Bring back the unruly dogs – Daniel Bird

At the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham, filmmaker and writer Daniel Bird gave a cracking lecture on the art of Polish film posters, accompanied by an exhibition of posters from Barbara “Basia” Baranowska. The full lecture has been transcribed and can be read here. We invited Daniel to give his take on the current scene for Polish film festival posters, where he wonders if the ‘poster artist as hero’ is a thing of the past…

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Posters by Barbara “Basia” Baranowska: See You Tomorrow, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Possession

When it comes to film festivals, Poland offers quite a range. There is Gdynia, which focuses exclusively on the domestic industry. There is Warsaw, which like the London Film Festival, presents itself as a sort of ‘best of the fests’. Despite focussing on cinematography, Camerimage packs a formidable punch when it comes to attracting Hollywood star power for what is, essentially, an industry affair.

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Posters for Camerimage Festival, 2010-2013

Then there is the New Horizons Film Festival in Wroclaw, and its sister event, the American Film Festival. Over the years, New Horizons has managed to combine an astute and frequently bold overview of what is happening in the world of film, combined with a competition section as well a thoughtful retrospectives (full disclosure: I curated 2013’s Walerian Borowczyk retrospective – himself a former poster artist). In recent years, New Horizons has advertised itself with uniform typography and minimalist designs featuring black on white with a single magenta colour accent – thus accommodating the brand colour of the key sponsor – T mobile. Two years ago, it was simply a thick line. Last year it was a fingerprint. In 2013 it was an iris.




Posters for New Horizons Festival, 2011-2013

This could be seen as part of a trend in which complete faith is put in typography, typesetting and a single, direct graphic idea.



Posters for Animator, and the American Film Festival, 2010-2013

For me, this tradition was pioneered by the likes of Grzegorz Laszuk, whose posters and programme layouts for Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Teatr Rozmaitości grabbed the almost lifeless remains of the Polish Poster School and dragged it into the Mac age. Nevertheless, sometimes it risks smacking of corporate branding, when there is a draconian control over typography and colour.


Posters by Grzegorz Laszuk, for TR Warszawa

The question I find myself asking is this: can the ‘poster artist as hero’ flourish under such constraints? Those titans of the 50s, artists like Jan Lenica, studied not graphic design but the likes of Picasso, François and Steinberg. Lenica died in 2001 and I doubt he ever had his colour palette and typographic choices dictated by a marketing policy.

jan-lenica_wozzeckPoster by Jan Lenica, for the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg

Of course, there is always the danger of lapsing into nostalgia about the ‘golden age’ of the Polish poster. Indeed, I would readily pit some of Laszuk’s early posters and book jackets against the very best of Tomaszewski and Cieślewicz. Tomaszeski’s son, Filip Pągowski (who took the surname of his mother, another formidable artist, Teresa Pągowska), frequently pulls aces out of the hat, along have a handful of other defiant and, above all else, intelligent contemporary Polish poster artists. Arguably the most insightful commentary on the Polish response to the Smolensk disaster (which risked being hijacked by Polish Catholic Nationalists) was a cartoon featuring Jesus, sans crucifix, under which was written ‘where’s my cross?’ The answer was outside the presidential palace, guarded around the clock by the ‘mohair brigade’, who interpreted any attempt at removing an ad hoc wooden crucifix as an assault on Poland, the Catholic Church and, hell, even Western civilisation itself…

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Four images by Filip Pągowski

Pągowski‘s cartoon reminded me of my favourite poster by Tomaszewski, for a theatre production called ‘Witkacy’ by Jozef Szajna, then director of Teatr Studio in the Warsaw Palace of Culture. The writings of Witkacy, the avant-garde polymath who was in many ways a precursor of the ‘absurd theatre’ of Beckett and Ionesco, were unrecognisable after Szjana’s ‘design over direction’ mangling.

henryk-tomaszewski-3Poster by Henryk Tomaszewski for the play Witkacy by Jozef Szajna

Indeed, during the 1960s, whether it was Kantor or Grotowski, the director, not the text, was king in Polish theatre. Here, the egos of these often brilliant directors (Kantor, Grotowski) which sometimes veered off into kitsch (Szajna), was gently pin pricked, with the wit and humour, using a single, cutting poster image. Other than some act of ‘self-deprecation’ sanctioned from above, is there room today for such critique on behalf of the poster artist? When the ‘personality’ of the poster artist is reduced to a set of typographic preferences, is it only a small step away from no personality at all? Indeed, perhaps the ‘poster artist as hero’ a thing of the past?

Fake credits sequence that appears in Berberian Sound Studio, by Julian House


Initial concept posters for Berberian Sound Studio, by Julian House

Upon watching Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012), I was first struck by the attention to detail regarding the conjuring up of an analogue past. In particular, Julian House’s meticulous, designs for imaginary tape reel branding circa 1970. Here, Strickland’s film brings out the sheer tactility and rawness of analogue sound and visual culture.




Images by Roman Cieślewicz for the film Vertigo, and cover of the magazine tyija


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Images by Andrzej Klimowski including posters for Down By Law, The Boss of it All and Flying Lessons

What Roman Cieślewicz and Andrzej Klimowski accomplished using razor blades and cheap paper stock is now achieved on the computer. While it would be regressive to call for a return to analogue culture, is it not too much to ask for posters and graphics with just a little bit of rawness and crudity? It is the slickness, efficiency and soullessness that I find reprehensible. Posters are a cocktail of art and advertising. The question is one of ratio. Too many posters feel not so much designed as engineered. I am not suggesting that there are no contemporary Polish artists with personalities (on the contrary!), but their window for expression is closing… We need more eccentrics, or rather a tolerance for eccentricity… Poster artists like Cieślewicz, Lenica, Waldemar Świerzy, Tomaszewski and Wojciech Zamecznik were like unruly dogs: you always remember the times when they do not listen to you, not the times when they do. Maybe it is time for the festivals that commission these posters to consider loosening their grip on the designer’s leash?


Daniel Bird is a writer and director based in Warsaw. He is currently producing a box set of restored films by Polish poster artist turned filmmaker, Walerian Borowczyk (

For further reading on Polish film poster design, the Quay Brothers pick their favourites on Adrian Curry’s MUBI blog.


dokumentART selects DOK.fest München

Next in our ‘Festival Pick’ strand, Caroline Walke of dokumentART selects a poster from DOK.fest München, the International Documentary Film Festival, Munich.


For me a perfect poster is simple, lets the viewer grasp the idea of the event quickly and makes you wonder or smile.  This dokfest münchen poster collection just has it all for me – simplicity, by the four different motifs it shows the variety of the genre as well as making the viewer guess the contents of the films.  Also always a hard task to fulfill but has so much effect: humour, which will make people stop and wonder about it. People will remember the poster and thus the event – the festival.


Caroline Walke is Festival Director at dokumentART- European Film Festival for Documentaries, Neubrandenburg.

Behind The Poster: Docs Barcelona

Elena Subirà i Roca of DocsBarcelona Film Festival talks us through their recent campaign.


The posters of the latest edition of DocsBarcelona was designed by a Catalan Design studio called Nytt, and presents a unique message: Fill yourself with Emotions. The campaign reproduces three very different type of people you can find in our city, Barcelona, but that at the same time are all target audiences for our festival.  We liked its fresh and simple look, the characters’ personality and the symbiosis the poster delivered between general audience (the characters) and the professional side of the event (the digital camera they hold).

The inspiration for the poster came from DocsBarcelona’s goal to broaden its spectrum of viewers; to increase audience numbers, but also to broaden the target. We think there is a documentary for everyone. We think that documentaries bring you new experiences, sometimes they make you find out about realities you would never imagine or would believe in. Films that at the same time can be deep and emotionally shocking, or simply fun and entertaining.

And in the end, if this is DocsBarcelona’s goal and spirit, I think this campaign reflects it very well: For everyone, about everything, in many styles; But always about reality.


Elena Subirà i Roca is Executive Producer of DocsBarcelona Film Festival and Pitching Forum since 2009 and Head of Audiovisual Management at the documentary company Parall40 based in Barcelona, Santiago de Chile and Bogotà-Colombia.

FICCI 52: Three in the Wave – Mathieu Ravier

Sydney-based programmer and Festivalist Mathieu Ravier, discusses the symbolic nature of the Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena (FICCI) poster campaign.

8516928329_c4563d97bc_bImage: Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena by David Shankbone , creative commons license.

Cartagena de Indias is a colonial town located in the North Eastern Caribbean coast of Colombia. While it may be out of the beaten path of the mediatised festival circuit, it boasts one of the longest-running film festivals in the world, certainly in the Americas.

The Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena (FICCI) celebrated its 53rd edition this year. It opened and closed with South American films and in between, screened 140 titles from over 30 countries. All of its 290 screenings are free, making it one of the most well attended (and well-loved) film events in the world.

While it currently sits in my top three list of festivals I’d most want to attend, it only really came onto my radar at the end of 2011 just before its 52nd edition, and it did so thanks to a series of three striking posters.

It is very difficult to convey the many facets of a film festival in a single piece of graphic design (or even in a series of three, for that matter). Some festivals allude to the cinema they wish to be known for showcasing, others to the sheer diversity, scope and breadth of their program. Some focus on the assets of their glamorous seaside town, others on those of the stars who walk their red carpet. Some capture the frenzy of activity found at a bustling event, others the unique, solitary communion between viewer and screen.

Some attempt to encapsulate it all, using graphic shortcuts that have become clichés, from directors’ chairs to overflowing popcorn, from 35mm film projectors to omnipresent strips of celluloid. It’s astounding how many posters still put 35mm front and centre when most festivals have now converted to digital projection. Even these clichés have evolved in recent years. The camera-toting gunslinger recently replacing the giant eyeball or the man with a camera for a head as the strangely recurrent visual motif in film festival posters.




FICCI 52’s photographic triptych comes courtesy of Bogotan firm Mottif and Colombian artist Max Steven Grossman. It depicts an ocean wave at three different stages: just before tipping point at the peak of its potential, as it crashes down, obliterating everything in its path, and finally as it explodes into a cloud of white water spray.

The obvious reference here is to the postcard-perfect Caribbean coast on which the port city of Cartagena is perched. The deliberate framing and composition of the photographs, however, invite the viewer to look at them as abstractions, or to ponder deeper symbolisms.

In the words of FICCI director Monika Wagenberg, “the triptych Las Olas by Max Steven Grossman reminds us that cinema is ultimately made of a series of stills assembled to create movement. Movement is also suggested by the tension between each of these frames… they form a remarkable aesthetics, much like the cinema we seek out. The reference is cinematic, not only geographical.”

In capturing movement with a photograph, the artist doesn’t just go back to the basic mechanics of filmmaking, he conjures a sensual narrative out of thin air, a suspenseful build up, a climax, the promise of release. He captures the incredible narrative power of the present moment, even obscuring with an irreversible flow of raging water the calm, distant horizon.

This Festival, the image seems to say, is about the here and now. It’s a powerful disturbance traveling through space and matter, a transfer of energy you can’t (and won’t want to) resist.

Waves crash upon the shore in a steady uninterrupted flow, following a pattern a viewer on the beach can easily predict. And yet when you are caught in a wave it’s a whole different story. Each wave has a unique character, its underestimated force a constant surprise. It can bowl you over, flip you upside down until you lose your bearings. It can leave you panting, exhausted as you crawl up the beach or excited, exhilarated, as you swim out for more.

The wave in this poster is a strong visual metaphor for both cinema as an art form and for film festivals. FICCI, like many other international festivals, prides itself on delivering a snapshot of filmmaking at a particular moment in time, on showcasing the latest trends – the new waves, as they are invariably called – of local and world cinema.

Beyond the excellence of concept and execution, there is elegance and harmony in the detailing. The number of 52 rises dramatically above the horizon, the festival dates laid out like geographical coordinates. The undulations of the ocean reflect the typographical wave of the FICCI logo, its golden statue icon giving the landscape a vertiginous sense of scale.

Surrender, festival goer: let FICCI wash over you.


Mathieu Ravier lives in Sydney, where he runs The Festivalists, a non-profit organisation dedicated to festivals and cultural events, including Possible Worlds, the Sydney Film Festival HubKino SydneyJurassic Lounge and Young at Heart@mattriviera

Festival Pick: 33rd Berlin International Film Festival restrospective: Exil

Wilhelm Faber of Berlinale picks a poster from the festival’s archive.

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My favourite poster is for the Berlinale Retrospective in 1983.  The central motif is the Anhalter-railwaystation, whose name in free translation is “place where you have to stop.” A magic black and white photograph to open the spectators imagination and memory of old cinema.  At the same time an invitation to remember stories, fate or a turn of events.  The festival film series (EXIL) is highlighted by a typography which is both contained and higlighted. The poster was designed by Volker Noth.


Wilhelm Faber has worked at the Berlin International Film Festival since 1990; working in the fields of program-coordination, festival-organisation, event-management and IT.

Rotterdam selects San Sebastian

Continuing our ‘Festival Pick’ strand, Rutger Wolfson of International Film Festival Rotterdam, selects a poster from the New Directors sidebar of San Sebastian Film Festival 2012


David Bowie's The Next Day

It’s interesting to see that so many good festival posters use a drawing or an illustration. It’s very hard to work with a still (photo) image for a festival poster, because one such image will never cover the whole content spectrum of a festival. So a more abstract level of imagery to convey some sense of what the festival is about, seems to work well. We tried to solve this by using mainly text, that should evoke an image.

The one festival poster I found particularly interesting was the San Sebastian festival 2012, because visually it’s very much the same idea as the latest David Bowie album cover. You never know who got an idea when and where (but the Bowie sleeve is from 2013). Anyhow, you do see a lot of Bowie-sleeve inspired designs everywhere now. 

Rutger Wolfson is Festival Director of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Behind The Poster: The London & Porto Underground Film Festival

From Werner Herzog to Hennessy Youngman, a line has been drawn from the firelight dancing on the walls of the caves of our ancestors to the arthouse future of 3D technology.  It’s all about the caves.  So we were delighted and intrigued when we came across this illustrated poster, mixing mysticism with body art.  Here, Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais, Directors of The London & Porto Underground Film Festivals, illuminate on the philosophy behind the visuals.

The London & Porto Underground Film Festivals poster

The poster for our film festival, illustrated by David Penela, had to represent not only the kind of festival we wished to present but also our ideas about what cinema is and could be. Our festival is concerned with the art of cinema, so it was necessary for us to consider cinema as a part of the history of art rather than simply a modern phenomenon separate from it. The technology itself may only be 130 years old but its purpose and role in our lives reaches back to the earliest human beings. Art is a singularly human expression that came into existence as a response to the great mysteries of life. Cinema is one of the current forms of this expression and is shaped by the conditions of our time. It is often forgotten that art does not grow solely from the rational mind but it is as much a condition of the body, a poetic expression erupting from the interplay between the energies of the body, the conflicts and harmonies of the organs and the irrational unconscious mind. Like early humans faced with cave paintings lit by flickering flames, in the cinema – when it is art – we can be greatly transformed. We glimpse truths, new ideas and new feelings emerge. Through this we can engage with the great universal mysteries of existence, but we can also gain insight into our own individual day-to-day lives.

Our festival seeks to show works of cinema that are taking the medium beyond the dead language of commercialism and industry, and that are made by people who know that art cannot exist under such conditions. These films will take many forms and styles and come from the personal explorations of the inner and outer worlds of the people who make them. They are unique to their creators, this uniqueness is what we celebrate and champion. Our poster grew out of these ideas.

Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais, Filmmakers at The Underground Film Studio and Directors of The London & Porto Underground Film Festivals