The growth is reflected not only by the number of titles hitting the silver screen, but also a growing audience. While between 2009 and 2013, only one documentary seen by more than 10,000 people made the list of the most popular Polish films each year (respectively: Gry Wojenne – editor’s translation: War Games by Dariusz Jabłoński; Beats of Freedom by Leszek Gnoiński and Wojciech Słota, Jan Paweł II: Szukałem Was… – editor’s translation: John Paul II: I Was Looking for You… by Jarosław Szmidt, Fuck For Forest by Michał Marczak and Miłość – editor’s translation: Love by Filip Dzierżawski). In 2014, the Polish box-office already saw three such movies.
Edited from authentic archival material from 1944, Warsaw Rising attracted 600,000 viewers to cinemas, and it was the 8th most watched Polish film of the year. Drużyna (editor’s translation: The Team) about the Poland men's national volleyball team (seen by 36,000 people) and Sen o Warszawie (editor’s translation: A Dream about Warsaw) about Czesław Niemen directed by Krzysztof Magowski (seen by 24,000 people) weren’t as successful, but they still were more popular than Foreign Body by renowned Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi. And the budgets of the documentaries were nowhere near the budget of the feature film.
Polish documentaries flourished in the following years. Pilecki by Mirosław Krzyszkowski released in 2015 brought 160,000film enthusiasts to movie theatres, while Apartament (editor's translation: Apartment) by Maciej Czajkowski and Przemysław Häuser – 135,000. Double the number of people who’d seen Influence by Łukasz Barczyk made with a 25 million zlotys budget.
Other film successes include Karski and the Lords of Humanity by Sławomir Grünberg, All These Sleepless Nights by Michał Marczak (a feature and documentary hybrid), and such wonderful films as You Have No Idea How Much I Love You by Paweł Łoziński, Bracia (editor’s translation: Brothers) by Wojciech Staroń and Komunia (editor’s translation: Communion) by Anna Zamecka. All These Sleepless Nights even went on to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival, while Karski and the Lords of Humanity was reviewed by the likes of the New York Times.
Veracity in vogue
How can we explain the ever-growing presence of Polish documentaries in cinemas today? The answer isn’t as clear-cut as it would seem. On the one hand, the key ingredient in the success of documentary films is the shift towards nonfiction, a trend also visible in literature.
However, this isn’t the only explanation. The increasing popularity of documentaries is also due to regulations concerning the financing awarding of films today. This applies, for instance, to the procedure of entering a movie into the Academy Awards competition. In order to participate, a film has to be screened for at least a week, a stipulation motivating film producers to take better care of distribution.
And they don’t need much encouragement. Documentary producers see cinema premieres as a chance to increase their capital to recover part of their investment in production. Even if a producer is also the distributor (it happens), only half of the profit from ticket sales ends up in his pocket. A 20,000 person audience bring at least tens of thousands of zlotys to the producer. When talking about films which often cost from 250,000 to 400,000 zlotys, the figures are considerable. And they seem even bigger considering that television channels pay very little for broadcasting rights.
The book Świat Andrzeja Fidyka (editor’s translation: Andrzej Fidyk’s World) authored by Andrzej Fidyk, one of the most renowned documentary film directors in Poland, accurately describes the differences between documentary films produced for TV and those intended to be shown in cinemas.
In TV, the beginning is essential, in cinema – the end. A channel-hopper switches the channel if the beginning doesn’t captivate them. They won’t make it to the heart of the matter, even in the most captivating films. It’s the other way around in cinema: cinemagoers aren’t stupid, once they paid for the ticket they will stay to the end. This is how they can immerse themselves in the action and stick around for the suspense to build.
Since Polish documentaries increasingly make it onto the big screen, their artistic form and story-telling should change as well. Is that the case? Not necessarily. Polish documentaries, even the TV ones, are strongly rooted in a strong tradition. The way the subject matter is dealt with is often as important, if not more important, than the topic itself.
Polish film craft elevates documentaries to the rank of art. Documentary films didn’t have to have educational value; they were an impression rather than a lecture on a specific subject. To notice the difference between Polish and British documentaries, it suffices to juxtapose films by Karabasz or Łoziński and documentaries produced by BBC with their clear thesis and commentary, which supplements the image and the documentary’s insight.
Perhaps this is the secret to Polish documentaries, and their growing popularity in cinemas – the films were always cinema-oriented, they don’t try to fawn over the viewer, they seduce with depth, air and – most importantly – truth, which speaks for itself.
The key to success
What attracts audiences to cinemas nowadays? Mainly the subject matter, preferably historical or religious. Out of the all of the most popular documentaries released over the past years, three are about Jan Paweł II: Świadectwo (editor's translation: John Paul II: The Testimony) by Paweł Pitera from 2008 brought a million viewers to cinemas, the aforementioned John Paul II: I Was Looking for You… was seen by 378,000 cinema-goers and Apartment – 135,000.
While still successful, historical films fare slightly worse, as seen by the cinema premieres of films about the Polish resistance leader Witold Pilecki, the Cold-War-era spy Ryszard Kukliński, Czesław Niemen, Jan Karski or the Warsaw Uprising.
Luckily the list of subjects that are guaranteed to captivate the audience goes on. Audiences are becoming more conscious and are increasingly looking into documentaries (great credit is due to Artur Liebhard, the man behind Millenium Docs Against Gravity festival who introduced the most interesting documentaries from all around the world into Polish cinemas). Today, Polish audiences can appreciate the value in experimental cinema (Michał Marczak’s films) as well as renowned directors whose names stand for artistic quality – Paweł Łoziński or Wojciech Staroń, the young classics of Polish documentary cinema.
Even if documentaries are and will remain a niche, it’s encouraging that the niche is growing year after year, and the film industry is adapting by selling films which are not specifically made for the wider public but still managing to garner devoted audiences who can appreciate quality. The one thing Polish documentaries never lacked.
The most popular documentaries in Polish cinemas:
Originally written in Polish, March 2017; translated by AP, 2 Aug 2017
The data about viewership is courtesy of the Polish Film Institute.
- John Paul II: The Testimony (2008) – 1,040.616 viewers
- Warsaw Rising (2014) – 598,428 viewers
- John Paul II: I Was Looking for You… (2011) – 378,391 viewers
- Pilecki (2015) – 160,274 viewers
- Apartment (2015) – 134,944 viewers
- Beats of Freedom (2010) – 56,982 viewers
- The Team (2014) – 36,611 viewers
- A Dream about Warsaw (2014) – 24,446 viewers
- All These Sleepless Nights (2016) – 23,707 viewers
- You Have No Idea How Much I Love You (2016) – 19,023 viewers