The People's Republic of Poland as it has never been seen before - a voodoo ceremony on the day of the imposition of martial law in 1981, with General Jaruzelski, the nation's communist leader, possessed by the wicked demon of Baron Samedi. Produced by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and opening the 10th edition of Warsaw's biggest documentary festival, Art of Disappearing dazes, startles and entertains
When the famous journalist Joanna Szczepkowska announced on TV in October 1989 that "communism in Poland had come to an end", there was no mention of a Haitian voodoo priest's contribution to its demise. Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosołowski's film does Amon Frémon justice. The creators of the Oscar-nominated Rabbit à la Berlin in 2010 dive into the mysterious story of Frémon, the Haitian priest who, upon an invitation from the great director and theatre reformer Jerzy Grotowski, visited the People's Republic of Poland in1980.
Through the eyes of a shaman
He doesn't understand why people had to have so many rugs in their houses and why old ladies had to queue for so long to buy at least one rug. Warsaw's monumental Palace of Culture reminds him of a Haitian tomb with windows, but "a tomb with windows doesn't seem like the best idea", as he comments.
The grey reality and it's rule-abiding people surprise Frémon on every step. He sees the harvest festival in which young girls pay tribute to old men as a religious ritual. General Jaruzelski's rigid posture and his blood-filled eyes hidden under dark sunglasses tell the foreign guest that Jaruzelski is possessed by the wicked demon of Baron Samedi, and he compares the militia to a horde of zombies. "Everything here looked different. It even rained differently, the drops were louder. As if it was a country of deaf people", the film's narrator says.
The directors Konopka and Rosołowski do not shy away from drawing daring historical parallels between Poland in the 1980s and the history of Haiti. In Frémon's eyes, Poland is a country built on graves and crosses, a place where spiritual life flourishes. The film points to that decade as a time when spirituality was fed by the cult of Pope John Paul II and Maria, contributing to the unity among normally isolated people. The need for a higher purpose is also what brings the film's protagonist closer to the new society.
Post Rabbit à la Berlin
In Konopka and Rosołowski's documentaries, nothing is what is seems. Konopka filmed Ballada o kozie / Ballad About a Goat in 2003, a simple story about how the leaders of Lower Silesia decided to help poor families by giving them a goat that turned into a moving film about hope. Rabbit à la Berlin, a joint Konopka-Rosołowski project, is a metaphor of hunger for freedom shown through the fate of the furry creatures living in the no-go zones of the Berlin wall.
There is also more to the Art of Disappearing than the story of the trip of a Haitian voodoo priest to socialist Poland. Juxtaposing shots of the Solidarity movement with images from uprisings through Polish history, with scythe-bearing peasant soldiers from Kosciuszko's army and the material from the Polish-Bolshevik war, Konopka and Rosołowski point to the romantic Polish spirituality.
Art of Disappearing isn't exactly a documentary. It's more of a cinematic impression that makes use of the documentary form. Although their starting point is the story of Frémon and his acquaintance with Grotowski, their vision of what precisely happened to him is fantasised. He had Polish blood running through his veins - his ancestors were soldiers in Napoleon's Polish legion who settled in the New World at the beginning of the 19th century. Amon is therefore fascinated by the land of his forefathers, and after being invited to Poland with a group of Haitians, he decides to remain longer to get to know his ancestral home. Little more is known about him, the only traces that remain are stories of people who met him, whom he helped and with whom he shared pieces of the story of his life.
Winkelried from Haiti
Frémon's monologues are the penmanship of Ignacy Karpowicz, a young writer known for indulging in Polish romanticism. Karpowicz portrays Frémon as a shaman who manages to understand what impact centuries of blood and sufferance has on a people better than the Poles themselves. Playing into the mythology, the voodoo ceremony the priest performs to free General Jaruzelski causes the system to collapse and takes away his spiritual powers. The Haitian priest is no different than Arnold von Winkelried, the legendary hero of Swiss history who sacrifices himself to save the fatherland of his ancestors.
Konopka and Rosołowski's film is a phantasmagoria, a play of the absurd, a documentary reconstruction. The directors put a lot of feeling into combining archival material with contemporary images from Poland and Haiti. The result is a strongly subjective retelling in which the emotions of the narrator correspond with the blurry, burned out, shady stills, the unusual editing and rhythm. Art of Disappearing is the story of the People's Republic of Poland as it has never been seen before, full of colour and ambiguity.
Art of Disappearing is part of the Guide to the Poles, a series of documentary films created by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute which journeys into the sources of Poland's contemporary freedom and creativity, showing rock music, fashion, sex, mountaineering, toy-making as some of the many ways of expressing individual freedom under an oppressive regime.
Presented at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Art of Disappearing is screened on the 17th, 18th and 19th of May at the Planete+ Doc Festival in Warsaw. The film was previously screened at the Swiss Visions du Réel festival, one of the world's biggest film festivals dedicated to documentary films.
- Sztuka Znikania / Art of Disappearing Production: Adam Mickiewicz Institute, 2011, Screenplay and direction: Bartek Konopka, Piotr Rosołowski
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated and edited by MJ 10.05.2013