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Polish Contemporary Documentary Film
Content: Discussion with reality | Specifics of Polish documentaries | Return to democratic normality | Lozinski's school | Fidyk's school | Historical documentaries | Biographies

Discussion with reality

Throughout the entire post-war period, documentary film has played a significant role in Polish culture. Nevertheless, Grierson's concept of a documentary serving, first and foremost, the purpose of educating people and helping a potential viewer learn his way around the world was never fully accepted in Poland. Certainly, several dozen of films were made in the Polish Educational Film Studio promoting the knowledge of many different fields - from physics to contemporary painting; these films were later shown in schools or culture clubs. Yet, a documentary film is just another story: while, by definition, it was designed to record the reality, it also remained a domain of the Arts.

Specifics of Polish documentaries

Still from Kazimierz Karabasz&squot;s "A Day Like Every Day", photo:
Still from Kazimierz Karabasz's "A Day Like Every Day", photo:

Founded in 1950, thus celebrating its 50th anniversary of existence, the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio was the main place where documentaries were made. Producers searched for such a manner of presentation of a selected fragment of the world that would turn the film into an artistic expression. Until the 80s documentary films in Poland had been treated as a kind of "additions" preceding feature films screened in cinemas; they competed with them in the aesthetic category - and, more often than not, they competed successfully. Displaying the image of the real world, the most valuable of these documentaries sometimes "smuggled" opposition contents so unwelcome by the communist authority (after World War II Poland formed part of the communist block). In extreme situations the authorities banned the distribution of documentaries which presented the shortcomings and the evils of socialism.

The Short Film Festival in Krakow, the first Polish film festival to be organized in Poland, has been held every year - with a domestic competition since 1961 and as an international festival since 1964. The prevailing majority of productions shown were documentary films; their directors contended with each other evoking fervent emotions among the audience. The Grand Prix of the first Krakow Festival held in 1961 was awarded to Muzykanci / Musicians, a famous classic documentary made by Kazimierz Karabasz. It was Karabasz (born in 1930) who, together with Jerzy Bossak (1910-1989) initiated the "ethics and aesthetics" of Polish documentary film. Bossak used to lecture at the Lodz Film School, and Karabasz has been one of its lecturers until the present. Bosak sensitized his students to the social role that documentary makers adopt, to the significance of the subject, to the distinct opinion of the author as well as to the "pars pro toto" priciple - the author should get insight into more general, universal phenomena by a meticulous observation of a selected fragment of the world.

On the other hand, "Karabasz school" - an informal aesthetic doctrine which reached its height in the 60s stressed an ascetic approach of a director: the author of a documentary should avoid any staging and should keep his own interference in the reality to the minimum and select his heroes from among simple, ordinary people. What turns these people into out-of the-ordinary heroes worthy of getting familiar with is a sensitive approach of the director combined with a proper structure of the film.

A few generations of Polish film-makers went through a similar "school of documentary". At the outset of their careers in film industry most Polish directors made documentaries; this was the case with Wojciech Has, Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Krzysztof Kieslowski. It was Kieslowski's generation that upgraded the significance of a documentary film at the turn of the 60s and 70s. This generation was represented, apart from the author of the Decalogue, by Marcel Lozinski, Marek Piwowski, Wojciech Wiszniewski, and (a little older) Irena Kamienska and Bogdan Kosinski, who took upon themselves to "describe the world" they were living in, conveying all its roughness, fun and hidden beauty. Assuming part of the responsibility for the presented world, a documentary film maker cannot evade subjecting this world to harsh criticism nor can he escape the risk of adopting a clear-cut position on the issues presented.

Return to democratic normality

At the beginning of the 1980's the political situation in Poland started to change, as did the working conditions for directors. Martial law imposed by communist authorities in 1981 restrained the production of documentaries for some time. Most of the film undertakings already under way had to be set aside. Then, after 1989 when the democratic system was restored in Poland, or even much earlier - after the year 1987 when the law on cinematography came into force allowing for films to be made by private producers, the changes that documentaries underwent were of a different nature. They were typical of a country where, after four decades of real socialism and its inherent censorship, various democratic institutions were being restored in all spheres of life at an accelerated rate. These changes were therefore of a two-fold nature; on the one hand they concerned the topics touched upon, on the other hand, they related to the organization and production system in the film industry. Similar to the western model, nearly all Polish documentaries were produced by private producers and were designed for TV screening. Owing to the rapid pace of that change, at the beginning of the 1990's domestic documentary production suffered a clear, a several-year-long breakdown. This was merely a part of a more general process. Polish cinema screens were dominated by American films.

Ryszard Siwiec in archival footage, from the film "Hear my Cry".
Ryszard Siwiec in archival footage, from the film "Hear my Cry".

In the second half of the 90s the situation began to get back to normal. Today, we can go as far as to say that Polish documentary film is thriving - 150 - 200 documentary films are produced in Poland annually. Most of them are broadcast on TV and arouse considerable interest among the viewers. A weekly prime-time series Czas na dokument / Time For a Documentary to be seen on Channel 1 of Polish Television is rated as one of Poland's most popular TV programs. In the 90s Polish documentaries won more well-earned prizes and awards at international festivals than films representing all other film categories put together. It suffices to provide the most important titles: Uslyszcie moj krzyk / Hear My Cry (1991), by Maciej Drygas, awarded with Felix for the best European documentary film; Marcel Lozinski's 89 mm od Europy / 89 mm From Europe, Oscar-nominated and presented with Grand Prix in Oberhausen and Leipzig; Wszystko moze sie przytrafic / Everything Can Happen (1995), another film by this director which was showered with numerous awards, including the prestigious Grand Prix at festivals in Krakow, San Francisco and Bornholm; Dariusz Jablonski's Fotoamator / Amateur Photographer (1998), - Grand Prix winner at the film festival in Amsterdam; Wojciech Staron's Syberyjska lekcja / Syberian Lesson (1998), received Grand Prix at the Cinéma du Réel in Paris; Taka historia / A Just So Story (1999), by Pawel Lozinski which earned Grand Prix in Krakow and Leipzig.

Polish documentaries owe their very good standing largely to their references to the tradition. On the one hand, Polish system of production and distribution of this type of film resembles that adopted in western countries. On the other hand, the former hierarchy of values which places documentary films within the limits of Arts rather than of journalism and propaganda and which submits them to evaluation in aesthetic terms still prevails.

Polish documentary films of the 1990's may be divided into four conventional categories. The first two of these categories were named after Polish leading documentary makers who exerted a profound influence on Polish documentaries of the 1990's not only by their productions but also by the public statements they made. These statements as well as their films were frequently in dispute with each other, which provides grounds for distinguishing not only the artistic attitudes of their authors but also opinions voiced by other directors adopting the same approach. In practice, this division is somewhat conventional as subsequent film made by a director representing the first of schools described below may have more features characteristic of the other school and vice versa. The important thing about both of these schools is that they focus on contemporary times, on observing changes in today's morality and evolution of awareness of present day people. The two other categories comprise historical and biographical documentary films.

Lozinski's school

The first of the schools to be presented was named after the decade's most distinguished documentary maker Marcel Lozinski (born in 1940), Krzysztof Kieslowski's peer and, at the same time, a film maker descending from a similar tradition and similar aesthetic assumptions; the only difference being that he has never abandoned documentary films. Films belonging to that trend are perceived as a creative evolution of the Karabasz school; the author's main focus of interest lies in the everyday life of ordinary people; when observing them it is not sensation he is searching for but the essence of the matter, the mystery. He is not afraid of staging, does not avoid inspiring events; if there's anything for him to be strict about it is the sense of responsibility for the heroes he portrays.

Three of Lozinski's films made in the 90s best manifested the above mentioned features. 89 mm od Europy / 89 mm From Europe (1993), bears most resemblance to a classic documentary of the Karabasz school; it is a mere 12-minute footage of one apparently trivial event where, just like in a proverbial drop of water, the world - or one of its aspects in particular - is reflected: the demarcation line between the eastern and western civilizations, between the poor and the rich, between those who have already made a name for themselves and those who unsuccessfully aspire at achieving success. The 89 Millimeters used in the title represents a difference between the width of rails in Europe and former Soviet Union. At a railway station at a border-town of Brzesc (Belorussia) workers change the wheel track of each train entering their country. Marcel Lozinski, the observer of this ritual operation focuses on hardly perceptible mutual relations between railwaymen and European passengers traveling on board the train.

An even more universal topic is brought up in Wszystko moze sie przytrafic / Everything Can Happen (1995), a film featuring a sequence of conversations between a young boy and old people lingering on a park bench; they talk about ultimate issues, the sense of life, value of feelings, loneliness, fear of death. They are age-long issues, restricted, as it might appear, for the High Arts which renders them difficult to be conveyed by means of a documentary film. Meanwhile, the naive sincerity of a child contrasted with the dignity of old people politely adapting themselves to child's mentality produced a riveting effect. The final scene where 6-year-old Tomaszek is going away along a park avenue on a scooter and in the foreground we see a spread-out tail of a peacock, with Strauss music in the background, is just one of the most beautiful metaphors to be encountered in the entire film production of the past decade.

In his third film entitled Zeby nie bolalo / So It Doesn't Hurt (1998), Marcel Lozinski returns to the subject already touched upon 24 years ago. In 1974 Lozinski shot a documentary Wizyta / A Visit in which he confronted two attitudes towards life as exemplified by a meeting of two women: a well-known female journalist from the capital city pays a visit to a young woman with high intellectual aspirations who runs an ordinary farming unit; the journalist makes a report about her and, at the same time, tries to persuade her to change her attitude towards life, to "set her ambitions free". Now, after many years have passed, the director, assisted by a new journalist, comes back to this woman who keeps working on the same farm for the purpose of eliciting confessions from the heroine and, simultaneously, to see what impact the former reporter's visit has exerted on her. This return provides Lozinski with an opportunity to take up the topic that has aroused his interest for long: the question of whether a documentary-maker has the right to meddle in his heroes' lives - after all, using their picture always translates into interference.

Among numerous followers of Lozinski's attitude towards documentaries the one definitely worthy of mentioning is Pawel Lozinski (born in 1965), the director's son who, capturing everyday life on film has achieved exceptionally valuable results over the last decade. They can be best exemplified by two complementary films made in 1999: a one-hour Taka historia / A Just So Story and a 10-minute long Siostry / Sisters, both portraying old people, several inmates of a tenement-house in the Warsaw borough of Powisle. It is not exactly the portrayal of these people that counts most here but the sense of participating in life. It took the director one year to complete A Just So Story while the shooting of Sisters did not exceed one hour; what is important is that in both these films the director let the viewer feel, through contact with real heroes, the essence of life and irreversibility of the passage of time.

A similar quest is manifested in Benek Blues (1999), made by an experienced film editor Katarzyna Maciejko-Kowalczyk making her debut as a director. This thrilling picture of everyday life led by two men, a father and son, bed-ridden as a result of an illness and sharing one room impels viewers to pose themselves a fundamental question about the sense and purpose of existence.

A separate position in that group is occupied by a breath-taking, full-length documentary filmed by Jacek Blawut Nienormalni / Abnormal People - the one and only of the films presented in this essay which was intended for cinema distribution. This film can be placed on the border-line between a documentary and a feature film, yet it is close to Lozinski's concept of a documentary, the difference being that it is "reinforced" with a starting point typical of feature films. The most vital thing about the film is its subject: the life of a group of mentally handicapped children. The plot of the film is based on an orchestra founded by the children and their music teacher - the film director's representative. The course the "plot" takes afterwards is just unpredictable, it was dictated by the life itself - the observation of experiences shared by members of this unusual group, their feelings, emotions and the way they overcome their own handicaps.

The group of directors presenting everyday life is made up of representatives of all generations. Kazimierz Karabasz, the classic figure of Polish documentaries still keeps making films. In Okruchy / Scraps (1993), he compares the residents of one street, in Portret w kropli / Portrait in a Drop of Water (1997) - different residents of the city of Warsaw, while in O swicie i przed zmierzchem / At Dawn and Before Dusk (1999), he contrasts statements made by old-age pensioners and secondary-school leavers who have just passed their final exams.

Films made by Waldemar Karwat, a representative of a generation of middle-aged filmmakers who made their debuts in the 70s and 80s are marked by consistency in the choice of subjects discussed. In his films Bialy walc nad Czarna Hancza / A White Waltz on the Czarna Hancza River (1995) and Sanna w centrum wszechswiata / Sledging In The Middle of The Universe (1996) - both co-directed by Andrzej Pankiewicz - as well as in Tam gdzie ptaki zawracaja / Where The Birds Turn Back (1998), the author presents the changes in the morality and mentality of residents of rural areas illustrated by life led by people living in the remote north-east region of Poland. On the contrary, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz who also specializes in "sociological documentaries" has pursued diverse subjects. Two of her films analyzing certain social phenomena typical of the decade are worthy of mentioning: Zamien mnie w dlugiego weza / Turn Me Into a Long Snake (1997) describing a community of beggars from Romania is full of warmth and encourages understanding. An ironic essay entitled Bara Bara / Hanky Panky explores the reasons for the success of disco-polo music - a trashy kind of pop music. Similarly, irony dominates in Pawel Woldan's approach to film-making. In Zaproszenie / Invitation, the title-invitation for the viewers to take part in a tour of a television building provides the author with an opportunity to observe how easy it is to manipulate collective consciousness. Obywatele / Citizens (1996) by the same author is a sarcastic portrayal of rural community. Ziarnko / The Seed (1996) filmed by Wanda Rozycka-Zborowska featuring a man who makes the world's smallest books measuring 1 mm by 0.8 mm represents, as a matter of fact, an attempt to describe a religious experience.



Interesting attempts at depicting certain more universal phenomena by way of recording day-to-day experiences of out-of the ordinary people can be found in films made by first-time directors, the most distinguishable of them being Wojciech Staron. His documentary Syberyjska lekcja / A Syberian Lesson describes experiences of a young girl who, responding to an appeal in the media, leaves for Siberia to teach the Polish language to families of exiles from Poland. In Siedem lekcji milosci / Seven Lessons of Love Malgorzata Szumowska portrays a singing-master and captures the mentality and style of living of a vanishing group of people whose attitude towards life was marked by unselfishness. Two personal films about fathers open an interesting chapter of autobiographical documentaries: Slad / Trace (1996) by Marcin Latallo and Tata z Ameryki / Father From America (1997) filmed by Piotr Kielar.



Fidyk's school

The second trend of contemporary documentary film also focuses its attention on contemporary times, and the present changes in customs and morals. For the Fidyk's school, however, everyday life is less interesting. From Fidyk's point of view a documentary should, in the first place, be a delightful show capable of competing with great Hollywood productions in terms of popularity. The prevailing majority of today's viewers have become bored with fictitious stories; they are thrilled by observing real events that take place before their eyes. The author's opinion is of less importance; what counts here is the choice he has made with regards to the subject to be taken up and his narrative competence, well aware of the habits of the contemporary audience.

In all western countries the 1990's was a decade of growing significance of "reality shows" in television programs. It is not by coincidence that a most recent success of that trend in Poland is linked to the name of a very efficient and dynamic TV manager. A considerable growth in the popularity of Polish documentaries dates back to the summer of 1996 when Andrzej Fidyk (born in 1953) was appointed the Head of Documentary Film Department in the first channel of Polish Television. Under his leadership the production of documentaries really attractive to mass audiences began to flourish. Series initiated by Fidyk including Czas na dokument / Time For a Documentary and Miej oczy szeroko otwarte / Have Your Eyes Wide Open presently attract as large an audience as American hits do. Yet, two reservations must be made at that stage of the discussion. First, Fidyk's name only signals a certain trend. We are not only thinking of documentaries produced in the Documentary Film Department under Fidyk's leadership. Secondly, Fidyk may be perceived not only as a patron of that trend as a manager but also as a director whose original topics pursued in documentaries as early as in the 80s earned general attention.

Fidyks's Defilada / Parade shot in North Korea in 1989, when Kim Ir Sen - the communist dictator was still alive - may be considered as a exemplary film of that trend. In a fascinating way the film registers the showy ceremonial of totalitarianism, yet with a dispassionate objectivism of an impartial observer. Therefore, it is the viewer who decides on the interpretation of the film; it may be regarded as mockery at the system or it may just as well be treated as propaganda. In fact, this was how the film was received in Poland: it provoked bursts of hearty laughter, the West treated it as a frightening warning while the Koreans watched the film with due reverence and failed to notice the inherent derision of the film. Throughout the 90s Fidyk traveled around the world in search of new topics to take up. He found some in Iran - Sen Staszka w Teheranie / Staszek's Dream in Teheran (1992); in Russia Rosyjski striptease / Russian Striptease (1993); in Brazil - Carnaval - najwieksze party na swiecie / Carnival - The Biggest Party in The World (1995); in India Kiniarze z Kalkuty / Mobile Cinema of Dreams (1998). In each and every film Fidyk attempted at providing a synthesis of phenomena presented, sometimes it was a cognitive synthesis, in other cases - a poetical one.

Other directors followed in Fidyk's footsteps and looked for their topics in other cultures or at the junction of cultures. One of the directors worthy of mention is Jan Sosinski, the author of Czarne tulipany / Black Tulips (1997) featuring Russian veterans of the Afghanistan war and Tato, pamietasz / Daddy, Do You Remember? (1999), a story about a mature half-Polish, half-Albanian woman who goes to Tirana to meet her father for the very first time. A Venezuelan residing in Poland, Franco de Pena who graduated from the Lodz Film School came up with a beautiful, collective portrait of Havana residents in Przyszlosc zludzen / The Future of Illusions (1997). In her film bearing the title Ojczyzny moje / My Homelands (1995) Athena Sawidis - a Greek woman, also living in Poland - presents the history of the descendants of Greek refugees who, escaping the regime of "black colonels", arrived in Poland in the 40s. Most of them returned to their fatherland in the 70s and now, split between the two cultures, they feel homesick.

Jerzy Sladkowski, a Polish film-maker living in Sweden for many years presented, in Szwedzkie tango / Swedish Tango (1999) an exhaustive depiction of his new homeland taking as an example an old couple who - while learning the tango - are reliving their second youth. Tata, I Love You / Daddy, I Love You (1998) by Piotr Morawski is a moving story of five brothers and sisters from a Polish orphanage who have all been adopted by an American couple.

Particularly many films have been devoted to Russia which is quite understandable after so many years of hypocrisy about these issues that prevailed in the Polish People's Republic. It's worth mentioning a 16-episode series filmed by Iwona Bartolewska Pocztowki z Moskwy / Postcards From Moscow (1993); a three-episode series by Jerzy Sladkowski Tajemnice Rosji / Mysteries Of Russia (1998-1999); Michal Bukojemski's series entitled Zycie na czerwono / Life In The Red Color (1996) presenting Poles living in Moscow, a satirical documentary by Krzysztof Nowak-Tyszowiecki Boskosc Stalina w swietle najnowszych badan / Stalin's Divinity In The Light of Most Recent Research (1998) and last but not least a film by Marcin Mamon Prawdziwy ojciec chrzestny / A True Godfather (1998) - a mysterious portrait of a Chechen mafia boss.

Films showing the new reality of today's democratic Poland were particularly important in that group. They were among the films attracting most interest but, at the same time, they aroused most controversy and provoked most disputes. It was largely due to the fact that the issues discussed - new areas of poverty, dire conditions of living of the poorest people who could not cope with life in capitalism, growth of crime rate, alcohol abuse, drug-addiction being, on the one hand, important and painful, were also on the other hand extremely attractive from the point of view of the media. Therefore, it is sometimes difficult to resolve whether the author intended to shock the viewer or rather excessively exhibit cruelty. For instance, when documentaries about prisoners and criminals came into fashion in the mid-decade most of the films were dominated by the latter aspect.

Ewa Borzecka (born in 1960), the most controversial director of that period, has become a specialist in portraying the poorest people rejected by new capitalism. In Trzynastka / The Thirteensome (1996) she showed every-day life of a poor female resident of a rural village in the Podkarpacie region who raised thirteen children all by herself. In Arizona (1997) she portrayed the life, hopeless and without any prospects for the better future, of the unemployed residents of a former State Farming Unit (Polish version of a collective farm in the communist block) who were not adapted to living in capitalism. The title Arizona stands for the name of the cheapest wine which, for people like the heroes of the film, is the only way to escape reality. The widest panorama of many various people who have been deprived of their work, house, and self-sufficiency in life can be seen in Ewa Borzecka's Oni / They (1999). In principle, her films divide the audience, some people are of the opinion that her heroes are shown cold-heartedly, without any sympathy leaving the viewer helpless about their suffering. Others think that it is the poetry of Borzecka's films that gives rise to a shock, that it induces a more humane look at the poorest.

The other extreme of the new social structure - that is people who are enjoying prosperity in capitalism - has also become the focus of film-makers' interest. The film that has attained greatest renown is Henryk Dederko's Witajcie w nowym zyciu / Welcome To The New Life (1997) showing the inner history of operations of an American corporation, Amway. This example serves the purpose of showing the dangers of a new life style in which traditional moral values have been replaced with the Golden Calf. Amway accused the director of acting to the detriment of the company and, as a result, the film has not been screened publicly. Other authors touch upon similar issues, for example Ewa Stankiewicz and Grzegorz Siedlecki in their Dywizja marketing / Marketing Division (1997) show a training course for advertising agency workers while Ewa Straburzynska in Wysokie obcasy / High Heels (1999) takes a closer look at a model contemporary businesswoman who deals with catching rats.

Most recently a fervent discussion was stirred up by a film made by a young director, a student at the Katowice Film School Marcin Koszalka Takiego pieknego syna urodzilam / What A Beautiful Son I Gave Birth To! (1999). The author portrays the hell of every-day family life as exemplified by his own family where the "toxic mother", undoubtedly loving her son, tortures him with unceasing reproaches. Some people claim that this film surpasses the acceptable ethical limits. Marcel Lozinski went as far as to call its author a matricide. Nevertheless, this documentary became a cult film for young viewers who are of the opinion that by disclosing the atmosphere prevailing in thousands of Polish homes, this film may trigger off a collective catharsis.

The 1999/2000 film season saw the emergence of a new category of films, namely documentary series based on an extremely popular concept of a television series used for presenting real events. The Polish public television produced a series entitled Szpital Dzieciatka Jesus / The Infant Jesus Hospital directed by Grzegorz Siedlecki and Nono Dragovic which portrays patients of the Infant Jesus Hospital; Nieparzysci / The Unpaired by Ewa Straburzynska - a series about lonely people calling on the services of a matrimonial agency; Wojciech Szumowski's Pierwszy krzyk / The First Scream about female patients of a maternity hospital in Krakow preparing for the delivery. The popularity of similar series, quite new in the entire world, seems to result from an age-long need to pry into other people's lives.

Historical documentaries

A great number of historical documentaries were produced at the beginning of the 90s, and especially in the times marked by euphoria when Poland regained freedom after the collapse of communism in 1989. Production of such films was considered as an obligation to fill in the "blank spaces" in the history of Poland, an obligation to present, without any restrictions imposed by censorship - various developments in the most recent history of Poland which, in the times of the Polish People's Republic, were either regarded as taboo subjects or, being distorted - provided the grounds for ideological propaganda.

One of the subjects presented in such films concerned the developments that took place in the years 1918-1921: regaining independence after a 123-year captivity (according to the communistic propaganda Poles owed their independence mainly to the October Revolution in Russia and to Lenin himself) and the Polish-Bolshevik war. This was the subject of two films made in 1992 by Wincenty Ronisz: A jednak Polska - 1918-1921 / Poland After All - 1918-1921 and Wojna polsko-bolszewicka 1918-1921 / The Polish-Bolshevik War 1918-1921 as well as of Zbigniew Kowalewski's documentary about the fight in defense of Lwow Wszystko dla Orlat / Everything For The Eaglets (1992) [Eaglets were very young Poles who defended Lwow]. In his full-length documentary ...I zdrada / ...And Treason (1991), Marek Drazkiewicz, having unlimited access to opened archives, presented a new approach to the history of Polish foreign policy in the period between the two world wars and the greatest tragedy of that policy that is the developments of September 1939.

Yet another group of films refers to World War II - to two related topics, in particular, the first of them being the Katyn crimes - the killing of several thousand Polish officers in POW camps by Russians in April 1940. In the Polish People's Republic this topic was completely banned. Among numerous films on that subject, two full-length documentaries are particularly worthy of mentioning: Las katynski / The Katyn Forest (1990) by Marcel Lozinski and Jozef Debski's Nie zabijaj / Do Not Kill (1992). The latter director made a series of films about the history of Gulag (forced labor camps in the Soviet Union): Goraczka zlota / The Gold Rush, Goraczka chleba / The Bread Rush and Goraczka uranu / The Uranium Rush (all made in 1993). The second important war subject, reluctantly touched upon in the times of Polish People's Republic is the Holocaust - the martyrdom of Jews during World War II. Out of the wide range of Polish documentaries devoted to that issue four deserve being brought up in this essay. The hero of Pawel Lozinski's Miejsce urodzenia / Birthplace (1992) - Henryk Grynberg, a Polish writer of Jewish descent living in the USA for a long time, arrives in his home-village in central Poland many years after the war in order to unravel the mystery of his father's tragic death in the times of Nazi occupation. The viewer accompanies him in clearing up that mystery and becomes a witness to an authentic scene in which the writer finds his father's grave. The film made by Jolanta Dylewska Kronika powstania w getcie warszawskim wg Marka Edelmana / The Chronicle of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising According to Marek Edelman (1994) records, day by day, the tragic events that took place in April 1943. For the purpose of making this film the author used film material shot by the Nazis (no other material exists) but subjected it to a creative editing by dividing frames into smaller parts, magnifying details or slowing down the movement. The outcome of the editing process is confronted with a story told by Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Consequently, archive pictures are revived adapting themselves to a point of view of a contemporary artist. Dariusz Jablonski, the author of Fotoamator / Amateur Photographer (1998) followed a similar path: he contrasted a story told by a witness, Arnold Mostowicz who, under the German occupation, was a physician in the Jewish Ghetto in Lodz with an accidentally found series of color slides taken in the ghetto by a German accountant. Finally, Najszczesliwszy czlowiek / The Happiest Man (1994) by Barbara Balinska and Krzysztof Kalukin recounts a contemporary story the roots of which go back to the times of the Holocaust. The film describes an unusual, crucial moment in the life of a man who, many years after the war, finds his Jewish sister who was lost when Poland was under German occupation.

The prevailing majority of films have been devoted to the presentation of true, no longer distorted post-war history. Among the films about the course of the history of the Polish People's Republic a very special position - considering the subject taken up as well as its presentation in the film - is occupied by Maciej Drygas's Uslyszcie moj krzyk / Hear My Cry (1992). Rarely as it happens, in this film the director introduces a new incident which was formerly non-existent in the consciousness of the audience. It was Drygas himself who discovered the history of Jan Siwiec who - in order to protest against the entry of Polish troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 under a military invasion scheme of the Warsaw Pact - set himself on fire under the eyes of one hundred thousand people participating in a huge party ceremony at a sports stadium Stadion Dziesieciolecia in Warsaw. Drygas explored that incident and retold it in such a way as to induce in viewers a new approach towards the history of socialist Poland and to compel them to revaluate their participation in these events.

Authors of many films - making use of archives, incorporating witnesses' statements - retold numerous, dramatic episodes of post-war history of which no mention has been made of for so many years that, in practice, they were hardly present in the consciousness of Poles. Proces szesnastu / The Trial of The Sixteen (1991) presents authentic court material from an unprecedented lawsuit that the Russian authorities brought against the leaders of Polish underground in June 1945. A documentary made by Krystyna Mokrosinska entitled Mlodsi od swoich wyrokow / Younger Then Their Sentences (1994) tells about political prisoners from the Stalin era while Czarni baronowie / Black Barons (2000) by Wanda Rozycka-Zborowska tells about methods used at that time to force people who did not submit to the authorities to strenuous work in coal mines that were turned into labor camps. Robert Stando's Niefachowy stryczek / Unprofessional Rope (1997) recalls a controversial episode of the last public execution carried out on the Polish territory: namely, the act of hanging in July 1946 in Poznan of Artur Greiser, a Nazi governor on that territory during the war. Droga do skrzyzowania / A Road Leading to a Junction (1994) by Andrzej Braun brings back another episode that has fallen into oblivion: Polish soldiers shot down two Czechs during military intervention of the Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Lenin z Krakowa / Lenin From Krakow (1996) made by Jerzy Ridan and Jerzy Kowynia confronts an attitude adopted by a well-known sculptor who made a monument to Lenin in Nowa Huta with an attitude of a man who, years later, was tried for blasting that monument. A documentary film directed by Maciej Pieprzyca Jestem morderca / I Am a Murderer (1998) impairs the credibility of the administration of justice in the times of the Polish People's Republic by citing an example of a law case of the so called vampire from Zaglebie [a region in the south of Poland] - a show trial from the 70s. Artistic novelty distinguishes Marcin Malec's Cicha przystan / Silent Harbor (1995) showing what influence the execution of capital punishment imposed by an underground organization under the Nazi occupation exerted on the entire life of the main hero.

Among films attempting to come up with a synthesis of Poland's most recent history the one undoubtedly worthy of mention is Marcel Lozinski's four-episode series 1945-1989 (the French title: Pologne jamais vue a l'ouest, 1989) confronting an official, propagandist portrait of the Polish People's Republic as shown in the Polish Film Reel (Polska Kronika Filmowa) with stories recounted by four political opposition activists. Another short but just as important documentary was made by Ewa Straburzynska Motlowe marynarki / Jackets Made By Motl in which two residents of Wroclaw, a Pole and a man of Jewish ancestry, discuss Polish post-war history while looking through old jackets.

The impressive documentary output of a well-known feature film maker, the vanguard and experimenter Grzegorz Krolikiewicz would deserve a separate presentation. However, his films tend to include emotional political statements rather than objective proofs provided by a historian. This is the case when Krolikiewicz makes films about Lech Walesa's presidential campaign - a series of four documentaries from 1991 Nowy poczatek / The New Beginning, Czlowiek ze studni / A Man From A Well, Wolna elekcja / Free Elections, Sluchaj narodu / Listen, Nation... and when he talks about endless postponements, even today, in free Poland, of the trials of torturers from the Stalin era Po calym ciele / All Over the Body (1999).


Biographical documentary films about famous figures - politicians, scientists, artists, which are particularly eagerly screened by television and which frequently have a considerable educational value constitute yet another group of documentary films. Among numerous films about the most well-known Pole The Holy Father John Paul II, three deserve mentioning: two synthetic ones - Pontyfikat / The Pontificate (1997) by Andrzej Trzos-Rastawiecki and Nie lekajcie sie / Don't Be Afraid (1998) by Krzysztof Zanussi and Ewa Swiecinska's Calopalenie / Burnt-Offering (1999) all of which present the Pope from the perspective of his friends from the young days. Let us then cite the titles of films about other prominent figures from the Polish public life: Kurier nadziei / The Courier of Hope (1992) about Jan Nowak-Jezioranski made by Zbigniew Kowalewski; Redaktor / The Editor (1994) about Jerzy Giedroyc made by Ignacy Szczepanski and Zwyczajna dobroc / Ordinary Kindness (1998) about Jerzy Turowicz made by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz.

Documentaries about scholars: Ogrody Tadeusza / Tadeusz Reichstein's Gardens (1994), a film made by Krzysztof Krauze about a Polish Nobel Prize Winner in medicine who is unknown in Poland as he has been working in Switzerland for decades; Historia Normana Daviesa / The History of Norman Davies (1998) made by Krzysztof Wierzbicki - about an outstanding British historian writing about the history of Poland where he enjoys enormous popularity. About writers Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, jakim pozostal w ludzkiej pamieci / As He Is Treasured in People's Memory (1993) by Mieczyslaw B. Vogt; I powiesz jestem / And You Will Say: I Am (1994) by Andrzej Titkow about Julian Stryjkowski; Dziennik pisany pod wulkanem / A Diary Written at the Foot of a Volcano (1995) by the same director - about Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski; List z Argentyny / A Letter From Argentina (1997) a perverse documentary about Witold Gombrowicz shot by Grzegorz Pacek; Dowody na istnienie Hanny K. / Proofs of Existence of Hanna K. (1999) - one more documentary made by Andrzej Titkow, this time about Hanna Krall. About fine arts artists: Siedem misteriow wedlug Stasysa / The Seven Mysteries According To Stasys (1994) about Stasys Eidrigevicius - made by Andrzej Papuzinski; Jan Lebenstein - dziennik samotnika / Jan Lebenstein - A Diary of a Solitary Man (1999) by Andrzej Wolski; Skandalistka Kasia K. / Scandalous Kasia K. (1999) made by Grazyna Bryzuk - about Katarzyna Kozyra. About a prominent theatre man Jerzy Grotowski - proba portretu / Jerzy Grotowski - An Attempted Portrait (1999) by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz. About an actor: Andrzej Seweryn - aktor, acteur / Andrzej Seweryn - Actor, Acteur made by Wojciech Michera.

Several valuable films exist about film-makers. While in some of them film-makers portray themselves: Zywe obrazy / Vivid Pictures (1995) by Stanislaw Rozewicz or Kredyt czy debet / Credit or Debit (1999) by Andrzej Wajda, there are more documentaries about famous film-makers that were made by someone else: Zycie jak film / A Life Like a Film (1994) by Jadwiga Zajicek - about Jerzy Bossak; Krzysztof Kieslowski - I'm So So (1996) by Krzysztof Wierzbicki; Adam Kuczynski's Ze snu sen / A Dream For a Dream (1998) - about Wojciech Has; Marzenia sa ciekawsze / Dreams Are More Interesting (1999) made by Stanislaw Janicki - about Andrzej Wajda; Idac, spotykajac / Going, Meeting (1999) by Antoni Krauze - about Stanislaw Rozewicz. Another production worth adding to the list is 100 lat w kinie / 100 Years of Cinema (1995) by Pawel Lozinski - a one-hour review of the history of Polish films. It is just hard to understand why, in the light of all the valuable contributions discussed above, neither this film nor the popular papers on the history of film devote so little attention to documentary filmmakers.

Author: Tadeusz Lubelski, 2001

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