Sex, Karate & Videotapes: The VHS Craze of the 1989 Transformation
default, Sex, Karate & Videotapes:
The VHS Craze of the 1989 Transformation, Play Box store, first national chain store selling videotapes, audio, CDs, computer games and TV, Katowice, 1994, photo: Mirosław Noworyta / AG, center, kasety_23_-ag.jpg
An entire nation playing pop-cultural catch-up to the tune of cheesy pop songs, the flickering light of old television sets and the sound of rewinding video cassettes. Explore the story of Poland’s VHS fever at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s!
Give me a V, give me an H, give me an S…
As the narrator of the Polish Film Chronicle reported in 1988, to the sounds of synthesizers and vinyl scratches:
Videotapes will gain greater popularity than [Adam Mickiewicz's] Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania. An assortment desired as much as cotton, just much more available. Moreover, you can borrow or exchange them – with your closest neighbours, your friend’s fiancée or your boss’ driver.
In order to rent a videotape, you just have to go two streets away! The operation is legal, although the goods may be ‘crooked’ (...) There are probably one million video recorders in Poland. Many entrepreneurs are making a living off this new technology.
Let's take a closer look at a Polish television program from 30 years ago, just days after the fateful Round Table Talks – here’s is the television programme from the evening of 11th June 1989, a Sunday.
There were only two channels, and only a few people had satellite dishes. Poles could choose from the following programmes: on TVP1 (known as Jedynka), the Polish TV series The Escape from Beloved Places (about the fate of a country boy, Jaś Kunefał, from the September Campaign to the establishment of the communist authorities), and the final concert of the Festival of Soviet Song in Zielona Góra. On TVP2 (or Dwójka), it's a bit more entertaining: one can even watch some tennis, the ‘Hi-Fi Studio,’ Panorama (a popular news broadcast), the American (!) series The Winds of War, and the Łódź Ballet Encounters.
It’s not at all surprising that with these being the only choices, Poles’ imaginations were easily captured by three magical letters:
V for Van Damme and Val Kilmer,
H for Hong Kong, horror movies and Hanna-Barbera (so as not to forget about our youngest video connoisseurs)
S for Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Swayze; superheroes, science fiction, and… soft porn.
VHS-mania was in full swing. The reality of the late 1980s was conducive to escapist moods, and the realities of the savage capitalism that came into being was the wind in the sail of home video entertainment. In 1988, an avid Ekran (Screen) weekly magazine reader wrote in to the editiorial office:
I am a video enthusiast (...), and previously I was a film enthusiast. The whole difference lays in the fact that before I watched films in cold cinema auditoriums, and now – in my own apartment, also cold. What can I do, I like watching films, they take me away from two realities, my own and television’s.
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The popularisation of home cinema in the mid-1980s caused a major revolution: the nation lost its monopoly on the distribution and selection of titles (both in cinemas and on television), and the authority of film critics was shaken. In 1992, Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote:
…the church of cinema has fallen or is falling before our eyes (...) Instead of a church of cinema, the cinema temple, we now have private chapels in our houses.
In accordance with social demand, an alternative market opened itself up to cinema genres that had thus far been ignored.
Although the first recipients of VHS magic in Poland were most likely party dignitaries (reports state that the head of national television was importing videotapes for top executives already at the end of the 1970s), this seismic shift only really began to become apparent when the phenomenon reached a mass scale.
In an interview for Ekran in 1986, General Lesław Wojtasik, head of the Zarząd Agitacji i Propagandy Wojska Polskiego (editor’s translation: The Polish Army Board of Propaganda and Agitation), spoke about ‘video diversity,’ ‘the information war’ led by Western capitalists using videotapes and announced the arrival of ‘satellite colonialism.’ He added that ‘no country should dare to allow for its citizens to receive information, which is virtually unlimited, in the privacy of their own homes (...).’ However absurd, funny and impossible it may seem today, such were the times.
Even regular raids by security services and the national treasury on video markets could not put a damper on the force of this phenomena. For those who lacked money for a coveted VCR (there were no Polish brands on the market; a VCR at a PEWEX chain shop cost about $500, while the average Polish salary was $30-50), video halls began sprouting up at cultural centres around the country, as well as holiday resorts. And if you had no other choice, a helpful neighbour would do the job. Ekran even published an alleged diary of an owner of a recently purchased VCR:
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Throughout the entire month we have had a lively social life. (...) But I can’t even watch Rambo one more time.’
Reklama wideo Hitachi
In addition to the proverbial Rambo, there was a whole network of underground videos – a second market connected to the political opposition. You could get your hands on tapes with documentaries about Father Jerzy Popiełuszko or the repressions stemming from Martial Law; a parody of Dziennik Telewizyjny (the daily TV Journal) by Jacek Fedorowicz; or a recording of a performance from Teatr Ósmego Dnia (The Eighth Day Theatre), which due to its material being critical of the authorities, a ban on performances was placed on the theatre in 1984, but the theatre performed nonetheless in parish rooms and on the streets.
At home, as well as at special screenings, famous ‘shelved’ films (films banned by political censors) were watched, including Ryszard Bugajski's Interrogation. You could also find more ambitious Western films on VHS, which did not get past the censors, such as Deer Hunter or, surprise, surprise 1984.
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Poland’s Tri-City band Po Prostu (meaning Simply), known for its absurd humour, wrote a song – Pięści Wandajfa – about a scene in a video rental shop. The lyrical subject inquires about the new desired video items: ‘something with Vietnam’, ‘something new with Van Damme’, ‘something new with Chuck Norris’, or ‘something sexy’. The lady from the rental shop always says no, but says she has ‘something old, something really good’. To the customer, who desires Western ecstasy, she instead recommends The Cranes Are Flying, a film about the hero of the October Revolution Chapayev and labour leader Stanisław Sołdek.
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Piesci Wandajfa Po Prostu
Some similarities can be found in the repertoire of state-owned rental shops, as they also operated in the 1980s, until the invisible hand of the market dealt them a deadly blow. They mainly had old Polish classics, which everyone already knew by heart from TV. Students benefited from this the most, preferring to watch the film version of Nad Niemnem (On the Niemen) or Krzyżacy (The Knights of the Cross) over their paper originals, which they had to read for school. The video rentals carried only a few foreign films, among them, the biographical drama of Gandhi and martial art films made in the People’s Republic of China, such as Karatecy z Kanionu Żółtej Rzeki (Karatekas from the Yellow River Canyon) and The Undaunted Wu-Dang.
Meanwhile, private video rental shops had hundreds of Western titles, including the latest hits. I had the opportunity to talk to Krystian Kujda about this ‘video boom.’ For almost a decade, he has been co-creating a project called VHS Hell: a group of enthusiasts and collectors of B-class movies that flooded Poland during the transformation. In addition to organising screenings and searching for video gems, they have also been conducting their own research of the video market. They searched through industry periodicals and collected reports on people who ran rental shops or distribution companies.
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Some time ago, we got our hands on documents from one of the first video rental shops, which was established in Gdańsk. To sign up, you had to give your profession and education, which is why the index cards were of great interest to me. It turned out that Robocop or Police Story 3: Super Cop were rented by everyone: artists, farmers, lawyers, and salesman. All social groups seemed to have been engulfed by Western cinema.
Wypożyczalnia kaset "Video Szyper"
However, even the best rental shops were often powerless in the fight against piracy. Sometimes, they would rent films that were still playing in Western cinemas. There was an array of issues surrounding videotapes: from their covers (or lack thereof), through bad translations of titles (sometimes the same film functioned under several different titles) and the perils of dubbing. Kujda explains:
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I’ve managed to acquire a very interesting collection of videocassettes from the 80s – 250 videocassettes recorded by Tri-City pirates. The quality of the films is great, but what distinguishes them on a national scale is that these pirates employed actors from the Musical Theatre in Gdynia to dub the films. They also had great translations – they were especially good at their work, so actually you can’t even tell that these tapes are as old as they really are.
Usually, pirated voice-overs stood out due to their quality. The very act of listening to dubbed films is fun in itself – it's interesting to compare the translations to the originals. The dubbing was often recorded in one shot, so the quality of the translations left much to be desired. It had its charm though – you can hear when the ‘voice-over artist’ really caught a good flow, when recording somewhere in a makeshift studio in their house or basement.
There were also ‘exchange shops’: you brought a videocassette of a film you recorded yourself, and in return, you could choose a different one. The choice had to be made on the basis of rudimentary information (title, country of production, genre), so you never actually knew what you would get. For that reason, after the transformation, many magazines (often short-lived) appeared: Videoman, Video Club, Media Reporter, or the longest-existing Cinema Press Video, which served as guides in this world of film novelties.
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In the article Barwy Kaset (The Colours of Cassettes) in Ekran, published in 1988, we read: ‘Video has already played a critical role in our country – it broke the taboo of sex on the screen’.
In the 1980s, erotic films were typical souvenirs from a trip to the West. Customs officers had their hands full stopping films that were ‘harming socialist morality’ (supposedly 60% of tapes were confiscated for this reason, the remainder ‘attacked our country or its system’ or were characterised as being ‘too horrific’). In 1986, a journalist from Wybrzeża (Coasts) wrote about the troubles Szczecin’s customs officers were having:
Observing from dawn till night a wave of kitsch, stupidity and evil trying to break its way into our country, they are awoken at night, tormented by nightmares.
The loosening of morals can be seen in the press of that time as well. One of the readers of Ekran asks when there will finally be an adult video store in Warsaw, because he heard about one in Budapest. The editorial team answered affirmatively, saying that Warsaw could indeed use one. Was a moral revolution happening towards the end of the communist regime? In response to this question, Krystian Kujda cites a story heard during some videotape research:
It seems to me that, first and foremost, it was ordinary human curiosity, and I myself would also be curious to play ‘catch-up’. After all, access to pornography during the communist regime was very limited, so naturally one of the first films imported from abroad was German eroticism. What seems most interesting to me is how open Poles turned out to be to this type of entertainment.
Some time ago, we spoke with a lady who ran a video rental shop in Pruszcz Gdański. She said that when she got her hands on the first erotica tape, she invited neighbours and family over, made salads and sandwiches... At that time she didn’t even know how to use a VCR yet, so she called over her ten-year-old son – who had to be blindfolded – who, after pressing play, had to run out of the room.
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Maurycy Gomulicki, "VHS Hell", photo from exhibit 'Schizma – Polish Art in the 90s', Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle; photo: Maurycy Gomulicki/CSW
‘The screen art of killing, romanticism and fighting mastery is in fashion,’ we read in the industry press, therefore most distributors suggested ‘solid B movies’ to their viewers, explained the head of the company Video Boom. The giants of the video market were Warsaw, Silesia and the seaside, where a lot of distribution companies operated. At trade fairs in Cannes or Los Angeles, Polish businessmen travelled with suitcases full of dollars and bid against each other for the producers' offers. Kujda elaborated:
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In the beginning of the 1990s, Polish distributors were perceived as some of the best clients. Western markets were saturated, and the Poles would take everything. Sellers exploited them and sold films in very large packages. For example, if someone wanted to have something with Van Damme, then he had to buy nine other films and introduce them into the Polish market.
Reklama dystrybutora Elgaz
However, it was still difficult to compete with our local pirates – global novelties hit the market the fastest. They were brought from Bangkok or Singapore, and were hastily translated or recorded in a cinema. The owner of Studio 16 from Warsaw complained to the press:
Piracy spoiled the client mainly because they got used to watching very up-to-date titles.
Sound familiar? Fighting these video pirates led to the creation of RAPID Asekuracja – a producers’ and distributors’ association. Its employees carried out raids on rental shops in search of unlicensed titles. In response, in May 1991, the V Party arose. It did not mean ‘Victory’ but ‘Video’, and its full name was Polska Partia Posiadaczy Magnetowidów (The Polish Party of VCR Owners). It was based on a network of rental shops that previously had had a bone to pick with RAPID. Rental shops became ‘political parties’, inclusive clubs, to which only members had access…
‘To be a member of the V Party, all one had to do was own or use a VCR; so we had 4 million members,’ said the leader of the party. In their electoral materials, they wrote: ‘Cultural goods are not commodities’.
Basements, chute rooms, and garages were transformed into VHS kingdoms. Sometimes it was enough to just have a kind of TV rack or table inside a greengrocer's or haberdashery. There were mobile video rental shops in caravans; students in need of extra cash were going from door to door with suitcases full of desirable hits. At the end of 1989, there were 3,000 rental shops in Poland; in 1991 there were already 8,000, and their numbers were constantly growing.
Increasingly, there were rental places that were ‘out of this world,’ like the one in Chorzów: ‘beige tiles on the floors, panelled ceilings, shelves bolted to white walls, and in the centre, a fountain against a backdrop of mirrored tiles.’ The competition was huge, so the owners were expanding their services: large rental shops, such as the Katowice RSV, delivered videocassettes to customers just like pizza (we knew Netflix was Polish!), while others were open 24/7.
There were even parish rentals. Yes, you read that correctly. Cinema Press Video published an interview with a priest running such a ‘sanctuary’ at his church in Rybnik. He offered not only religious films, but also ones of ‘great humanistic qualities’.
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It’s something like a social service. (...) There are even people who first come to the rental shop, and then they go to church. This is a difficult housing estate, people drink a lot and I think it's better for a person like that to come and rent a film instead. (...) It’s not enough to say ‘don’t drink’, you have to give them the opportunity to choose.
Wypożyczalnia kaset video VIDEO - CEZAR - reklama VHS
Cinema Press Video posted interviews with video rental shops from all over Poland. This is great material when looking at the scale and social significance of the video-evolution. In 1991, the editor of Videoteka (a supplement to CPV) went to Siewierz. There were three video rental stores for just 10,000 inhabitants; in Ostrzeszów – nine rentals for 12,000 inhabitants (‘there are enough clients for everyone, because 2/3 of homes have a VCR’); in Wodzisław Śląski – 20 rental shops for about 70,000 residents; Koszalin (which at the time had 150,000 inhabitants), has as many as 130 rental shops. An owner from this city said in an interview:
You see, in a big city, a video rental shop functions in the same way as a bakery.
In conversations, transformational ills also made themselves known. In the aforementioned Ostrzeszów, the owners of the rental shop noted a standstill because half of the workforce from the largest factories in the city were suddenly laid off. The owners of the Gratis rental shop in Kielce said:
We live in a housing estate that has 60,000 residents and it suffers from a kind of ‘coma’. There is a lack of cultural facilities. We thought that the rental shops would change the situation at least a bit. (...) We introduced self-service, but we quickly stopped this form of cooperation because clients were not returning the tapes. It’s clear from this that not everyone is ready to enter Europe.
And what about the choice of repertoire? The owner of the Dodek rental shop said: ‘I don’t know why but in Knurów (a town called Boars), horrors are the most popular.’ Interests, however, were slowly changing. A couple from Kielce explained: ‘Experience teaches us that novice customers start with erotica and karate, and then go on to action films, and only to end up watching dramas at the end.’ This was confirmed by another conversation: ‘The first fascination passed, and for six months, the price has been the same for ‘more serious’ films – although ‘customers from the village are still looking for Rambo.’ It was important to remember, that – after all – some places were late in joining the film revolution.
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A broken tape, a shiny disc
The video boom, this romantic obsession with VHS ended up dying rather quickly – and there are a few causes for its early grave. Sometime, about 1994, the video market entered a new, more civilised phase. Then, the Polish parliament voted on new anti-piracy laws. Cable became more widespread. Neighbourhood rental shops were gradually devoured by large chains such as Beverly Hills Video and Blockbuster. The market continued to grow, and viewers became pickier in their choices. More and more ambitious films appeared on Polish screens, thanks to such distributors as Tantra and Gutek Film.
Towards the end of the 90s, the DVD quietly entered our lives. At first they were expensive and treated as a tech gadget (for example, in Machina magazine. reviewers often didn’t even focus on the films themselves, but rather on the bonuses on the discs: interviews with the creators, behind the scenes, trailers, and they rated menu options). Slowly, the DVD took over and the era of videotapes eventually came to a definitive end.
I myself gave away my videotape collection some time ago (in accordance with the typical division that went across families then, consisting mainly of: my cartoons, my father's thrillers, mom's dramas, and the comedies as well as MTV music videos that were for everyone). I have not had a VCR for a long time, but while writing this article, I started feeling a kind of VHS-nostalgia. I wonder if in 20 years we will remember free DVDs from newspapers with the same kind of yearning...
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Originally written in Polish by Patryk Zakrzewski, translated by AD, September 2019.