Review: Playground (2016)

A mirror into which to gaze.

by Antonio Cabello

Review of Playground (Plac zabaw, 2016), by Bartosz M. Kowalski. Poland.

The craftsman behind À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) used to say that “the travelling shot is a moral issue“; that is,  it’s not just about what we choose to show the spectator, but of how we show it as well. Sans obvious solution, this issue has been the motive of ferocious criticism and firm stands in the history of cinema, but if we want to approach the film debut of the Polish réalisateur Bartosz M. Kowalski we must backtrack through those endless hallways that Gus Van Sant traversed to retell the Columbine High School massacre with his unsettling Elephant (2003).

From a distance, the filmmaker hewed into everyday school life with his camera, disregarding every and any attempt at explanations while avoiding other pressing questions to let us sink into our own discomfort in a way that was both hypnotic and shocking.

On paper, Elephant stands as an unavoidable reference in the conception of Playground, an interesting piece of work that focuses on three classmates – Gabrysia, Szymek and Czarek, played by Michalina Swistun, Nicolas Przygoda and Przemyslaw Balinski – who “enjoy” their last day of school in a small, quiet European city where on the outside everything appears in order.

Chasing his own trail of documentary film work – A Dream in the Making (Moja wola, 2012) and Unstoppables (2015), Kowalski opts for a realistic treatment: a measured narrative structure, camera work and lighting in order to shock and unsettle the spectator with the denouement of this inspired-by-true-events story. In its aftermath, the spectator will attempt to find answers, but won’t find any such explanation, except perhaps for a mirror in which to look and reflect.

Playground is executed with considerable more crudeness than the exceptional, absorbing film by Van Sant, but it does have the virtue of churning our guts and giving us back the shadow that reveals a latent sickness in our society. In fact it’s advised to brace yourself for the viewing of this particular movie.


TonioAntonio Cabello / Writer (Jaén, Spain – 1993) Producer and editor for Fremantlemedia Spain on TV shows, he studied journalism and audiovisual communication at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He also studied poetry, humanism and film criticism. Five years ago he founded Esencia Cine, for which he has covered the Cannes and San Sebastián film festivals. Life is time.

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