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Walesa, Poland's flawed hero, given redemption in film

Oscar-winning Polish film director Andrzej Wajda speaks to Reuters during an interview at Akson Studio office in Warsaw August 13, 2013. REU
Oscar-winning Polish film director Andrzej Wajda speaks to Reuters during an interview at Akson Studio office in Warsaw August 13, 2013. REU

By Adrian Krajewski and Christian Lowe

WARSAW (Reuters) - Veteran director Andrzej Wajda has earned an honorary Oscar for his catalogue of powerful movies, but he felt he had one more mission to complete before his long career ends: to tell his story of Poland's anti-Communist icon Lech Walesa.

Premiering in a few weeks at the Venice Film Festival, Wajda's film "Walesa. Man of Hope" is the 87-year-old director's attempt to remind the world about the achievements of Walesa, a flawed hero who helped bring an end to the Cold War.

An electrician in the shipyard at the port of Gdansk, Walesa emerged as the leader of the Solidarity trade union movement that in the 1980s took on the Communist generals running the country and forced them to surrender power.

While he was recognized abroad with a Nobel Peace Prize, his reputation in Poland's boisterous new democracy waned. During a spell as president he fell out with many old allies, some of whom now allege he was a Communist informer - something he has always denied.

Wajda said the object of his film was to re-focus attention on the highlights of Walesa's career, not the less distinguished episodes that came later.

"We can show the world our hero," Wajda told Reuters in an interview in his studio in Warsaw.

"I thought to myself, 'I'm old, what am I waiting for? I have to make a film about Walesa, this is my duty and no one else seems to be taking it on."

Wajda is frail now and walks with a stick, but when he starts to recall his first meeting with the mustachioed Walesa, in the Gdansk shipyard some 30 years ago, he seems re-energized.

He said he hoped his film would bring Walesa to audiences who were too young to remember his achievements.

"Young people aren't very interested in politics, because they have other interests. Maybe they'll watch Walesa and think that they should do something for their country, they shouldn't be passive, and wait for someone else to take the first step."

"This film is not needed so much by me or Walesa. It is Poland that needs a film which shows someone who emerged from amongst the workers. Someone who was not a ready-made politician," he said.

SELF-DOUBT

Wajda, whose previous films include "Katyn" and "Man of Iron", does not conceal his long-standing friendship with Walesa, or that the film portrays him favorably - though he says the movie's subject had no input or editorial control.

"It is my film and Walesa has trust in me," Wajda said. "I tried not to fail this trust and I can say I didn't."

The film sets out to draw a nuanced picture of Walesa the man, not the icon he would later become. It shows moments of self-doubt, the compromises he had to make, and the difficulty he had feeding his family of eight children when his activities got him fired from the shipyard.

In one scene based on real events, Walesa, played by Polish actor Robert Wickiewicz, gives an interview to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci after a 1980 strike that propelled him to prominence.

"He says: 'From now on I can only go down... Now everything bad that happens in Poland will be on my shoulders," Wajda said, re-telling the scene.

"'If I was someone else, I would shave off my moustache and go back to the shop floor, but I won't do that, because I know I still have things to do.'"

Shaking his head in wonder, Wajda described these remarks as "fantastic."

Walesa is now 69 and spends his time travelling to engagements abroad and running his charitable foundation from his base in Gdansk. He came to Warsaw on Monday for a private screening of the film, the first time he had seen it.

Speaking on a Gdansk radio station, he said he was uncomfortable that in some scenes the actor who played him "portrayed me as a buffoon, who was a bit conceited."

But he said that overall, he was happy with the way the director had realized his concept for the film. "I think he did a good job."

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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