One of the greatest

Richard Peña remembers Andrzej Wajda.

by Anne-Katrin Titze and Richard Peña

Boguslaw Linda in Andrzej Wajda's final film Afterimage
Boguslaw Linda in Andrzej Wajda's final film Afterimage

Richard Peña, who was the Director of the New York Film Festival for 25 years and is currently an advisor for the Rome Film Festival, shares his memories of meeting Andrzej Wajda for the first time when he was participating in organizing a retrospective on Polish Cinema. The last time they met Wajda taught a master class at Columbia University where Peña is a professor of Film Studies.

Ashes And Diamonds
Ashes And Diamonds

Andrzej Wajda's Afterimage is Poland's submission to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Foreign Language Film and will be screened at the Rome Film Festival. In 2015, Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski won the Oscar. Andrzej Wajda received an honorary Oscar in 2000.

"I first met Andrzej Wajda in 1996, when I helped organise a 50+-film historical retrospective on Polish Cinema. Mr. Wajda came for the opening weekend as part of a delegation that included Krystyna Janda and Agnieszka Holland as well. I must admit that I was quite nervous to meet him: for me, he was simply one of the greatest artists the cinema had ever produced, and I hoped I wouldn’t say anything foolish and ill-informed to him. Yet within a few moments all that fear disappeared: his lovely smile immediately made me feel as if I were in the presence of a friend, and he said through a translator, 'It’s wonderful you’re doing this.' Even though for me and for many others he was already a legend, he could not have been any warmer or available to the huge crowds that sought to take photographs with him or have him sign a poster or a book.

"A few years later, during a trip to Warsaw, Mr. Wajda invited me to dinner, and I spent an amazing evening with him, listening to some wonderful stories (one that I remember concerned his trip to Cuba in the early 1960s, during which Fidel lectured him on why Ashes And Diamonds was a bad film) as well as his thoughts on an incredible range of films and filmmakers.


"Our final meeting was again in New York, in 2008, when I organised a complete retrospective of Mr. Wajda’s films. Again he came for the opening weekend, meeting and charming our huge audiences who came for this rare opportunity to see the full gamut of a master’s works. But what I most remember was a master class he offered at Columbia University, where I teach. Mr. Wajda spoke to a group of about 20 students (and perhaps 10 faculty members) on visual composition; he illustrated his ideas with a broad selection of paintings, especially those by the American artist Edward Hopper. 'If you want to make films,' Wajda told his rapt audience, 'You must start by trying to understand painting.' It was a session that neither I, nor anyone else who was there, will ever forget.

Ashes And Diamonds
Ashes And Diamonds

"For the past two years, I have served as an advisor for the Rome Film Festival; this year, we were privileged to have the chance to consider Afterimage, which sadly has turned out to be Mr. Wajda’s final work. My colleagues and I were delighted to invite the film to Rome, and even happier when Mr. Wajda said he would come to present the film there. I dropped him a note a few weeks ago, explain my involvement with Rome and how happy I was that I would get to see him again. He did not respond, but just to be in touch with such a man, such and artist, felt so special.

"In Japan, very select artists are designated 'National Living Treasures.' If the world of cinema assigned a similar honor, Andrzej Wajda would have been among its first and most deserving recipients. Thank you, Mr. Wajda." - Richard Peña, Director Emeritus, New York Film Festival.

Read Volker Schlöndorff's remembrance of Andrzej Wajda.

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