Ola Salwa on the Role of a Film Critic

Spling served on the FIPRESCI jury at the El Gouna Film Festival 2023 over December, where he and his fellow jurors judged a selection of seven films from across Asia and the MENA region. The head of our jury is Polish film critic, Ola Salwa, who has served on six such juries in the past.

Spling decided to find out more about the seasoned film journalist, who has written for many different media outlets in Poland, including film magazines, general interest weeklies and even glossies. The co-founder and editor-in-chief of Polish Film Magazine, Salwa currently works with, Polityka, and heads industry events at the Polish Film Festival in Gydnia. In May 2023, she joined the ranks of the European Film Academy and works as a script consultant.

What have you thought of the festival so far?

I’m always happy and excited to meet fellow critics from different countries, different cultures, so that we can exchange our view on cinema and particular films that are within our FIPRESCI selection.

So far, the festival has been nice and also very interesting, but at the same time, let me tell you, it’s a very special moment, very special time given what’s happening in Gaza now because the tension is palpable and everywhere I go and with whoever I’m talking to, we are very much aware of what’s happening not far from here and it’s very difficult to be fully focusing on the festival and the films, knowing about the situation. My heart goes to Gaza and its civilians.

Yeah, it’s a heart-breaking situation and it has delayed the festival twice now. We were meant to have this festival in October and that was the month when the conflict really reached a critical turning point, so this festival was delayed and there are no celebrations as part of the new format. So it’s great to be watching films, but we’ve got the context of a very politically unstable situation and a bit of tension in the air. But today, I would actually like to focus on you and your career and just get a good idea of where you’ve come from and some of your career highlights and that sort of thing.

So yeah, [laughs] I’m laughing because I feel slightly intimidated by the word “career” and “highlights”. Just to add… you can imagine a Polish blonde person feeling really intimidated.

There’s nothing to worry about because I’ve been doing my research and I know there is some very good stuff to talk about and stuff that I’d be proud to say if I were you. So I understand you’ve been reviewing film for over 20 years, is it over 20 years?

Yes, yes, 22 now.

ola salwa fipresci jury el gouna film festival

And what led you to your first job and what has been your favorite film-related job over this time?

That’s a very good question. I just wanna say to everyone who is considering doing our job, being a film critic, I did not finish any film studies.

I started to write about film when I was 18, I changed high school and I could not really connect with my classmates. So I decided to go to the cinema more often and then I felt really connected to films. And I felt the need, it was early days of the internet, to write something about it.

And when I was 19, I think, after I graduated from high school, I was offered a freelance position as a reviewer for no money back then, but they told me that they will offer me free tickets, film merch, which at the time was just enough for me.

And with time, I got one internship, then a job, second job, and 22 years later, I’m here in El Gouna on my sixth or seventh FIPRESCI jury. My favourite film job I created for myself because at some point, I decided to found a film magazine in English about Polish film.

It was supposed to be this promotional magazine called, incidentally, Polish Film Magazine. And I made it from scratch. I designed it, I hired the writers, I even had photos of the film directors taken especially for the cover.

It was a beautiful magazine… a dream come true. I cannot really describe how proud and how happy I was doing that job.

And obviously, a great boon for the Polish film industry. What’s it like being part of that? And where would you say it’s headed in the foreseeable future? Let’s say like the next 10 years or so.

Polish film industry, what about it? Well, actually, I’m looking at a Polish film industry from a few different vantage points, not only as a film journalist, but also I do some industry trainings, like I coordinate them.

And also, I’m the so-called head of industry at the Polish Film Festival, which means that I program and oversee discussion panels about what’s important for the industry. So having said all that, I think that right now the biggest challenge for Polish film industry is getting local audience back to the cinemas. I think it’s like that everywhere in Europe.

I don’t know how about South Africa. Yes, because as you know, during COVID, the number of submissions dropped significantly. And now it’s coming back, but people, I mean, the audience is more interested in Barbie and Oppenheimer than local films, which is obviously a thing everywhere, happening everywhere.

But in Poland before COVID, we had, I think, 37% of admissions on Polish films. The audience really wanted to watch local films in theatres. It was a really good boost for the industry, which is partly publicly funded, which is a great privilege for filmmakers.

But it also means that business-wise, sometimes investing in a film is not something investors are interested in. Also, I think we have a challenge with storytelling now. There’s a huge movement towards empowering scriptwriters.

But it feels like the system is not working properly yet. So people who wanna write and tell their stories have to do it on spec most of the time, and that’s not a very sustainable. The concept and stories they are pitching to producers, sometimes they’ve been pitching them for years.

So it feels stale sometimes. We have this expression in Poland, like a pregnancy being held for too long. So it’s a challenge. It feels like we are looking for new narratives. There are some. There are some really, really interesting fresh voices in Polish cinema.

But due to the political situation and conservative party governing Poland for 10 years, we saw a surge in the number of very patriotic films about the 20th century, about post-war Poland. I don’t wanna get into the details because it’s an entire interview on its own.

ola salwa film critic

Is that on the propaganda side of things?

Propaganda would be probably too strong of a word, but yes, that definitely this direction. Like not very well made films, just stories serving a purpose, a political purpose.

Yeah, I think South Africa is only realizing the power of cinema in changing narratives, changing governmental appearances and putting the focus on the past rather than the here and now to play a distraction in a way. And the South African cinemas are in a similar place.

So we’ve got a few major theatrical chains and they were put under considerable strain during the pandemic. And one’s in business rescue at the moment, trying to get the viewers back, but all relying on the Hollywood blockbusters and animation or superhero stuff to really get people back to cinemas. But the South African local industry, much like in Poland, it’s struggling.

It’s struggling to get people back. Yes, I can totally relate to what you just said.

And another question that’s more focused on this role you’ve taken over the last 22 years. How would you say the role of a film critic has changed over this time and do we still need them?

Oh, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently because when I started out, it was like I said, the early days of the internet and everybody, and when I say everybody, I’m saying my peers, distributors, filmmakers, thought that whatever is said on television, radio, or printed in a magazine is more important than whatever is happening online.

Now, as you can only imagine, it’s no longer valid. So I’ve been actually working on all kinds of media, and I was observing how one is getting more prominence and the other one is losing it. I think when I started out, at least in Poland, it was no longer a time when film criticism was so important for filmmakers.

It was more of the beginning of the decline of that. When I started out, there were still some very important voices in film criticism. They are still present, although these wonderful, inspiring people are in their late 70s or early 80s.

Some of them, unfortunately, have passed away. So now it’s very difficult to find, I think, one, two, or three people whose voices are important. I think it’s very difficult to get one’s voice heard through all the outlets and medias.

It’s more like which outlet wrote what. Variety, which is a trade magazine, as you know, or Hollywood Reporter wrote this. It’s not like who from this particular magazine said what.

And it feels like people are often looking for a very short answer to a question. Do I want to invest my time in watching this film? If they like the film, they can go dig deeper and look for a conversation with a film critic. And I’m not saying it’s good or bad.

I’m just saying that this is how the world works. And I think that we still need film critics to have that conversation after the film. And I strongly oppose all thumbs up, thumbs down, five-star film, seven-star film rating systems because I think it’s degrading.

I think this is not how our work should look like. In certain circumstances we can be a friendly voice recommending a film, but this is not how I’m think about film criticism. I’m also a film journalist, so I do write interviews, news, and stuff like that.

But I think film criticism at its core is more of an in-depth analysis of the film and a conversation with the filmmaker, or maybe a monologue.

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I’ve noticed that with the rise of aggregators like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, I don’t know if this is the case in Poland as well, but people will generally go and just see the scores there to determine whether the film’s worth watching or not. And they don’t really want much more than that in a lot of cases.

But what I’m also seeing is that because the internet has opened up the door so wide to just about anyone that can publish something on a blog or whatever, that there are just so many voices that people are now looking for that expertise once again. It’s kind of opened up wide, and now it’s narrowing again where people can’t actually just go with whatever because of celebrity influencer reviews and paid promotional reviews, and we’re seeing PR having much more of an influence over the reviewers themselves. So it’s now becoming more about integrity and who you can trust… whose voices you can trust. At least that’s how I see it.

Yes, yes. I would agree with what you just said in the sense that there’s just too much content in the sense of films and series, but also opinions on that.

And I think that the world is changing in a way that, I don’t know, four or five, maybe like 10 years ago, it was possible to watch every film released in cinema. Now it’s just impossible unless you only do that. You don’t have a day job… you don’t have anything else.

And it’s important to have some sort of a way to filter out the good and the bad films. But it takes time. So yes, I think it’s important to have your own guide, somebody who has a similar taste or maybe exactly the opposite taste.

But it takes time. And the thing, I think that the biggest challenge right now is to have time to find your film critic, your film, your series. Damn, if I wanna buy coffee, sometimes it takes me 5 to 15 minutes to just see all the options.

I think that our attention is a new currency now because there’s just so much that we’re exposed to, whether it’s advertising or trying to sift through the glut of information out there to make the right call, that I think attention is probably the most valuable thing that an audience has at the moment. You’re constantly getting poked, prodded, tapped on the shoulder by things because they want your attention. And we are now almost suspicious of that. We wonder why we are being forced to give our attention.

And even things like engagement, we’ve realized in social media that we actually have a level of power with our engagement because if we engage, the stuff tends to go further. And I think audiences are realizing that they need something back in return. They’re not just gonna engage and connect and forward that thing without any sort of recompense.

old salwa gff

We were talking about the rating system with Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. And I was kind of curious to know if you use a rating system to accompany written reviews. Actually you can just go either way… maybe you could share some of the films you’ve given the lowest and highest scores.

So I don’t give points to films. If there is a necessity to do that, I really, really have strong negative feelings about that.

Usually when I first wrote in Europa, which is a European outlet in English. So you can take a look at my reviews. I try to make it clear what I think are the strong parts of the film and some of the more challenging ones.

I never take part in ranking the best films of the year. I can name them, which I did for IndieWire and some other outlets, but I cannot award the first spot and the first runner up. I think it’s art, how you can compare?

And with time, film fades. And I have a different attitude to films I watched in January compared to films I watched in December. Also because of what we just said, like time and attention and constantly new stimuli, new things.

And what I would like to say is important for me is, what changed the way I work throughout the years is that I became less harsh on films. When I was in my early 20s, I could write such a vicious review that now I feel really bad about it. I feel really embarrassed just reading them.

And there were some filmmakers who did not want to talk to me. And to be honest, I don’t blame them. At the time, I still feel that their films are not good, but it’s more like I could have written that more elegantly, more gracefully.

And my goal at the time, because that was the environment I was working in, was to write something smart, something that the reader could be attracted to. Like a funny title, a good first sentence, a good punchline… Now it’s more about getting to understand what the film is, what are its advantages, disadvantages, where the film has a bit of a challenge, what is commendable, and does it have a like ethical meaning or ethical ground I can relate to?

I use a rating system for my reviews and I can see the benefits of not using one because what I sometimes find is that people aren’t gonna actually read your review properly. They’re going to skip to the end and just see what the rating was. And then it’s like they haven’t actually taken the necessary time. But now I sort of think to myself, well, why not make the review more accessible to whoever wants to get something from it.

So I’ve even got a capsule review at the top, which is a one-liner, and then the full review and then a rating as well. So people can do what they want with it. But I find that the rating system does get a little bit problematic when it comes to assessing films, because I find, especially between a five and a six out of 10, there’s this funny and uneasy ground that you’re dealing with where something isn’t quite flat and it’s not quite satisfactory. And sometimes trying to get that across in terms of the rating is a bit problematic.

ola salwa fipresci jury

Do you get to choose what you review and under what conditions do you find you get your best writing done?

Most of the time I get to choose because I don’t write this much. I am not a staff writer. That’s one of the things that are happening globally. There are less and less staff writing jobs available. For Cine Europa, I usually pitch films from the festivals or Polish films.

And if they are first films and they are bad, I usually write to my editors that I don’t wanna review that because it’s like kicking a puppy. That’s usually an expression I use. And for my Polish outlets, it’s usually something I’m really interested in.

There are just specific genres or directors or subjects that I’m interested in and I wanna write about. It can be a film, a series as well… and now since I got so interested in Arab cinema, I pitched the review of Naga, which is a Saudi film, huge hit.

It’s on Netflix. So if you’re interested in seeing what Saudis are so crazy about, you can access it there. Yeah, and I used to think that it’s easier to write about films I don’t like because it was easier to find things that were not working and to point them out.

And I don’t know if it’s just the Polish language or a universal thing… When it comes to praising films or anything else, the language is not as generous as for negative things. Maybe it’s a Polish character now that I think about it. But now, I don’t know.

My writing depends less on a film, more on me because unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who needs to feel inspired. And to have a good moment and to have good conditions to write my best pieces. And is there like a place in your…

Do you write from home or do you write from wherever? A coffee shop? Is there like a place that you really can focus that you always write from? Or is it like wherever?

There are a few spots. One of them is my home. I don’t have an office. There are two or three cafes in Warsaw that are more quiet than others.

But if any aspiring writers are reading this, I just wanna say that writing is one thing. Rewriting is just as important. And after I have things written down, if I have time… because I usually write very close to deadline, I just rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Think about the structure, especially if it’s longer than, I don’t know, two pages. Tighten it up.

…and what are some of your career highlights?

The magazine, definitely. Becoming a member of FIPRESCI, of European Film Academy, being invited to commissions and evaluate scripts, which is a high form of trust in my skills. Interviewing some people, definitely.

Which people, specifically? I know it will be kind of controversial, but Roman Polanski. I chased him for three weeks through his Polish assistant. And when he called me and I heard his voice on my phone, I was really starstruck.

And it was funny because it was a very funny circumstance. I was actually in a festival and I was in a hurry to do a Q&A, so when I was talking to Roman Polanski, he was on the speaker on one phone and the other phone was recording whatever he was saying. And at the same time, I was putting my shoes on, putting my coat on, running down the stairs, running up the street.

After I knew that I already had enough material for my article, I said, I love you, really. You made me a critic because the first review I ever wrote was after watching Ninth Gate, but I really have to go now. And I hung up on Roman Polanski.

So that was funny. The interview was just very conventional because I had not seen the film. It was just for Polish Film Magazine, to promote the film that had a premiere out of competition in Cannes.

I’m not that type of a journalist or a critic who likes interviewing stars roundtable style and only having the opportunity to ask one or two questions.

You prefer the one-on-one interview?

No, I prefer not talking to anybody because I’m exhausted. Okay. I’m kidding. But definitely, definitely. It’s, again, about time, how much time do I have to talk to a person? I really like my interviews to be more of a conversation than answering questions.

So I really need to have these two, three minutes to get in touch with a person, to listen to them, to listen and find out what kind of person they are. Do they prefer talking about their emotions or maybe more about concepts? It takes time. It’s almost impossible to have that instant connection when you only have like 10 minutes.

And what do you prefer talking about?

Concepts, definitely. Definitely, the world, ethics, philosophy, how the world works and how film can help people understand the world better or how film can show you.