The Best Polish Documentaries of 2017
Loneliness and finding one’s roots. Family, lies and death. Contemporary Poland and a historical, international investigation. These are some of the topics that Polish documentaries took on this year. Culture.pl presents a selection of the best Polish documentaries of 2017.
Some of these documentaries have won prestigious film awards and been shown at the most important European film festivals. Others are phenomenal debuts, while others still are destined to become new classics of Polish cinema. The strength of Polish documentary is the diversity of sensibilities, themes, styles and film languages.
Communion, dir. Anna Zamecka
The best European documentary of 2017 according to the European Film Academy is actually the work of a debutant director. The exceptionally talented and sensitive Anna Zamecka has reached mastery and made a mature, clever and warm film, which is far from sentimental.
Communion tells the story of the 14-year-old Ola, who dreams of reconciling her family. Abandoned by her mother, she lives with her autistic brother and a father who isn't coping with his life. Ola becomes the head of the family but believes that the upcoming first communion of her brother might make their mother come back home.
Anna Zamecka shows growing up as leaving your delusions behind. She discusses disappointment, love and pain. Zamecka's film, which was first screened in 2016 (it was also included in our review from last year), received many awards at film festivals in the past twelve months. Apart from awards in Locarno, Amsterdam and Leipzig, she has also received the European Film Award for the best documentary in December 2017.
Opera about Poland, dir. Piotr Stasik
Not long ago, Piotr Stasik was hailed a new talent of Polish documentary. Today – several years and films later – the author of 21xNew York can be proclaimed a new classic of Polish cinema. Opera about Poland is more proof of his great talent, artistic bravery and thirst for exploration.
Stasik has shot a new version of Wojciech Wiszniewski’s Elementarz, an original documentary, a record of the collective conscience of Poles in 2017. It’s a nonobvious road movie. The camera explores the Polish countryside but doesn’t interact with its inhabitants.
Stasik composes the story of Poland and its residents from apparently separate pieces: announcements from local newspapers, Internet comments, political speeches, statistical data and even John Paul II’s relics. He uses these audiovisual micro-observations to create a portrait of our society.
Opera about Poland resembles Ziemowit Szczerek's literary travels – the observation of Poles contains curiosity, sometimes disgust, but always understanding. Moreover, Stasik tries not to judge. He knows provincial Poland well. He doesn't have to discover it; he only observes its strange, often amusing rituals. This allowed him to create one of the most original documentaries of the last few years – a cinematic experiment, which mixes opera (with Artur Zagajewski’s music) with a road movie, a sociological étude, which transforms into a caricature of collectivity.
Over the Limit, dir. Marta Prus
What would a documentary combining Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Chazelle's Whiplash look like? The answer is Marta Prus’s film. Over the Limit tells the story of Margarita Mamun, a Russian gymnast preparing for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It is a story of overcoming your own misgivings, the debilitating discipline of self-improvement and loneliness which is the price of success.
For many months Marta Prus accompanied Mamun while she prepared for the most important competition of her life. Prus visited the arenas where Mamun was competing, getting closer to her and learning about the complicated relationships between her and those around her. The film is not only a portrait of a sportswoman but primarily a story of a young girl who reaches the top at the young age of 21. It’s about competitiveness, how hard it is to leave one’s family behind and Mamun’s relationship with her toxic and very demanding coach, who makes the teacher from Whiplash look like an easygoing fellow.
Prus uses these stories to create a powerful, moving portrait of a woman, who has to overcome her own limitations to get to the top. The film far surpasses the framework of a simple documentary thanks to its powerful dramatic construction and Adam Suzin’s energetic and impressive camerawork. It is no surprise that Marta Prus’s film was the only Polish candidate for the main award at IDFA Festival in 2017, the most important documentary festival in Europe.
The World’s Ugliest Car, dir. Grzegorz Szczepaniak
Bogdan is an old bachelor in his sixties who has lived with his old, hard-of-hearing mother for years. One day he sets off with her for the most important journey of his life. In a 50-year-old Wartburg car, he goes to the Majdanek concentration camp, then to Germany to visit the places from his youth, the camp where his parents met and the place his father died.
Grzegorz Szczepaniak tells this rather serious story in a somewhat comedic way. This type of genre has become his speciality in recent years. His debut, Snails, about two young men trying to run a snail farm, proved that Szczepaniak could tell dramatic stories with a dose of humour.
The World’s Ugliest Car confirms his abilities. Although the film sometimes seems to mock its two main characters, it is, in the end, a dramatic story about the need to discover one’s past, the closeness of a mother and a son and the titular car, which offers a space for all of it to happen.
In June 2017, Szczepanik received a Golden Lajkonik Grand Prix for the best Polish documentary at the Kraków Film Festival.
The Prince and the Dybbuk, dir. Elwira Niewiera & Piotr Rosołowski
In the history of 20th-century Polish culture, there are few people as fascinating and mysterious as Michał Waszyński, whose story is told in Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski's film. Waszyński, a director and producer, made it into history as the author of a couple of comedies and melodramas, but primarily as the director of The Dybbuk (Polish title: Dybuk), one of the most original Polish films from the inter-war period.
However, the topic of the Niewiera and Rosołowski's cinematic investigation is not Waszyński's artistic path. They focused more on his personal life or lives. In the film Waszyński is like a Zelig of international cinema, an enigmatic man, adopting different poses, wearing masks and hiding his identity.
We get to know him as a Polish Jew who became a Christian; as a gay man who married an older Italian countess after the war and, after having inherited her fortune, pretended for years to be a Polish prince. Who was he? Why did he try so hard to hide his true self? How did it happen that a boy from a Jewish town in Ukraine became a socialite in Rome, the discoverer of Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn and Orson Welles' associate? What clues can we find in his films?
Rosołowski and Niewiera ask all these questions on screen and although we don’t always get the answers, looking for them is a fascinating process.
The Adam Mickiewicz Institute is a co-producer of the film.
Hugo, dir. Wojciech Klimala
An emotional blast of 2017. Hugo is a story of an older man and his little grandson, a film about growing up and redemption, proves that a documentary can be a beautiful melodrama.
The camera followed them for years. Dzidek, a former king of Polish amusement parks, who made a fortune in the 1990s, is now in his late sixties and is barely getting by. For some time he has been living with his grandson Hugo, a six-year-old boy with a dramatic past. His mother, Dzidek’s daughter, is dead and his father is in a Spanish prison. The boy is, therefore, being raised by his grandpa, for whom he is the last chance to give his life and previous failures some meaning.
In his review for filmweb.pl Michał Walkiewicz wrote:
The creators, Wojciech Klimala and Mateusz Wajda, put together a film from pieces of mundane conversations, banal situations and intimate moments. They portray the paradoxes in the characters’ relationship perfectly. They are excellent at selecting material; they don't add insult to injury, know when to turn on the camera and are aware that the story itself contains enough dramatic potential. (…) Scenes, which may seem calculated in another film, come out strong here. When Dzidek talks to his friend on a windy beach and confesses that his life will end as soon as Hugo leaves, it’s hard not to see wonderful neo-realistic heroes – at the same time bigger than life and groaning under its own weight.
Hugo is a display of a director being extremely honest with the viewer – it’s proof that one doesn’t need to hide behind masks to touch upon deep truths about the human experience.
Call Me Tony, dir. Klaudiusz Chrostowski
It might seem like we have already seen films similar to Call Me Tony – stories of young people at a turning point in their lives, looking for their own identities. However, despite the similar subject matter, Call Me Tony is very personal and original picture. Klaudiusz Chrostowski successfully avoids repetition and banality.
His film tells the story of an 18-year-old Konrad, a bodybuilder and actor who grew up in a coalmining town. He dreams of a great career similar to Al Pacino's or Robert De Niro's, of gaining the respect of the world… and his father. The young man takes part in bodybuilding contests and prepares for an entrance exam to an acting school. He fights to fulfil his dream of greatness with tenacity and impressive self-discipline.
Chrostowski observes him with fondness. He sometimes allows for some irony but never mocks his character. He sees the boy's huge strength but also the weaknesses which he tries to hide from the world at any cost. As he gets closer with the camera, he creates a moving portrait which mixes comedy with drama. His directorial ambitions never dominate the truth of the character. This is probably why the film has received the ARRI IDFA Award for the Best Student Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the most prestigious documentary film event in Europe.
Beksińscy: Album Wideofoniczny, dir. Marcin Borchardt
Although it might seem that after Magdalena Grzebałkowska's book Beksińscy: Portret Podwójny (editor’s translation: Beksińscy: A Double Portrait) and Jan P. Matuszyński's full-length feature film The Last Family there is nothing more to say about the Beksiński family, Marcin Borchardt's documentary says otherwise.
Beksińscy: Album Wideofoniczny (The Beksińskis: Videophonic Album), an almost an hour and a half documentary, which is based on Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński’s archives of films, recordings and photographs. It is a story of almost five decades of the artist's life: about his idyllic youth in Sanok, the birth of his son Tomek, moving to Warsaw, the painter's artistic achievements and the death of family members.
Borchardt uses the archival materials to create a moving story about the Beksiński family. Neither the ‘last’ one, not the ‘cursed’ one, as it is sometimes referred to. About a family held together by unobvious emotions, marked by tragedy, but cemented with love. The brilliantly edited documentary is an invitation into the intimate world of Zdzisław, Zofia and Tomasz Beksiński, an engrossing story, full of emotions, but avoiding psychological simplifications and emotional blackmail. The film is primarily a story of a dramatic attempt to tame death.
How to Destroy Time Machines, dir. Jacek Piotr Bławut
A documentary portrait of Jeph Jerman, a musician who loves to experiment and sound-lover living in Arizona. It could have been the most standard film on our list. Luckily, it’s not – thanks to two great artists: cameraman Adam Palenta and sound engineer Radosław Ochnio. They changed this typical ‘talking head’ documentary into an audiovisual essay.
Palenta, an excellent camera operator of documentaries and fiction films, and Ochnio, the biggest star among Polish sound engineers, turn a simple biography into a story of a completely different way of viewing the world: through the character’s eyes. This unconventional portrait of a musician is worth-watching even if just for the suburb cinematography and incredible sound.