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Ryszard Bugajski

Ryszard Bugajski, photo: Michał Wargin / East News

Film and television director, script writer, prose writer, translator. Born in 1943 in Warsaw.

He graduated in philosophy from Warsaw University and in directing from PWSFTviT in Lódź in 1973. He started his career in the 1970's as assistant to the maker of animated films Daniel Szczechura and the renowned feature film director Krzysztof Zanussi. In 1976 he joined the X Film Unit managed by Andrzej Wajda, where he made the films A Woman and a Woman and Zajęcia dydaktyczne / Classes. At the Teatr Dramatyczny in Wałbrzych, he staged Krzysztof Kieślowski's Curriculum Vitae in 1976. In 1981 Ryszard Bugajski made the full-length feature film Interrogation, its message, which was incompatible with the political line of the Polish authorities after the imposition of martial law, becoming the direct cause of the X Unit being dissolved. The official premiere of Interrogation did not take place until December 1989, after the political transformation in Poland. Persecuted by the authorities, he decided to emigrate to Canada in 1985, where he directed episodes of popular television series, and where he made his full-length feature Clearcut. He returned to Poland in 1995. For a few years starting in 1997, he was the main director of "Wiadomości", the evening news programme of TVP public television. He makes feature films, documentaries, television series and Television Theatre productions. Apart from the book version of Interrogation, reissued many times, he has published the novels Przyznaję się do winy [I Confess] (1985) and Sól i pieprz [Salt and Pepper] (2000), which continues the story of the protagonists of his most famous film.

Ryszard Bugajski has received awards at film festivals, including the Golden Grapes in Łagów, the audience award and a special prize at the Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdynia, and the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival (all were for Interrogation). In 1990 "Film" magazine chose this production as the best Polish film of 1989.

"I am commonly considered a specialist on communist secret police and the secret services", said Ryszard Bugajski in an interview for "Rzeczpospolita" daily (10 Dec. 2004), quoting the opinion that Polish film critics have of him.

The director of the famous Interrogation started his creative career in the late 1970's in a way that was quite typical for that time and for his generation. The film A Woman and a Woman, though it presented the characters' personalities in an interesting way, did not go beyond the general trend developed by his predecessors and called "the cinema of moral concern". It was the same with the television film Zajęcia dydaktyczne [Classes].

Interrogation, his first full-length cinema feature film and the one thanks to which the director became "a specialist on communist secret police and the secret services", was his real debut. He started shooting it in the brief period of the Solidarity thaw, and finished working on it after martial law had been imposed by the decree of 13 December 1981. The record of the strange pre-release screening of Interrogation on 23 April 1982 continues to be a document that very distinctly characterizes the political situation of the time. Though not unanimously, the inspectors rejected Ryszard Bugajski's film in a majority vote, precluding its distribution. One of the fiercest opponents of Interrogation, the film director Mieczysław Waskowski, asked:

"How is it that after martial law was introduced in our country, this film was completed? ... Who is responsible for finishing this film?" (from the book: Ryszard Bugajski "Przesłuchanie" 1990, quoted after: Małgorzata Hendrykowska "Kronika kinematografii polskiej 1895-1997").

The fate of Interrogation and the director himself is an example of the unbelievable influence of politics on art. For years, the film had no chances of being distributed in cinemas or shown on television, which does not mean it didn't reach the public. Interrogation, copied on videotapes and issued in 1982 by the underground publisher NOWA in book form, reached a large audience. In this way, a work that the decision-makers had condemned to oblivion enjoyed unprecedented popularity.

Interrogation did not become an easy ticket to Western markets for its director, though. Bugajski made films that were hard for audiences outside Eastern Europe to understand. Just how impossible they were to understand can be seen in the opinion of the critic Scott Murray, published in the Australian magazine "Cinema Papers" in August 1990 (quoted in "Kino"1/1991), who deemed Interrogation to be "an example of Polish cinema in its most hysterical form", a film that was "absurdly exaggerated in its directing and acting", undoubtedly not realizing in the slightest just how "exaggerated" Polish reality had been in the Stalinist years - the setting of Bugajski's film.

Interrogation is not just a film about oppression in Stalinist prisons in 1950's Poland, however. It is a film about building humanity, and in this respect it can be interpreted as a universal message.

It was the director's apt idea to choose as the protagonist not a heroic Home Army soldier, but a girl who was not too clever, someone with rather doubtful moral principles. Tonia from Interrogation is - as Jan Olszewski put it - "an anti-heroine in a situation forcing her to be heroic". ("Film" 7/1990)

"Her naiveté paradoxically saved her humanity", Ryszard Bugajski said about the character he had created. "This simple girl suddenly starts wondering who she really is. And from that moment, she starts to understand what she's fighting for - not for her life any more, but for dignity". ("Ekran" 3/1990)

The director's other lucky move was the portrayal of the secret police agent who interrogated her. Bugajski painted this man as the instrument of a vile system, but put him in a situation in which the man tried, against all odds, to be human. Krystyna Janda and Adam Ferency created two psychologically complicated but still believable characters.

Most Polish viewers who saw the film at illegal screenings appreciated Bugajski's ethical insight. However, he also faced completely different accusations than the ones from the infamous pre-release screening.

"After 'Interrogation' I got a letter from a woman prisoner from the Stalinist era, who thought I had offended all the prisoners of communism by showing secret police agents as people with human reactions. ... Meanwhile the world is not black and white. In addition, to tell an interesting story you have to show evil in a humanized way". ("Rzeczpospolita" 10 Dec. 2004)

If one were to find words that could be considered Ryszard Bugajski's artistic credo, perhaps the best ones would be his declaration of interest in the sphere of ethical greyness, where evil can be somewhat humanized, and good is sometimes built on an uncertain or even false foundation. The blurred line between good and evil is a theme that seems to fascinate Bugajski. The director investigates man, perceiving humankind in a Conrad-like way. Humans are capable of falling and of dragging themselves back up, but are also seemingly noble though demoralized at the same time. This dichotomy is inscribed into human nature, while man, to use the words of the maker of Interrogation from the interview quoted earlier - "Will remain what he is - wonderful and horrible at the same time". ("Ekran" 3/1990).

In one form or another, moral dilemmas returned in Bugajski's subsequent directing projects. For example, in the film Clearcut, made in Canada, he analysed the pitfalls of pacifism, putting his protagonist in a situation where he had to recognize the arguments in favour of actions that he condemned. Thus, not all that seems absolute good actually is, and the other way round: not all that seems absolutely evil is really evil, Ryszard Bugajski seems to say in his Canadian film.

After his return to Poland, the film Players, made during the elections of 1995 and set during the previous elections of 1990, marked the director's attempt to find his place anew in the Polish reality.

The first truly free presidential election in independent Poland was in itself a fascinating spectacle, revealing Polish society, the same society that had every right to feel proud of the freedom it had won for itself, as being inclined to hand over power to an impostor appearing from nowhere. The battle between Lech Walesa and Stanislaw Tyminski, and the way the Poles acted and thought at the time, certainly could provide material for reflection on the nobility and baseness of human nature. Undoubtedly the reality deserved to be seen as a ready-made performance with the whole nation as its cast. This was a fascinating performance in need of no political-fiction elements as props for its script, and consequently the film was usually perceived by the critics as being a Polish, worse version of The Day of the Jackal, or even an unintentional - since the story is told in a serious vein - parody of that film (Andrzej Kołodyński, "Video Club" 11/1995, Jerzy Niecikowski, "Wiadomości Kulturalne" 45/1995).

The director's unfortunate choice of script can probably be excused by his long absence from Poland, and by the fact that he had not been an eyewitness of the political events of 1990.

Ryszard Bugajski's inborn powers of observation and his ability for psychological analysis of his characters can be found in the television plays, their form akin to low-budget films, that he made after returning to Poland. In productions like Miś Kolabo [Collabo Teddy], Chimps, and Niuz [News], Bugajski presented his special penchant for showing the world much more insightfully than through black-and-white stereotypes, and a tendency to analyse the manipulation that people commit against there fellow man. A play prepared for Television Theatre, Dusan Kovacević's The Professional, like Interrogation, was meant to show the special bond between a secret service officer and his victim, and the transformation both characters undergo (according to Malgorzata Piwowar, "Rzeczpospolita" 10 Dec. 2004).

Television Theatre productions have a special importance in Ryszard Bugajski's output, as the director unquestionably gives free rein to his fascinations in them, whereas the other television productions he has been involved in, addressed to a mass audience, simply fulfil the requirements of good trade, as is expected of this kind of programming. Today this is true for TV series like Tak czy nie [Yes or No] and Na Wspólnej [On Wspólna Street], and years ago, when the director lived abroad, his television productions were similar in nature.

The full-length feature Niebo gwiaździste nade mną [The Starry Sky Above Me], of which Ryszard Bugajski has been speaking for some time, and which is supposed to touch on journalistic ethics and the unmasking role of this profession as the "fourth estate", is still in the design stage.


Film etudes - director and script writer:

  • 1971 Miłość [Love] feature etude.
  • 1971 Odjazd {Departure] documentary etude. A young conscript says goodbye to his friends before leaving for the army.
  • 1972 W trzeciej osobie [In the Third Person] feature etude.

Documentaries - director:

  • 1971 Maraton [Marathon] director and script writer.
  • 1975 Opowiadania o przyjaźni [Tales of Friendship] director, script writer with Wojciech Wiszniewski.
  • 1997 Crazy Horse director, script writer with Ryszard Wolański. The story of a Pole from the U.S. who, together with his family, spent many years carving a monumental image of Dakota's legendary chief in a 200-metre rock.
  • 1997 Od grudnia do grudnia 1980-1981 [From December to December 1980-1981] director jointly with Marek Stypułkowski, based on a script by Jerzy Diatłowicki. The film tries to answer the question of whether martial law had to happen in Poland in 1981. The accounts of witnesses of those events are not conclusive.
  • 1997 Urban - tak i nie [Urban - Yes and No] director and script writer. A film about Jerzy Urban, government spokesman during martial law, today the editor-in-chief of the controversial, inflammatory weekly "Nie". The film asks if the former flunkey of the communist regime has the right to take credit today as a fighter for freedom of speech.
  • 2001 Dzieci Witkacego [Witkacy's Children] director and script writer, documentary series (10 episodes).

Feature films - director:

  • 1979 A Woman and a Woman director and script writer with Janusz Dymek. A film about the mechanisms essential in career building, and the price one has to pay. The story of friendship between two women, which is destroyed when one of them strives for a career at any price. In the second part of the film, set more than ten years later, the other woman, who stuck to the principles of fair play before, now also acts more with an eye to benefits than principles.
  • 1980 Zajęcia dydaktyczne [Classes] director and script writer. The story of a young married couple, Marek and Teresa, struggling against problems at work that have an impact on their family life. The uncompromising Marek leaves the university where he works due to a conflict. Teresa is different, having no scruples about accepting a proposal to go away on a scholarship even though this was meant for someone else. The conflict between their attitudes almost breaks up the marriage.
  • 1982 Interrogation director and script writer (script - in association with J. Dymek). A moving drama from the Stalinist era in Poland. (Awards: 1989 - PF DKF Don Kichot Prize; LLF Łagów, Golden Grapes; FPFF Gdynia, journalists' and audience's award; 1990 - FPFF Gdynia, special jury award; Golden Duck awarded by "Film" magazine for the best Polish film of 1989; Chicago IFF, Silver Hugo; 1991 - BESEF Belgrade, FIPRESCI Prize; at the Cannes IFF in 1990 Krystyna Janda received the jury's award for best actress for her role in this film.)
  • 1983 The Hitchhiker (TV series).
  • 1985 Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV series).
  • 1985 The Twilight Zone (TV series) director of 4 episodes.
  • 1989 E.N.G. (TV series).
  • 1990 Saying Goodbye, Saying Goodbye 2 (A Promise Broken)
  • 1991 Clearcut script: Robert Forsyth based on the novel by M.T. Kelly "A Dream Like Mine". A lawyer with a hippy past and pacifist leanings stands to defend the forest from clear-cutting. The film served as a pretext for reflections on the cultural differences between Native Americans and the white man, and was an attempt to overturn certain stereotypes, for instance about pacifism, that were based on oversimplification. "In North America people have become too attached to pacifist ideas. Meanwhile, sometimes a war in which we defend values can be right. In 'Clearcut' I wanted to show that ideology which does not take life into consideration is worthless", said the director in an interview ("Kino" 1/1992)
  • 1995 Players director, script by Jan Purzycki. The story of a no-holds-barred war waged by the teams of two presidential candidates. The fictional story of an attempt on Lech Walesa's life which ended in a grotesque error and which involved foreign intelligence agents, illustrated with documentary shots from 1990.
  • 2001 W kogo ja się wrodziłem / Like Father Like Son TV film (in the series Śwęta polskie / Polish Holidays) director and script writer. Father's Day becomes an excuse for a meeting between Tomek, representative of the younger generation, and his father and grandfather. The bond between father and son has weakened seriously. An unusual adventure (parachuting) and the grandfather's cheerful disposition help the young man and his father, who has cancer, to become closer. (Awards: 2002 - FPFF Gdynia, jury's special prize, prize from "Teletydzień" magazine for the best television film)
  • 2003-2004 Na Wspólnej / On Wspólna Street (soap opera based on an idea by Scott Tylor), director of episodes 11-15. The story of a group of people who became friends as children in an orphanage, whose friendship has survived over the years even though they have since become mature. Thanks to the enterprising spirit of one of the characters, they become joint owners of a new tenement house. A soap opera about the conflicts that emerge once the friends move into their new flats.
  • 2003 Tak czy nie? / Yes or No? (TV series), director and co-writer of the script (episodes 2, 8, 9). A crime series featuring interactive audience participation, with the viewers answering a question posed at the end of each episode, thus taking part in solving the crime.
  • 2009 - Generał Nil / General Nil, Based on the biography of the legendary general Augusta Emila Fieldorf aka Nil, commander of the Home Army's Diversionary Directorate (Kedyw), General Nil is the third part of Ryszard Bugajski's trilogy
  • 2013 - Uklad Zamkniety / The Closed Circuit

Moreover Ryszard Bugajski was an assistant director for the film Hobby (1968) and Desant [Landing Force] (1987) by Daniel Szczechura and Illumination (1972) by Krzysztof Zanussi. He is the author of a short story that became the literary basis for the episode "Ticket to Frankfurt" in the TV series 07 Zgłoś się [Come in, 07] (1984).

He directed many television theatre productions, including in the 1970's Po tamtej stronie świec / On the Other Side of the Candles and Trismus by Stanisław Grochowiak, and in 1981 the play Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller. In subsequent years: Taking Sides (1996) by Ronald Harwood, Wielki Mag / The Great Magus (1997) by Andrzej Lenartowski, Lost in Yonkers (1998) and The Gingerbread Lady (2000) by Neil Simon, Opera mydlana / Soap Opera (2000) by Georgy Spiro, Miś Kolabo / Collabo Teddy (2001) by Piotr Kokociński, Chimps (2003) by Simon Block, and Niuz / News (2002) which he wrote himself.

Author: Ewa Nawój, December 2004, filmography update MJ March 2013's picture
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Ryszard Bugajski


Ryszard Bugajski


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Ryszard Bugajski


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