Directed: Dorota Kedzierzawska
Genre: Coming of Age, Drama
With the exception of the short opening scene and the end, I Am (Jestem) is one long flashback. The film begins with the young main character walking up a dark, smart stairway. A door opens and a man asks the character how on earth he got to this point. Then follows the history of an 11 year-old boy called Kundel (a Polish swearword that means mongrel), who escapes from a child’s home, a not to be envied place for a child in the Poland of not too long ago. He returns to his village, where his mother is not exactly pleased to see him. Here too he is teased and tormented by the members of a glue-sniffing street gang. All alone he takes shelter in an abandoned barge on the nearby river. Uncomplaining, he doesn’t give anyone the blame for his desperate situation. He simply tries to see things the way they are and to organize his life as best he can.
As timid as he is, he survives his harsh existence believing that somewhere, somehow there must be a better world. One day Kundel meets a rich girl who lives in a big house near his boat and doesn’t get on well with the children at her school. She becomes his only friend and even his first love. This encounter makes him realize he has the right to exist. Kundel’s existential answer to the question at the beginning of the film, ‘I am’, reveals how the young protagonist finds his own answer to the important questions of life. Director Dorota Kedzierzawska found inspiration for this moving story from two newspapers articles about two children: both very poor, the first refused by society, the second with a dream of becoming a poet. Sober, despite using major cinematic tools, Kedzierzawska succeds in portraying the inner world of a small boy. Michael Nyman (The Piano) composed the beautiful music. Kedzierzawska’s film Crows (Wrony) was screened at Dutch Cinekid in 1999 and 2002.
Polish film I Am (Jestem) is an odd little number. It plays out like a triumph of the human spirit film, a brave and plucky keep your chin up and everything will be okay flick, complete with a resolutely uplifting, purely major key score by Michael Nyman. But the odd thing is that this is a film about a young homeless boy who looks to be about ten years old living alone in an abandoned, rusted out river barge because there is simply nobody in the world that gives a damn about him. The film’s tone is enormously out of keeping with its subject matter, so much so that I feel like I should be offended for being told homeless kids are so darn cute and plucky but, strangely enough, I actually found myself enjoying it.
The film opens with the young star of the film – who remains nameless throughout – being questioned by the police. What is his name? How long ago did he run away? Why? How has he been taking care of himself? After a moment or two of this the film flashes back to tell the main body of the story.
The boy is taking part in a poetry recital at an orphanage. When he is ridiculed for his selection, one that openly longs for happier days and a loving family, he decides that it is the last straw, hops the fence and makes a break for it. He sleeps in the woods, hops a train, and bums a ride in a river barge that eventually takes him back to his hometown. The boy, you see, was not actually an orphan despite living in an orphanage. His mother is alive and well and living in town. Problem is she’s also the village whore and wants no part of him. So he moves from place to place before settling in an old, rusted out boat permanently moored in the river, in front of the home of a wealthy family.
He spends his days foraging for food, scrounging scrap metal he can sell, and avoid the angry pack of village youth who seem to have it in for the Mongrel, as they like to call him, for some unspecified reason. It isn’t long before the boy is discovered by one of the two young girls living in the house across the street, a girl who has relationship angst far too advanced for one so young, and the two strike up an unusual friendship that eventually blossoms into a surprisingly involved romance.
The film works as well as it does for two reasons. First, the cinematography is absolutely beautiful. Every shot is flawlessly framed and the entire affair is filtered out to a soft sepia tone that casts a warm glow over it all. Second is the performance of the lead actor. Child actors are a difficult thing but this one is an absolute natural, perfectly comfortable in front of the camera.
So, despite being somewhat confused by the film’s intent I actually quite enjoyed it throughout. It has an undeniably charming and whimsical quality to it even when dealing with the darker aspects of this boys life, I just can’t for the life of me understand what the director’s purpose was in making a whimsical film about childhood homelessness.