Wojciech Wiszniewski was a film director and actor. He was born in 1946 in Łódź, and died in 1981 in Warsaw.
Wiszniewski graduated in directing from the Leon Schiller National Film, Television, and Theatre School in Łódź in 1975. He also spent one year studying cinematography at the same school. He mainly created documentary films. He also wrote and directed a documentary theatre play, television theatre show, and a TV feature film. He was closely associated with the Educational Film Studio based in Łódź, but also collaborated with the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio and Czołówka Film Studio. Wiszniewski was a co-founder and programme manager of the Polish Television's Andrzej Munk Studio. In 1978, he received a Wektor – the Polish Filmmakers Association Young Film Artist's Award for consistent artistic vision and achievements in the field of film production, while in 1983, he was awarded a posthumous honorary diploma at the Koszalin Film Meetings Young and Cinema for the outstanding social, moral, and artistic values that informed his films. He was also posthumously awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta (Knight's Cross).
During his short lifetime, he produced only a dozen documentary films. Nonetheless, most of them have cemented their place in the history of Polish documentary cinema. In reality, his name did not become known to the wider public until after his death, in 1981, during the brief period when Solidarity was legal and several of his films were allowed by the censors. He was a record-breaker among directors of movies banned by the authorities: some of his best documentaries were withdrawn from distribution, including, as Marek Hendrykowski put it, the ‘masterpiece of Polish documentary cinema’ – ABC Book, which did not make it to the silver screen until after the director's premature death, but nonetheless met with acclaim.
Wiszniewski belonged to the generation of Polish documentarists who had their cinema débuts in the 1970s, which included Kieślowski, Zygadło, and Kędzierski, and historically followed the generation of Kazimierz Karabasz and his contemporary documentary filmmakers. He also had a lot in common with his generation, most of all social investment and engagement in tracing and shedding light on the negative sides of the reality of ‘second Poland’ – a slogan propagated by the ruling Edward Gierek's entourage. He also shared an attitude to documentary filmmaking with them – consisting in favouring Polish documentary cinema over films complying with educational guidelines and more precisely, treating a documentary film as an art form. Wiszniewski, however, went much further than his peers both in terms of the depth of his insight into Polish reality, as well as when it came to searching for his own artistic expression. He was quick to create his own hallmark style, which made such productions as ABC Book, Wanda Gościmińska – a Textile Worker, Sztygar na zagrodzie (Land-owning Steiger – editor's translation), or A Joiner, stand out among the works of his contemporaries, or any other documentary films.
These films were created on similar grounds as works from other representatives of his generation, however what distinguished Wiszniewski was the drive to find his own language and a resistance towards the limitations that his peers imposed on themselves.
I am under the impression that those united under the banner of the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ are stuck at a stage of noble, but naïve idealism, without going past the attack on a ‘good or evil factory director’. – he said in 1980 (Kino no. 3/1980).
He was an advocate of breaking taboos or unveiling blind spots, and most of all of reaching to Polish history, especially that which had the greatest impact on contemporary reality, i.e. the Stalinist times.
The reality that surrounds us is rooted in the past. […] I try to make my spectators recognize this feeling of continuity. – he said in 1979 (Kino no. 8/1978).
Nina Sławińska wrote:
Each of his films is a composition of outstanding imagery, which, when contrasted with the political content and ‘newspaper’ facts, is all the more effective.
Mirosław Przylipiak said that Wiszniewski's films ‘begin with specific facts, but are concerned with ideas’ and that they emanate ‘a conviction that a truth about a human does not need to derive from an accurate film documentation […]. Raw material is treated rather as a collection of signs to be used for creating new meanings, rather than a photograph’(Kino no. 1/1984)
In simpler terms, it could be said that Wiszniewski offered an entirely creational cinema (surrealism, metaphor, and the grotesque are common and the films do not follow the rules of a documentary tale, but are instead a sequence of scenes connected by a plot conceived by the director, where the visual and poetic layer is principal), however, also one that is strongly grounded in the factual layer. The scenery of the stories told by Wiszniewski is key: normally, they are shot in seedy council housing in Łódź, which the communist authorities were embarrassed of. The protagonists also played a crucial role, for instance Bugdoł, the hero of the film Tale of the Man who Performed 552% of the Workload, which still followed a traditional narrative, or the spinner Wanda Gościmińska, another striking worker, from the picture Wanda Gościmińska – a Textile Worker, the first one in which Wiszniewski stepped away from an ordinary biographical documentation, instead creating an auteur narrative (it is worth mentioning that he even made his protagonists recite pre-scripted cliché lines, thus creating a pompous image of the protagonist), Steiger, who moved to the country and started a farm – the main hero of the film Land-owning Steiger, or the protagonist of A Joiner. Nonetheless, as Andrzej T. Kijowski rightly wrote, ‘Wiszniewski focuses not on people, but on issues.’ ABC Book, Wiszniewski's most acclaimed film, is a clear example of this thesis' accuracy, since it predominantly tells the story of patriotism and the clash of reality with educational slogans and mottos, so… a story of Poland. It is not a coincidence that the structure of this film is based on two themes: alphabet and Władysław Bełza's patriotic mantra, well known to several generations of children. Someone has said that it is an example of a rare documentary genre – ‘a philosophical treaty.’ Still, as Henryk Waniek wrote (Kino no. 11/1992), ‘it is stunning that Wiszniewski managed to express such deep truths in this film, while working on the antipodes of realism.’
The attitude that the authorities bore towards Wiszniewski's oeuvre is the best testimony to the above statement. The government immediately identified inconvenient truths represented in his productions and reacted in a manner typical for a totalitarian regime: by banning their distribution, and, by the same token, making Wojciech Wiszniewski and his films legendary while he was still alive.
Student short films
- 1967 - Zawał serca (Heart Attack); Awards: 1968 – Honorable Mention at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
- 1969 - Ślad (Trace)
- 1970 - Jutro. 31 kwietnia – 1 maja 1970 (Tomorrow: 31st April – 1st May), 1970; Awards: 1972 – Grand Prix at the Student Short Film Festival in Łódź; 'Zygzakiem' Documentary Film Club Award at the Student Short Films Festival in Warsaw.
- 1971 - Wilkasy 70
- 1970 - A ona za nim płakała (And She Cried for Him) (script with Mieczysław Kumorek) about military drafting produced for the Czołówka Film Studio.
- 1972 - Robotnicy '71 – nic o nas bez nas (Labourers '71 – Nothing About us Without Us), (co-directed with Krzysztof Kieślowski, Tomasz Zygadło, Paweł Kędzierski, and Tadeusz Walendowski). Film about the workers of the early 1970s and early Gierek era. The original version of this film was never screened to general public, but a modified (against the will of the authors) cut was broadcasted on television under the title Gospodarze (Housekeepers); Opowieść o człowieku, który wykonał 552% normy (Tale of the Man who Performed 552% of the Workload); Story of a miner and a 1950s shock labourer, Bernard Bugdoł. The film was banned from distribution and not screened until 1981.
- 1975 - Wanda Gościmińska – włókniarka (Wanda Gościmińska – a Textile Worker); Diploma film. A staged portrait of a Łódź-based spinner and a shock labourer. Awards: 1975 – honorable mention at the Social and Political Film Showcase in Łódź; Brown Dragon at the International Short Film Festival in Kraków; 1976 – Golden Billy Goat at the Man-Work-Creativity Festival in Lublin.
- 1976 - Stolarz (A Joiner); A visually stunning story of an old carpenter, reaching back to the times of Second Polish Republic. Throughout his lifetime, he was making wardrobes and furniture for others, while living in a space of 12 sq m in area. Awards: 1981 – National Short Film Festival in Kraków: Brown Lajkonik for set design (also for ABC Book), Warsaw Mermaid – AD PPR Film Critics' Club Award for cinematography for Ryszard Jaworski; Grand Prix at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
- 1976 - Elementarz (ABC Books). A scripted, strongly metaphorical story starring extras about what the PPR authorities teach to the young generation. Awards: National Short Film Festival in Kraków: Golden Lajkonik, Brown Lajkonik for set design (also for A Joiner), award for best music for Janusz Hajdun; International Short Film Festival in Kraków: Special Honorable Mention, FIPRESCI Award, Brown Dragon for cinematography for Jerzy Zieliński; 3rd audience award at the Man-Work-Creativity Festival in Lublin.
- 1978 - Sztygar na zagrodzie (Land-owning Steiger). A ballad-like story of a Steiger who decided to become a farmer. Easily decipherable allusions to the figure of Edward Gierek, the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party. Awards: 1978 – Critics Award at the Short Film Showcase in Rzeszów; Brown Lajkonik at the National Short Film Festival in Kraków; 1979 – Confrontations 'Young Artists Behind and in Front of Camera' in Białystok: 'Klistron 79' first prize; award for an experimental film at the Young Cinema Review in Rzeszów
Television drama films
- 1974 - Historia pewnej miłości (A Love Story) (original title: Szafo, przemów do mnie / Wardrobe, Speak to Me); screenplay co-written with Leszek Płażewski and based on the latter's novel under the same title. Story of a young worker who is supposed to receive a work apartment, however it is a family sized one. He has to get married soon. Due to censorship restrictions, the film was not officially screened until 1981.
- 1981 - Palacz zwłok (The Cremator) (adaptation of Ladislav Fuks's novel) (screenplay and realization). Story of an everyday man's participation in totalitarianism and evil's power of attraction.
- 1979 - Lublin – tamte dni (Lublin – Those Days): historical documentary performance about the Occupation and early post-war era (director and author) at the Juliusz Osterwa Theatre in Lublin
Wojciech Wiszniewski also starred in drama films: Podróż do Arabii (Journey to Arabia) and Party przy świecach (Party by Candlelight) by Antoni Krauze, Odejścia i powroty (Departures, Returns) by Wojciech Marczewski, Przejście podziemne (Pedestrian Subway) by Krzysztof Kieślowski, Profesor na drodze (Professor on the Road) by Zbigniew Chmielewski, Rebus (Riddle) by Tomasz Zygadło, Rekord świata (World Record) by Filip Bajon, and Debiut (Début) by Sławomir Idziak. Moreover, he was the director of photography on Władysław Wasilewski's student short film Lustra (Mirrors) and a co-writer on Ryszard Bugajski's documentary film Opowiadania o przyjaźni (Stories About Friendship).
In 1985, Andrzej Mellin directed the documentary film Szajbus - film o Wojtku Wiszniewskim (Wacko: a Film About Wojciech Wiszniewski).
Author: Jan Strękowski, transl. AM, May 2016