Without Borders: Polish Experimental Documentaries
small, Without Borders: Polish Experimental Documentaries, 21_nowy_jork_1.jpg, Still from 21 x New York, directed by Piotr Stasik, photo: KFF
They combine the standard documentary format with animation, feature and... opera. They play with form and venture beyond its limits. They create new genres, provoking the viewer with their visual and musical singularity. Culture.pl presents a list of 10 of the most fascinating experimental documentaries of modern Polish cinema.
21 x New York (2016) by Piotr Stasik
When interviewed by Piotr Czerkawski of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Piotr Stasik said:
(…) my style consists of a never-ending changing of styles. I don’t like repeating myself. I rather opt for a new form that fits my new project best.
21 x New York – Piotr Stasik
A fleeting portrait of New York, 21 x New York is heavily influenced by many. It is P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia mixed with films by Jim Jarmusch. Stories of unhappy loners, as if written by Todd Solondz, are told in a trance-like manner typical of Gaspar Noe’s cinema.
Stasik tells the stories of twenty-one people he met on the subway. He’s not interested in asking standard questions – about their living situation or their occupation. He’s all about feelings, stories of unfulfilled dreams, yearnings, life goals. Together the stories paint a portrait of New York – a fast-paced city, inhabited by tormented souls.
Opera About Poland (2016) by Piotr Stasik
In his next film, Stasik continues to explore his sociological side. Opera About Poland is one of the most unique documentaries made in Poland in the last decade. Documentary meets music (written by Artur Zagajewski) to create a multimedia show: an larger-than-life music video about Poland. When interviewed by Polish Radio Dwójka, he stated:
This project was born out of the emotion that I feel about what’s going on in Poland and elsewhere.
The libretto features snippets of religious sermons, blogs, podcasts, citizens’ denounciations or classified ads. Stasik’s film is thus a portrait of the provincial, forgotten Poland. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, sometimes scary, but it’s always poignant in its weirdness. Łukasz Badula from Kultura Online (having, rightfully so, called Stasik’s film a mélange of Elementarz by Wiszniewski & Koyanisqatsi by Reggio):
Piotr Stasik has created a trance-like sequence of images, accompanied by equally hypnotic music. It engages the spectator nearly subliminally.
Rogalik (2012) by Paweł Ziemilski
More proof that young Polish documentarians don’t lack in courage or imagination. Rogalik is a 17-minute short film exercise created at the Łódź Film School.
Rogalik (editor’s translation: Croissant) would be just another documentary taking on provicial life if it wasn’t for its unusual form. The camera almost never stops – it roams around interiors, follows locals as they step outdoors, shows their everyday life. It’s constantly on the go, runaway, unable to stop for any of the anonymous protagonists.
Ziemilski shows us the inhabitants of the titular Rogalik, a tiny village located in the Warmia-Masuria Province, and their humdrum existence. The director refrains from making any comment or providing any explanation. He only gives us the image, capturing the sorrow and the hope of breaking free of it, even if momentarily.
In 2013, Rogalik was awarded the Brązowy Dinozaur (Brown Dinosaur) at Kraków’s Etiuda & Anima festival. The jury justified it as follows: ‘creating a visionary, mysterious and deeply touching image of small-town Poland and amazing story-telling’. The China Academy of Documentary Film also appreciated Ziemilski’s film by presenting him with the Best Innovation Award.
Small Scale, Big Effect: Architecture in the Provinces
Side Roads (2015) by Julia Sokolnicka
For Stasik provincial Poland was the object of sociological analysis and a starting point for a documentary caricature. It’s also the core of Side Roads, a short by Julia Sokolnicka.
The audience sets out on a journey into the so-called ‘Poland B’, where people struggle with their little problems in billboard-plastered, styrofoam-insulated blocks of flats. The camera takes us on the road in the Podlasie province. It observes and interrogates people, trying to listen to their voices. That’s how we meet an owner of the Polski Fiat 125p, a cult vehicle of era long gone, an elderly songwriter, a disco polo musician, keen on sharing life advice, and finally, the most interesting of the crowd, a former squatter, who returns to his hometown to lead a normal, mediocre life.
The 17-minute long short by Sokolnicka is a heartfelt, yet not devoid of condescendence, postcard from a Poland rarely shown on screens.
Side Roads Awarded in Mumbai
Object (2015) by Paulina Skibińska
Paulina Skibińska's film Object was awarded with a jury prize at the Sundance Festival, America’s most important independent film festival.
‘For visual sensitivity and cohesive artistic vision permitting a leap from reality into the metaphysical world of nature’; ‘For the unusual kind of imagination and perfect command of cinematic craft, visual sensitivity, skilful atmosphere-building and mature creative personality’; For ‘the amazing ability to tell stories through photographs, showing beauty, darkness and uncertainty in an unconventional way.'
Film by Łódź Film School PhD Student Awarded at the Sundance Festival
All of the above are praises rained upon Paulina Skibińska, a young graduate of Łódź Film School, when being awarded for numerous prizes for her film Object. This 14-minute creative documentary received dozen of prizes, including A Short Film Special Jury Award for Visual Poetry at the Sundance Film Festival.
The acclaim is not at all suprising – Object is a bold experiment. It tells the story of a rescue mission following the disappearance of a diver in an ice-covered lake. Skibińska shuffles perspectives: we look at the situation through the eyes of the rescue team, of a diver going into the lake to search for the missing person, of passers-by. Regardless of the perspective, though, the director creates a poetic, extremely intense world, packaged in beautifully composed stills and accompanied by hipernaturalistic sounds.
The Governance of Of Love (2012) by Adela Kaczmarek
What prevails in a documentary? The truth of the image or the underlying truth? It’s only one of the questions that one asks when watching The Governance of Love by Adela Kaczmarek, a young graduate of graphic design at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. While it’s one of the most interesting documentaries to have been shot recently in Poland, it is also one of the most controversial ones.
Why controversial? It combines animation, a form considered to be rather infantile, with a dramatic storyline. The Governance of Love provides an insight into a schizophrenic's imagination. The protagonist lives simultaneously in several realities. In his mind reality is blurred with his imagination.
In order to capture the main character’s fragmented universe, Kaczmarek uses child-like drawings (as it later turns out made by the protagonist himself). They are accompanied by the main character’s voiceover. The audience only gets to know him in the film’s last scene, when his portrait is put up on screen. This makes for the most controversial part of the documentary as the spectator is left with the impression that this person’s tragedy was being used.
A Documentary Film (2015) by Marcin Podolec
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Another animated documentary. Not as controversial as The Governance of Love, yet still causing a stir. A Documentary Film by Marcin Podolec, a tremendously talented illustrator and animator, is a poignant, tender and utterly real film.
Podolec tells the story of his own father, Antoni. A man past middle age, whose children have all left their hometown. Surrounded by memorabilia from the past, the elderly gentleman leads a lonely life, whiling away the days between ever-rarer family gatherings.
Podolec combined old family photos with his own drawings, which makes for a docu-animated portrait. It isn’t, though, this mixture that makes the film worth watching. It’s the artist’s courage to be frank in depicting his father. Although Podolec tries to balance things out with irony, his film cuts to the quick.
15 Corners of Of Tthe World (2014) by Zuzanna Solakiewicz
Zuzanna Solakiewicz, the director of 15 Corners Of The World, said:
Her experimental documentary sheds light on the life of Eugeniusz Rudnik, one of the pioneers of electro-acoustic music in Poland, who came to be a living legend of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. Rudnik revolutionised music using recording tape and a pair of scissors. Telling a story of such an extraordinary artist requires choosing a suitable form. As the director explained
As a result, Solakiewicz created a multi-dimensional film, where she punctuates metaphorical pictures with unusual sound effects. Thus the spectator is immersed in the world of Eugeniusz Rudnik.
Droga Na Drugą Stronę (2011) & The Magic Mountain (2015) by Anca Damian
In Poland, Anca Damian holds a cult status when it comes to animated documentaries. The Romanian director has already made two films here. The first one, Droga Na Drugą Stronę (The Road to The Other Side) focusses on the death of Claudiu Crulic, a young Romanian who undertook a deadly hunger strike after he was placed under arrest in Kraków. The second, The Magic Mountain, tells the story of Jacek Winkler, a Polish oppositionist, who joined the ranks of Afghan Mujahideen to combat the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The Magic Mountain – Anca Damian
The Magic Mountain – Anca Damian
In this story about Jacek Winkler, Anca Damian combines a biographical documentary with fairy tale, adventure and animation. The Magic Mountain impresses with its strong narrative and pictorial richness.
In both, Damian is keen on combining different textures and styles. She intersperses biopic, fairytale, adventure film with animation. It’s the visual side precisely that is the most impressive. For there’s collage, watercolour, pastel, cardboard cut-outs, animated photos as well as plasticine clay animation. And, what’s most important, all of them are auxiliary to the story and characters, whom Damian rescues from oblivion.
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