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Aleksandra Gietner

post #1 of 4
Thread Starter 
New York Times

A Polish Teenager Stars in Her Own Film Noir Melodrama

Piotr Karpinski/Latarnik.pl
Aleksandra Gietner played the lead role in the movie "Hi, Tereska."

July 3, 2002


FALENICA, Poland - For a short and starry moment, the world seemed wide open to Aleksandra Gietner - a reform school girl who by chance landed the lead role in a low-budget movie that became a surprise hit here.

Ms. Gietner, 16, thief, escape artist, budding drunk and talented young woman, was nominated here as best actress. This spring, Hollywood called to tell her that she had won an award for her subtle and mysterious performance, and she was invited to fly to Los Angeles.

But she did not go. In fact she had just escaped from her reform school here in Falenica by pretending to be sick, then sliding down a drainpipe from a hospital's second story. The movie director's assistant told Ms. Gietner, who was hiding from the police, that she had talked with the reform school and that all would be forgiven: If only she would turn herself in, she could still go to Hollywood.

"She wouldn't return to Falenica for one moment, even if it meant she would go to Hollywood a month later," said Karolina Bendera, the assistant. "She doesn't tolerate being locked up very well. I suppose no one does."

Ms. Gietner turned her back on a shot at success and redemption, and so has fascinated Poland as the inscrutable star of her own melodrama. Her tale also seemed to confirm the pessimistic message of the film, "Hi, Tereska," which follows the decline of one girl - Ms. Gietner's Tereska - as a symbol for a generation of aimless young people in the confusion and monotonous concrete housing of post-Communist Poland.

This month Ms. Gietner's well-documented life hit a crucial point: After yet another escape, she was finally locked into isolation for two weeks in the tumbledown reform school here with rusty bars on the windows - and given her repeated offenses, she may have to stay in the juvenile justice system until she is 21. "Ola, if she wanted, could be an actress," Karolina Sobczak, her co-star in the movie, said, using Ms. Gietner's nickname. "I can't understand her behavior. Maybe she misses drugs. Maybe she misses alcohol. She misses freedom."

Ms. Sobczak, 18, an orphan with a horrific childhood, stands as yet another pillar of this real-life morality play: The two were inmates at the same reform school in 2000, when one of Poland's most respected documentary filmmakers, Robert Glinski, cast them as friends in this feature film.

The girls did not like each other then and do not now. And as Ms. Gietner remains locked away, Ms. Sobczak seems to be making her way slowly in life as an actress.

"It's my future," she said. "How can I not use it?"

The idea for the film developed in the mid-1990's, Mr. Glinski said, when several teenagers here killed people for no apparent reason. This was only one symptom of change in Poland and around Eastern Europe after Communism ended, a paradox in which greater freedom also brought more drugs, AIDS infection, fear of the struggle in a society where the state no longer cared, even sparingly, for every need.

"They feel they have no future because their parents are thinking only about money," Mr. Glinski said. "They feel there is no work for them. They feel a kind of social rejection. From that, they are frustrated. And because of that, they are aggressive."

He looked for all kinds of young people to play the teenagers (only the adults in the movie are professional
actors). But he found his two leads in a reform school just outside Warsaw. Ms. Gietner, thin but with chubby baby cheeks, was distinctive, he said.

"She has some sense of mystery," he explained. "I never knew what she was thinking. I didn't know who she was in the beginning. Was she a bad girl or a good girl? This was very interesting."

Ms. Gietner's life - she grew up in a town outside Lodz, in central Poland - is not so different from Tereska's. She wrote in a letter that Ms. Bendera, who became a sort of surrogate mother, asked Ms. Gietner to write as a way to understand her better: "I was born on July 14, 1985 and, honestly, I don't know how it happened. I have no father." The letter describes a younger half-sister who Ms. Gietner felt was better loved; stealing for the first time in kindergarten; getting drunk at age 9 and liking it; feeling, in general, unloved and unwanted.

Her performance as a character similar to herself appears seamless, as she moves from innocent to delinquent on film: Tereska smoking her first cigarette with an ice-cream cone in her other hand. That performance, along with that of Ms. Sobczak, accounted for much of the film's success. It won the prestigious Eagle film award in Poland, and has done well at film festivals worldwide. In The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell called it "subtly devastating."

But the central detail in news stories here is the nod from Hollywood. She was supposed to go to Hollywood with Ms. Sobczak and Ms. Bendera to pick up the award for best actress in an international film. When the invitation came, Ms. Gietner had already escaped. (She had pulled off two other escapes since she shot the film in the summer of 2000. She was caught once pushing a shopping cart of candy down a street after breaking into a store and doing a radio interview in an illegally parked car.)

In press accounts Ms. Gietner seems the consummate nihilist for not turning herself in, when the reward was so great.

But Ms. Bendera says it was more complicated. Ms. Gietner's boyfriend had recently been released from his reform school, and that, along with being free, seemed more solid a lure than California.

Moreover, it seems, even if she did turn herself in, the trip may not have happened. Mr. Glinski and Ms. Bendera have been under the impression that the sponsors for her trip decided to pull out because Ms. Gietner had escaped.

But the film's American promoter, Christopher Wojciechowski, said the trip's sponsors, whom he did not name, did so purely for financial reasons. In fact, he said, having Ms. Gietner at the awards ceremony, on the lam, could only have been a plus.

"For the publicity reasons, it would have been wonderful - that the receiver of the award is escaping from prison!" Mr. Wojciechowski said. "For the press it's a wonderful story."

Ms. Gietner, cut off from the outside world in her room here, is no longer giving interviews. The school's director, Romuald Sadowski, said she needed a "completely quieted down period."

"There is a lot of the child in her," he said. "This is the danger. But it is also the hope."

But she did agree to send down a note to a reporter in her neat, girlish handwriting: Yes, she wrote, she may well have trampled the best chance of her young and troubled life. But still, she said, she wanted someday to become an actress.

"First I have to finish school," she said, "and become a reasonable person."


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

post #2 of 4
I've read this post a couple of time now. Not being quite sure if I could comment/contribute I've kept shtumm.

But reading it for a third time I found it immensely touching. Having Polish heritate may have helped - the Polish race has historically been a nation of over-dramatisers, heavy-drinkers and creatively-tortured geniuses. I say this in an objective and non-judgemental way. I've known several suicides/attempted suicides and misjudged individuals of Polish extraction. Have been one myself (not the suicide bit - not quite) I can fully understand the conflicting drivers which led this teenager to demonstrate these charcteristics.

It's also the fact that I too went through a troubled childhood (through no fault of my parents I hasten to add) - although to nowhere the extent of poor Ola - that I was nodding in agreement with a number of her actions/statements.

I hope it all works out for her. I need to look out for this film to see if it's available on release (albeit in arthouse cinemas - not really Warner's cup of tea is it)? in the UK.
post #3 of 4
This is very sad, sounds like she is very talented, I too hope it all works out for her.
post #4 of 4
Thread Starter 
Yola, thank you for your thoughtful insights on this matter. Speaking of availability, I went to the really-big video store yesterday; and, of course, they didn't have Hi, Tereska. Let's hope that film becomes a bit more available in future! (By the way, White Teeth has arrived!)

Debby, I share your hope things work out for Aleksandra. She's got an uphill battle before her, but she seems smart enough to reach its peak.

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