If documentary cinema is a mirror reflecting reality, then the Kraków Film Festival is the best place to show us the collective pains and fears from around Poland. What can contemporary documentary films tell us about the nation and its inhabitants?
In Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff, the beginner filmmaker Filip Mosz discovered his calling for the cinema through a particular experience. While filming the newly renovated facade of a building, he stumbled upon its crumbling old courtyard. Thus, Kieślowski seems to say in the film, the role of the documentary filmmaker is to see beneath the surface, in order to obtain a less impressive albeit truer view of things.
The Kraków Film Festival is a great occasion to dig deeper and delve beneath the crust of Polish reality. The dozens of films presented at the Festival’s competition section and as part of the Panorama selection constitute a ‘social barometer’ and a mozaic portrait of the country, one divided both economically and politically and split by ideological conflicts.
My country divided by a wall
It’s not a matter of coincidence that numerous films at the festival explore the faults and cracks of intra-Polish divisions in an attempt to understand their sources.
One such attempt is Julia Staniszewska’s Three Conversations on Life, a very personal but universal portrayal of the impossibility of mutual understanding. We see a woman in her thirties who is the mother of two sons conceived through in vitro fertilisation, as she speaks with her own mother, a doctor, and a Catholic to whom the method is morally condemnable.
The three conversations which take place over the course of three years are a clash between two different worlds. A loving mother and a loving daughter speak about motherhood, the need for personal fulfilment, and their mutual reproaches. The bio-ethical dilemmas which the in vitro method triggers for them lead to a direct confrontation between the parties. But in this exchange, nobody changes their mind. The fundamental ethical controversy cannot be resolved at a kitchen table.
What’s left to do, then? One can accept these differences and opt for the things which bring us together, rather than those which divide us. Staniszewska’s film is a story about the need for compromise, in which both sides respect their divergent stances as they cannot share a common one. In a country where both political and world views seem to divide us like barricades, Three Conversations… is a story pertinent for everyone.
A patriotic lesson?
Filip Jacobson, a young graduate of Gdynia Film School, brings a story of equally universal value to the Kraków festival. His Lesson in Patriotism is a simple tale about a patriotic song contest conducted at a primary school in Gdynia. Small children sing about the red poppies of Monte Cassino, war taking away beautiful boys, the hard fate of guerilla fighters and cold graves wherein lie the heroic defenders of Poland. The jury comprised of school teachers pays close attention to the pronunciation and musicality of the performers, but completely ignores the fact that the small performers don’t understand any of the lyrics they sing.
Filmed in black and white, Jacobson’s film is evocative of the early works by Forman – there is a bit of folklore, irony, and humour, but the Patriotic Lesson incites more terror than laughter. It shows how from a young age, what is taught as the Polish version of patriotism is in fact a vision of bloody sacrifice. The repertoire is filled with martyrdom and military glory, leaving no room for other colours. Songs such as Grzegorz Ciechowski’s Don’t Ask about Poland would never be allowed as part of this repertoire. The patriotism taught at schools is bloody and filled with violence. Radical nationalist movements, the new cult of the so-called cursed solidiers, and even a patriotic trend in clothing are recently on the rise in Poland, and Jacobson’s film clearly points out the source of this popularity.
But the Lesson in Patriotism is also proof of cinema’s great power. Most Poles probably remember the type of music contests depicted in the film. We also recited patriotic poems, hearing and singing the exact same songs. No one was terrified, and no one rebelled. It is only once they are on the screen that their grotesque character is striking. The camera’s cool eye thus allows us to see our everyday reality much more clearly.
The Poland of uneven speeds
It isn’t only ideology that divides us, but also economic status and different social and cultural backgrounds. Julia Sokolnicka’s Side Roads depicts these differences. The young director takes us on an excursion across Poland in its so-called B version, where the buildings are plastered with styrofoam and billboards are homes to people with small problems of their own.
Among those portrayed in the film there is the driver of an old Fiat 126p, an older woman who writes songs, a disco-polo singer who shares his words of wisdom about life, and a young ex-squatter who deliberately chooses to return to his small home town, choosing an absolutely mediocre life there. The 17-minute-long miniature by Sokolnicka could easily pass for a documentary adaptation of Szczerek’s Seven – in both works, in spite of their great dose of warmth one cannot overcome a sense of manifest superiority over the provincial lifestyle.
Diagnoses of Polish society are also delivered by feature films shown as part of the Kraków Festival. Klara Kochańska’s short film, Tenants, deals with the conflict of two distinct worlds – a young woman working for a corporation and a single mother whose apartment is auctioned off by a debt collector.
In The Pool, Krzysztof Pawłowski sketches a portrait of a neurotic middle-class citizen who is frantically chasing after just about any form of pathetic success. And in Impossible Figures and Other Stories II, an animated film which gathered the Silver Lajkonik award, Marta Pajek tells the story of a young woman whose perfect life is suddenly revealed to be a collection of illusions.
The lost and confused
If we are to trust the perspective of the Polish documentary filmmakers and other directors, then one of the widespread traits of Poland’s contemporary reality is a daunting sense of uncertainty. An uncertainty in the world, a lack of confidence in oneself, and a loss of faith in human relations.
Paweł Łoziński’s excellent You Have No Idea How Much I Love You shows how unresolved family issues can become a reason for this lack of security. Years of silence can even transform them into a wall that divides. The very effective Close Ties by Zofia Kowalewska speak about an old married couple and in this film, it is the incapacity to say sorry and admit one’s own mistakes that stands in the way of understanding. In the fantastic, impressionist 21 x New York from Piotr Stasik, the majority of the protagonists turn out to be desperately lonely, and love and intimacy are quickly disposed of.
The lost hero of contemporary documentary films often seems to search for a sense of grounding in religion. It is probably no accident that many of the films in the competition section deal with faith in both its monstrous aspects and in the desire to touch something supernatural.
The protagonist of The Monk of the Sea, a young car salesman from Thailand renounces his party lifestyle in Bangkok and decides to live in a monastery. In The Battle with Satan Konrad Szołajski tells us about the growing popularity of exorcisms, showing how magical thinking is on the rise in Poland two hundred years after the Enlightment. Tomasz Jurkiewicz portrays people in search of contact with the underworld, in his Borderline Miracles. Przemek Kamiński portrays a Ukrainian healer in The Gift.
Many years ago, Krzysztof Kieślowski said it was difficult to live in a world which is undescribed. It is only once it is named that one can feel safe in it. For years, documentary films contributed to the act of naming Polish reality. Marcel Łoziński and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films told the truth about Poland under Communist rule. After the transformation of 1989, there was Jacek Bławut who turned to portraying the disabled, taking up a theme that was completely marginalised at the dawn of liberalist capitalism. Paweł Łoziński took up the difficult Polish-Jewish history in Birthplace, and Ewa Borzęcka’s Arizona as well as Lidia Duda’s Our Place Pietrasze depicted the victims of the Polish transformation period.
Contemporary documentary films also address the most pertinent issues for Polish society. They seem to give the most importance to both the impossibility and lack of will to come to mutual agreement. The broad review of documentary films presented in Kraków this year delivers an overall image of Poland as a country of people who stick to their own positions and remain deaf to those who think and live differently. The intra-Polish war often evoked by journalists is even more depressing on the micro-scale, because it is there that we clearly see both sides within the conflict are inevitably its victims.