(Poland 2022; Dir: Tomasz Wolski)

The Fence

Under Pressure

review by Jason Todd

The Fence

original title: Płot

length: 26

year of production: 2022

country of production: Poland

director: Tomasz Wolski

director of photography: Tomasz Wolski

editing: Tomasz Wolski

sound: Enrico Zavatta, Mana Jam

festivals: Krakow Film Festival 2022, Sarajevo Film Festival 2022, Sedicicorto International Film Festival 2022

© images: 'The Fence' (Tomasz Wolski)

Leszek has recently gone through a tough divorce, the kind that ends in him moving out of town, far from his ex-wife, to seek a new life in Poland’s damp countryside. His destination? A humble little stable, comfortably wallowed in a dense forest, which is also the very reason why Leszek had to give up everything in the first place: it’s Mikolaj's home, his lover.

There is no denying that the house and its surrounding infrastructures need a little help maintenance-wise, especially the fence separating the paddocks from the forest, but that doesn’t seem to bother Leszek the slightest. His situation is far from perfect. He’s uprooted and even admits being afraid of the horses he’s attending to, but it doesn’t change the fact that, within the confines of his new home, he can finally be himself. As for Mikolaj, even if Leszek's presence is no doubt a comfort to him, he certainly does not share his naive perspective on their mutual future. See, Mikolaj grew up in this region. He knows who his neighbours are and he sure as hell knows that it’s best for both of their safety to maintain the illusion that Leszek is “just a cousin” who is here to help with the stable duties.

According to a report from the ILGA-Europe association published in 2022, the status of LGBTQ rights in Poland remains the worst among European Union countries [1] due partly to a string of far-reaching conservative laws that were put in place and/or reinforced in recent years. Notably, in 2020, a coalition of municipalities in mostly rural regions — encompassing no less than a third of the country — went as far as declaring themselves an ‘LGBTQ-free zone’ [2]. As it has been demonstrated time and time again, these regulations have far more implications than simply being discriminatory administrative tools. They also have the power to legitimise the proliferation of hate in all its shapes and forms, which, in turn, is putting tremendous pressure on LGBTQ people’s daily lives; even the quiet ones like Leszek and Mikolaj.

However, despite the gloomy atmosphere that elusively emanates from the forest all around them, keeping both men constantly on their toes, the couple has so far managed to maintain a peaceful and somewhat uneventful life on their land, even if Mikolaj knows their safe haven is a very fragile one, as represented by the weakened fence encircling their habitation. Their home’s structural integrity will ultimately have to rely on the couple’s ability to resist the external pressure exerted from all directions (it seems the neighbours aren’t easily duped by the ‘cousin’ alibi) and that’s something Leszek is growing increasingly disinterested in doing. Enough so to eventually bring Mikolaj to a breaking point.

The threats that keep looming over the stable come in various appearances over ‘The Fence’s twenty minutes runtime, and given the horror tropes director Tomasz Wolski had unmistakably in mind, the menaces’ true nature and intentions are never fully defined. Mikolaj is convinced the fence has been willfully damaged during the night, but by whom? And why? Is the culprit the teenage boy who is seen conspicuously roaming around the stable’s premises? Or perhaps it’s just the wind? Or a wild animal? In another scene, a predatory hawk, as loaded as one can be with symbolism, is witnessed flying over their heads, ultimately forcing the men to intervene and prevent it from attacking the pigeons they keep in captivity.

In the end, ‘The Fence’ amounts to an intimate, yet visceral, slow-burning piece of art starring soft-spoken, almost monosyllabic, characters. Leszek and Mikolaj’s use of silence, rather than being a testament to their shyness, is actually the result of them being trained to reveal as little as possible about themselves: it has always been one of the main components of their defence mechanism. In that regard, the audience is given very little information about their background and overall personalities which, combined with the carefully crafted camera movements constantly keeping its gaze at a fair distance from the characters, has the welcomed ability to not overly dramatise their struggle. After all, Leszek and Mikolaj’s silent resistance is nothing but a tiny speck of light amongst a million other similar stories that can be found in Poland and anywhere around the world. Wolski, by keeping the narrative arc and its stakes at a human level, skillfully allows enough space for the audience to remind themselves that this indeed is, despite the characters’ tremendous courage, not an extraordinarily isolated fight: this can be, and is, happening everywhere.

After its world premiere at Krakow Film Festival earlier this summer, as well as being programmed at the Sarajevo Film Festival, ‘The Fence’ is now headed to several festivals around the globe, including Sedicicorto International Film Festival in Forli, Italy.

[1] More info via Rainbow-Europe.org.
[2] CIOBANU, Claudia. 2020. "A third of Poland declared ‘LGBT-free zone".