"How handsome he will be in uniform," gushes Nina, the Polish mother at the center of the film "Beyond the Steppes," about her infant son. "He will be the most handsome officer, like his father," she adds to her girlfriend.
The statement is not uttered in the idyll of peace but rather in the midst of World War II, after the father has gone off to battle and the mother has been deported from Poland by the Soviet Army. Together with her son she has been sent to the steppes of Siberia to work at a sovkhoz, a state farm.
"Beyond the Steppes," Belgian director Vanja d'Alcantara's first full-length feature film, focuses on the efforts by the mother (played by Polish actress Agnieszka Grochowska ) to protect her son at any price. When he falls ill, she joins a group of Kazakh nomads in a search for medicine.
D'Alcantara dedicated the film to her grandmother and the plot is based loosely on her real story of survival: After her husband was recruited into the Polish army, captured by the Russians and then taken prisoner by the Nazis, she was deported to Siberia in 1940 with her infant son.
The film, a Polish-Belgian co-production, will be screened at the International Women's Film Festival in Rehovot at a special session on women in wartime Wednesday at 11:00 A.M. The screening will be accompanied by a discussion on the myth of the mother in militarist contexts in the Polish and Israeli cinema.
Among the participants in the discussion accompanying the screening is Prof. Ewa Mazierska, a leading Polish film scholar and theoretician who teaches in England.
"As far as the representation of mothers in Polish cinema is concerned," Mazierska said in an email interview, "this film is both typical and unique. It is typical because it shows a woman who sacrifices herself for her son and her country, and who is virtuous and strong. It is unique because it subtly departs from this model by hinting at the possibility of Nina's having an affair with a local man and setting up a new home 'beyond the steppes.' This possibility is not fulfilled, yet by pointing to it the film questions the dominant nationalistic model of the Polish mother."
On the program along with "Beyond the Steppes" is the 2009 Israeli film "Weekend" directed by Tamar Wishnitzer-Haviv, which follows three mothers of combat soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces and attempts to challenge the myth of the patriotically committed mother.
Wishnitzer-Haviv will also speak in the discussion, as will Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, a lecturer at the department of sociology and anthropology and the gender studies program at Bar-Ilan University, and the author of the book "Identities in Uniform: Masculinities and Femininities in the Israeli Army" (Magnes Press and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2006 )
The role of women in wartime is one of the topics discussed in the book "Women in Polish Cinema" (Berghahn Books, 2006 ), which Mazierska wrote together with another researcher, Elzbieta Ostrowska. In the book, the two examined the dominant representations of women in Polish films and the work of the most famous women directors in Poland: Wanda Jakubowska, Agnieszka Holland, Barbara Sass and Dorota Kedzierzawska. The place of women in society when the cannons are roaring is a persistent motif in Polish cinema, says Mazierska.
"Most importantly, women are expected to both fight and care for fighting men and be stronger than men; such women we find, for example, in Andrzej Wajda's Kanal," she said. "There is also the expectation that mothers will sacrifice their sons for the motherland. Women who refuse to do so are criticized in the film."
Mazierska was born in 1964 in Wloclawek, Poland, and studied at the universities of Warsaw and Lodz. At the start of her career path she was a film journalist and sociology lecturer. In 1995 she moved to England, where she teaches film and media at the University of Central Lancashire. The many books and articles she has published in English and Polish examine a variety of issues in European cinema.
One of her books is about representations of masculinity in the Polish, Czech and Slovak cinema, another is about European road movies, a third examines representations of European cities in post-modern cinema and an another book analyzes the works of Nanni Moretti.
She is also a co-editor of an academic journal on East European film and last year she curated a large retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard's films at a film festival in Wroclaw.
She began her academic trajectory in the twilight of Communist rule.
"There were no gender studies in Poland during the Communist era," she said, "and gender issues were generally played down in official discourses, including in film history and criticism. This followed the idea that patriarchy was abolished under Communism, which was, of course, far from the truth. Polish cinema, in common with cinema everywhere, promoted specific models of femininity and masculinity and criticized the dominant concepts. Most importantly, it demonstrated the huge gap between the ideal of a 'liberated woman,' who is successful both as a mother and a worker and a reality of 'double bondage': women unable to care properly for their children, broken families due to poverty, alcoholism and the incredibly hard work of Polish women."
Mazierska has also dealt with motherhood in studies that are not cantered on women's issues, such as the book she wrote about the works of Roman Polanski.
According to her, the most outstanding example of Polanski's treatment of motherhood is in his famous 1968 horror film "Rosemary's Baby."
"He made this film in the U.S.A. and it is unlikely that he was inspired by Polish culture or addressed it specifically to a Polish audience," she said. "And yet, it can be argued that Rosemary, with her perfect character, her subdued sexuality, her acceptance of her fate, is in tune with the way (Catholic ) mothers tend to be represented (and criticized ) in Polish films."
The Nazis' concept of motherhood had a direct linkage to war - mothers were mainly instruments for them for "producing" more and more soldiers for war. Mazierska says current European cinema tries to re-examine and even undermine the idea.
"We can find references to 'Nazi motherhood' in a number of films," she said. "Two films which particularly attracted my attention from this perspective are the German 'Downfall' (2004 ), directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and the Slovakian 'Spring of Life' (2000 ), directed by Milan Cieslar. The first film is memorable for including a scene showing Magda Goebbels killing her own children in a way reminiscent of the representation of Jewish children being killed in death camps. The second film refers to the Nazi experiment of breeding children, in this case using Nazi soldiers and Slavic women. Both films act as an indictment of using children in and for war and, in a wider sense, treating children as a means to fulfill specific ideological goals rather than regarding them as autonomous subjects."