When director Wanda Koscia refers to her contender in IDFA's mid-length competition My Friend the Enemy as a "feelgood massacre movie", she is only half joking. The film follows a group of Poles as they return to an area in what is now Western Ukraine where for a long time Poles and Ukrainians lived peacefully side by side.
Until 1943 that is, when – in the chaos following successive invasions by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – the Polish population was massacred by Ukrainian nationalists. "A few years ago, I was filming in Kiev and I got interested in Polish-Ukrainian relations, which is a very painful subject", the director recalls.
She started researching the subject, and quickly found that there were survivors of the massacre still living. "What particularly struck me", she says, "is even these survivors – who have very bitter memories – as soon as I said I am interested in the people who saved you, ninety percent of them responded very positively. They said, 'Yes, we should remember them'."
"These survivors feel their story hasn't been told," Koscia says. "I really wanted to tell the human story – and also the story of people who tried to save Poles. It's time to look at this really painful history in a spirit of reconciliation. This a film about the possibility of reconciliation. There's still a way to go, but there are people who are trying, who are not just remembering the hate."
"As I researched, I was also struck by a sense of déjà-vu," the director says. "It was just like the ethnic cleansing that happened in the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda. I wanted to ask the question, in a situation like that, how would you behave? A little bit of self-examination is a good thing." Initially, Koscia planned to film the visiting Poles and the Ukrainians now living in the area separately, but she soon realised the interaction between the two groups was the heart of the film.
"We thought, it's got to be a meeting between Poles and Ukrainians. I've got to show that interrelation, which isn't comfortable but there is at least an effort being made. It was important for me that they meet." The resulting encounters are proof of how human being can rise above the most horrific atrocities and get along.