2023 Slamdance Film Festival: Silent Love Review

Directed by Marek Kozakiewicz

The tender yet harrowing new documentary Silent Love takes a fascinating and visceral approach to presenting the lives of real people on film. There are no voice-overs or narrations here, no talking heads popping up giving us statistics and facts about the scourge of homophobia in Poland. Instead, the camera functions simply as a fly on the wall accompanying its subjects in intimate rooms having real, sometimes intense, conversations. I would be hard-pressed to name a film that humanizes LGBTQ+ relationships more than this film does. Like the very best stories, its specificity makes it transformative and universal.

Silent Love follows Aga, a headstrong and loving woman in her 30s, who is returning to a desolate small town in Poland. It is the kind of small town that we very easily forget is likely just a short drive from most big cities in the world. As the film opens, her mother has very recently died of cancer (her father having died of pancreatic cancer years before), and she is petitioning the court to become the legal guardian of her 14-year-old brother Milosz. She is warned that the sudden loss of his only remaining parent at such a young age will be emotionally trying for Milosz, but Aga is steadfast in her assertion that she will take care of Milosz no matter what.

The central conflict lying beneath the surface of this story is that Aga is a lesbian and in a serious relationship with her girlfriend Majka, which has now become long-distance. Because of Poland’s strict LGBTQ+ laws, Aga must hide this fact from the authorities in order to ensure she will gain custody of Milosz. Majka lives and works across the border in Germany, a much more accepting place, but she often pays visits to Aga’s home where the three of them quickly become an instant family. They try to find solutions for their situation. Aga appeals to Milosz that maybe he could move with her back to Germany, but he is resistant as he is approaching a transitional period in his schooling. Majka considers leaving everything to live with the pair in Poland, but she is trepidatious due to the extreme judgment and prejudice.

Meanwhile, Aga and Milosz have an interesting dynamic that changes from moment to moment. Sometimes they are back in brother and sister mode, laughing at silly jokes or goofing around. But more often than not, Aga’s mothering instinct kicks in, and she is back to playing the part of a stern, no-nonsense guardian to Milosz. He exhibits small signs of rebellion – stealing a small sum of money and buying an e-cigarette – but overall he is a good kid with a warm heart. We are taken aback when he casually uses a gay slur in the presence of Aga and Majka. Their reaction to it is extraordinary. He is clearly just repeating something he heard in school, and they handle it with the grace and clarity of grown adults who realize that with a few years of growth, this kid will be mortified that he ever repeated such a thing. If only we could go back in time and erase dumb things we did to try and fit in.

On a technical level, director Marek Kozakiewicz puts his stamp on the film in many interesting ways. The scenes of Aga in a courtroom answering aggressively personal questions regarding her fitness as a guardian are made more potent by the way he holds his camera close, and we see the tears welling up as she has to lie about her relationship. Another moment where Milosz practices for a traditional Polish dance as part of a graduation ceremony takes on a larger, unexpected quality as the P.E. teacher leading the dance uses it as an excuse to project a sermon on damaging gender norms. The way Kozakiewicz utilizes an overbearing classical piece and sound in this moment is masterful. Elsewhere in the film, the beautiful score by Bartosz Bludau underlines the gentle yet incisive tone of the film beautifully.

Underlying everything in Silent Love is the very real danger that the family faces due to the cruel, barbaric, and homophobic laws of Poland. The fact that the film had to be carefully shot over a long period of time and is only just coming out now years after it was filmed speaks to the gravity of the situation. Somehow though, Kozakiewicz’ unfettered access to the lives of these three people takes us inside the home with a remarkable lens and never feels intrusive. At times, it almost plays like a narrative film (the setting and house at times reminded me of the Oklahoma home shared by Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood), and it’s the lack of stilted, procedural filmmaking that ends up making Silent Love a standout documentary.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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