Górski Sport which specialises in organising training and other events in addition to renting out equipment.
Even if by now, many European countries understand the complicated web that forms the world of addiction, embraces and cures them effectively, Egypt is still on the way to this state of affairs. Breaking the Limits is a film that deserves to be seen by a larger audience, beyond a one-off screening within the confines of an embassy, maybe at a film festival or preferably in movie theatres.
Krzysztof Szpetmański, producer of Breaking the Limits (Najlepszy, 2017) with his son (Photo: courtesy of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Cairo)
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
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