Polish Women of the Documentary Film World
small, Polish Women of the Documentary Film World, Anna Zamecka at the European Film Awards Gala, 2017, photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP / East News, zamecka_anna_en.jpg
Once at the margins, women set the tone of Polish documentaries today. Grappling with societal injustice, they craft emotionally resonant cinematic portraits and tell stories about crucial social phenomena. These are the women who rule (or will rule) documentary filmmaking in Poland.
For decades, women constituted a minority in the male-dominated community of Polish documentary creators. Suffice it to say that in 2016, when the Polish Film Institute and the Polish Filmmakers Association announced a contest for the best documentary of the last century, among 114 presented productions, there were only six films directed (and three co-directed) by women. None of these reached the top ten. Thanks to the work of these and other female filmmakers, however, much has changed.
Women in Polish Film
This shift in representation is clearly visible in the case of Lidia Duda. When awarded the Golden Hobby-Horse at the Kraków Film Festival in 2005, few seemed to notice her during the after-party. Why?
Duda was an outsider to the film world – she hadn't attended film school, she wasn’t a member of any of the industry’s associations, and she took up the form of documentary first as a journalist. More than a decade later, it's difficult to imagine Polish documentary without her work, sensitivity, and artistic impact.
Lidia Duda’s works are built on compassion. There is no trace of a superior directorial position towards the characters, who are usually people excluded from and wronged by society. Thanks to Duda’s empathy, her 2002 documentary short At Home in Pietrasze (U Nas w Pietraszach) can still spark intense emotions.
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Her Hercules (Herkules) is marked by her faith in the protagonist, a disabled boy from a familok (editor's note: a multi-family house for workers) in Śląsk. In Entangled (Uwikłani), she shows the story of a paedophile and his victim – free from judgment, but with an intent to understand the situation.
There is the trace of a film warrior in another director, Hanna Polak – an artist considers the camera her weapon in the battle for those unable to fight for themselves.
In 1999, Polak saw three small children sniffing glue on the Kursky Railway Station in Moscow. There were dozens of such children living there without any care. In a conversation with Culture.pl, she said:
I could not comprehend that these children were really not needed by anyone, no one was searching for them, no one cared about them. They just lived in the street – they lived and they died.
In order to help these children, Polak created a foundation in Russia, and together with Andrzej Celiński, she filmed The Children of Leningradsky (Dzieci z Leningradzkiego), a shocking portrait of people seemingly invisible to society. Thanks to Polak's work, the world became aware of their situation. This film was nominated in 2005 for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category and soon after, for two Emmy awards.
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Polak's next ‘Russian’ documentary – Something Better to Come (Nadejdą Lepsze Czasy), from 2015 – also garnered her dozens of awards. This presents a portrait of a young girl growing up on a rubbish dump near Moscow. The filming process took 14 years, during which Polak often visited the protagonist and her homeless friends. The final work represents the artist's fine artistic abilities and her warm heart.
Agnieszka Zwiefka, another social activist of the Polish documentary world, has also told the stories of people struggling with homelessness.
Her debut, a 2013 film called Albert Cinema, shows the story of a resident of Brother Albert’s shelter, a man grappling with homelessness and alcoholism. With the aid of the organisation, he created a film, through which he hoped to reconnect with his son.
The Queen of Silence (Królowa Ciszy) was another story about the vulnerable. Zwiefka shared the story of young, Deaf Roma woman who sought comfort in Bollywood films. In this creative documentary (which includes musical sequences à la Bollywood), the director demonstrates her protagonist's double exclusion. An outcast in her own environment because of her hearing ability, the young woman is also marginalised by racism in the context of Polish society.
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Zwiefka’s Scars (Blizny), which premiered in 2018, tells the story of an ex-guerilla and a believer of the ideology of the Tamil liberation movement in Sri Lanka. Despite life-threatening circumstances, the film's heroine returns to the island to meet her former companions.
Since the premiere of her debut 35 years ago, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz has created almost 40 documentaries. She is the only Polish female documentary director to have her own DVD in the prestigious Polish School of Documentary Filmmaking series published by the National Audiovisual Institute. (Other female directors included in the series – Krystyna Gyrczełowska, Danuta Halladin, and Irena Kamieńska – appeared together on one DVD).
In the 1980s, Zmarz-Koczanowicz created her own documentary style. In her films, sociological observations intertwines with ironic commentaries and a distance towards the problems presented. Against the fashion in Polish documentary, Zmarz-Kocznowicz has often portrayed entire phenomena, rather than focusing on singular figures.
In I Don’t Believe Politicians (Nie Wierzę Politykom), she portrayed young people; with Children of Revolution (Dzieci Rewolucji), she observed the consequences of the political change in Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Hungary. Mój Marzec (My March) and Gdanski Railway Station (Dworzec Gdański), she present the events of March 1968.
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In Bara Bara, she carefully observed the disco polo phenomenon, and in Miłość do Płyty Winylowej (A Love for Vinyls) she explores techno culture. Zmarz-Koczanowicz has also created many documentary portraits of people working in politics and culture: General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Czesław Miłosz, Jerzy Grotowski, Adam Michnik, and Leszek Kołakowski.
Faithful to her sociological instincts, Zmarz-Koczanowicz has told the story of sociopolitical changes, becoming ‘the most insightful portraitist of modernity’, as Łukasz Maciejewski described her.
Jolanta Dylewska is a filmmaker devoted to exploring Jewish culture and history in Poland. An outstanding cinematographer, renowned for films such as a Pokot and Tulpan, she considers documentary her hobby and devotes many years to each of her films – which are composed of recordings from private archives and old newsreels.
This is the approach Dylewska took with her first documentary, Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising According to Marek Edelman (Kronika Powstania w Getcie Warszawskim Według Marka Edelmana), from 1993. The director intertwined Edelman’s story with footage of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto murdered by the Nazis.
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The film stages shocking images on the screen, bringing recognition to these victims of the Holocaust. In a conversation with Katarzyna Bielas of Gazeta Wyborcza, Dylewska commented:
It’s been said that I extracted a human from the masses, that it’s my merit, but somewhere deep inside, I felt really guilty. I showed specific people, but these people were filmed in extreme conditions; they were humiliated. No one wants to be seen in that state, but I showed them.
Archival materials were also the foundation of her subsequent films Children of the Night (1999) and Po-lin: Okruchy Pamięci (Po-lin: Slivers of Memory, 2008), where she described the Polish Jewish world of before the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
Karolina Bielawska often describes fascinatingly ambiguous figures: strong but helpless, brave but unable to confront the world.
In Warsaw Available (Warszawa do Wzięcia) from 2009, co-directed with Julia Ruszkiewicz, Bielawska told the story of three young girls from former state farm villages who move to Warsaw with the dream to live a new and better life. She showed the clash between their dreams and the sad prose of everyday life, reporting from the frontier of their struggle, which was doomed to failure from the very beginning.
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Call Me Marianna (Mów mi Marianna) was another battle Bielawska documented. Here, she told the story of Marianna, a transgender woman who decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery at the age of 40. The film describes the protagonist's yearning for love and acceptance from a compassionate, dedicated perspective. Considered of the most beautiful Polish documentaries of the last several years, the film brought in more than 20 awards at Polish and international festivals.
Among the stars of Polish documentary, Anna Zamceka's shines perhaps the most brightly. Zamecka created only one movie, which immediately saw numerous awards at the most important film festivals in the world. Titled Communion (Komunia), this debut won in many places, including Locarno, Amsterdam, and Lipsk.
One of the most powerful documentaries of the last several years, Communion tells the story of 14-year-old Ola, who lives in a provincial Polish town together with her father and autistic younger brother. Her mother having left them to live with a new partner, Ola must care for her family. She hopes that one day, her parents will get back together.
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Zamecka portrayed the girl without overwrought emotion or melodrama, while alos not intervening in the manner of a journalist. She simply shares protagonist’s emotions – her longing, sense of loneliness, a need for normalcy. Both painful and beautiful, Komunia is clearly marked a great documentary talent, with remarkable potential for the world of Polish documentary.
Elwira Niewiera is yet another expert in outstanding documentary portraits. She is the director of two great documentaries, Domino Effect (Efekt Domina) and The Prince and the Dybbuk (Książe i Dybuk), both co-created with Piotr Rosołowski.
The directing duo’s debut took place in 2014, with Domino Effect. The film tells the story of Rafael and Natasha, a couple living in the capital of Abkhazia – a republic separated from Georgia under Russia's control. He was the Minister of Sports and a national hero; she was a much younger Russian opera singer, who was treated like a second-class citizen in the small state. In the documentary, their dramatic relationship is intertwined with the events in Kaukaz, torn apart by national antagonisms and politics.
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Niewiera and Rosołowski have a knack for transforming an individual’s story into a metaphor for the fate of an entire community. They prove it once again in their newest film, The Prince and the Dybbuk. Here, they retrace the steps of Michał Waszyński (1904–1965), a filmmaker constantly changing his identity to avoid intolerance. He concealed his Jewish roots, his sexual orientation, and his social class.
Waszyński's story was a good base for Niewiera and Rosołowski to build a larger one about central European fate, Jewish identity, and the turbulent history of the 20th century. During the Venice Film Festival in 2017, they received the Venezia Classici award for Best Documentary on Cinema.
It is difficult to imagine a bolder entry into the film industry. Aneta Kopacz’s documentary debut received almost 30 festival awards and even an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
This film, Joanna, is an intimate portrait of a woman battling with cancer, who wanted to made sure that her family was ready for her inevitable death. In 40 minutes, Kopacz conveys the emotions in the protagonist's everyday struggle with weakness, illness, and despair.
This documentary was born out of trust and the bond that connected the director with the protagonist. Apart from that, the film seduced audiences with beautiful and sensual visuals. The cinematography by Łukasz Żal (which saw two Oscar nominations) allowed them to touch the protagonist’s reality and to feel the temperature, smells, and tastes of her world.
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In 2018, a six-episode documentary series by Aneta Kopacz called Art-B: Made in Poland was broadcasted on television. It described one of the biggest political and economic scandals of the 1990s.
In the last several years, Agnieszka Elbanowska has become the leading representative of one of the most demanding film genres – documentary comedy. In 2013, she delighted the audience with The Love Equation of Henry Fast (Niewiadoma Henryka Fasta), the story of a retired mathematics professor who returns to Poland after many years spent in the US in order to find a young, beautiful woman.
In her short film Polonez, from 2016, Elbanowska presents with irony a competition for the biggest patriot held in a Polish provincial town. In First Pole on Mars (Pierwszy Polak na Marsie), she shares the story of Kazimierz – who, despite being over sixty years old, still dreams of going to Mars and takes part in the selection organised by the American mission Mars One.
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In other films, the director goes back to the tradition of documentary comedy, with Marek Piwowski being the master of the genre in the Polish cinema. Contrary to Piwowski, who occasionally ridiculed and humiliated his protagonists, Elbanowska presents her characters without patronising or making fun of them. Her documentary portraits are drawn with sympathy and understanding – probably why they land as simultaneously emotionally resonant and absurdly funny.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Stazczyszyn, 6 Apr 2018; translated by AS, Jan 2018
Sources: 'Wysokie Obcasy', author’s information