Les États généraux du film documentaire 2009 Doc Route: Poland

Doc Route: Poland

To begin this journey across contemporary Polish documentary, it seemed essential to propose some work by filmmakers who have left their mark on history: four authors as points of departure for as many different directions, of style, narrative, relationships with the history of Poland. Most are graduates of the famous Łódź school which continues to irrigate documentary cinema with young talent alongside the school founded by Andrzej Wajda.
The cinema of Wojciech Wiszniewski is situated at the point of tension between a strong artistic intent and an attachment to a historical story woven with the ideology of the time, the point where the liberty of direction creates dissonance with the narrative. Two portraits, that of a Carpenter and a Weaver, and the illustration of The Primer, a lesson known by all Polish schoolchildren, are both full of invention and fantasy. Their universe resonates with the distant echo of images we have seen of the wild representations by the theatrical troop of Tadeusz Kantor. Stories shaken up by the spirits of children and inhabited by the spectres of death, paintings which evoke the tragedies of history through the disarticulated bodies of men who attempt to articulate the absurd.
Kazimierz Karabasz positions himself differently in reality. His attention is captured by faces, his capacity to pick out within a situation what is at stake in a glance, an attitude, reveal a sharp eye. The portrait of Krystina M. brings us close to a form of documentary based on an encounter and a gift for observation and probes here in a more intimate manner the conflicts between a young woman's aspirations and her worries facing a reality which is less promising than it appears. A highly realistic counterpoint to the compositions of Wiszniewski, constructed on scenes of daily life but with no less attention to cinematic values. A style which blossoms from his first works in finely mastered black and white photography when he films for example circus artists (People On The Road).
It is via this art of direction that cinema was able to take on, more or less indirectly, a representation of history which was tightly controlled by the censors. The harshness of censorship was designed to measure up to the tension of a political situation which in 1968 took a radical turn. The government heavily repressed the student movement, expelled more than twenty thousand Jews in an antisemitic campaign and stifled news of even the most desperate acts of opposition such as the self immolation of a man in front of thousands of people to protest the entry of Soviet troops into Prague, an act that was totally ignored and suppressed by the system. More than twenty years later in Hear my Cry, Maciej Drygas found the witnesses to this sacrifice and exhumed the terrible images that were recorded. The film reveals in an edifying manner the cogs of the system which managed to indoctrinate the minds of the people, rehabilitating the memory of this man and his gesture.
Marcel Łoziński chose to analyse history via the observation of social and professional relationships. We must qualify this observation as participatory because his documentary cinema becomes an element of disturbance, interfering with the play of the real and shaking up its rules. Happy End is an illusion, Front Collision tackles the injustices of reality, Microphone's Test shows a reporter bowing to the censors in a reflection on the work of the filmmaker and a kind of premonition of the martial law that would be applied a year later to crush the Solidarność movement. These films exacerbate situations or provoke them and are always connected to a will to reflect on history, or sometimes to tell it more directly. In this way, in Seven Jews From My Class the filmmaker brings together his former schoolmates, all now in exile. They come together years after for long collective discussions where each one evokes the reasons and conditions of the forced exile of 1968. This procedure inaugurated a series of films based on passing time and revived memories to test them against the present, change and forgetfulness.
So it doesn’t hurt returns to a character twenty-three years later interweaving two films and confronting two periods. This time Łoziński lets his guard down and approaches the woman who welcomes them with less apprehension and without the bitterness that she could have felt against the first intrusive visit by a journalist who showed up to question her choice of life. The camera crew observes at a distance the exchanges as they become more and more bitter. Could it be dangerous for a filmmaker to start loving his characters?
The theme of the return, years after, seems to have inspired others. Connecting histories, destinies, generations precisely in order to try to make history, cause traces to reappear. In The Cupboard, the young filmmaker Jacob Dammas finds the apartment from which his Jewish family was expelled. Obstinately, he tries to get in, provoking encounters which are in turn suspicious, talkative, or others silent or blood curdling. How not to get rid of an “old store” too easily? Also, how not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? In Our Street along the years, Martin Latałło can only observe the consequences of the disappearance of the textile industry which created the riches of the city of Łódź: lost jobs, destabilised families, threatened and degraded health and housing. On the other side of the street, they rehabilitate — or in this circumstance they privatise and commercialise — and if the father manages to find a job as watchman, it is already too late.
How to carry on the imposing heritage left by the previous generation? Rafael Lewandowski opens his film to the convictions and doubts of the children of the heroes of the historic Solidarność which caused the downfall of Jaruzelski's regime. This is another rehabilitation — that of forgotten victims in the face of authorities declared innocent – for this past also is threatened with liquidation. At the end of the film, a young couple leaves the country to see what's happening elsewhere. Thirty years before, in the astonishing The Primer, to the final question they are asked, “What do you believe in?”, the two children do not answer but turn around to take the road... The figures of childhood are very present in documentary cinema, rarely escaping the condescension of a previously seduced point of view. Here childhood is presented as often sombre or difficult, a testing time to get through from which they emerge precisely the children they were if their dreams are still strong enough. Marcin Sauter leaves them to their games, whereas Łoziński discretely sends his chattering and playful son to talk to the elderly or to rail workers at the Brześć station. If there are many short films, it is because they are often student films, but also because they correspond to a length of narrative which does not seek to expand. The films remain focussed on their subject and sketch portraits in a formal reserve and with a care that allows all the space for their characters to exist, modestly. Whether it be to paint the fragile community of a village, or that further afield and damaged of the Evenks, or again that of a hospital, all these films are a way of observing and auscultating at a distance the conditions of a society. On the contrary, three films lead us off to more immodest and intimate territories. In a slightly naïve way, Dominika Montean renews contact with former classmates in a commemorative excursion. The disillusion is brutal but his sincere obstinacy maintains the balance of the film. The films of Marcin Koszalka meticulously explore the intimate, in a relationship to death in The Existence, to family hysteria in Till It Hurts, in a tone somewhere between narcissism and irony.
And how to enter the intimacy of a little apartment and the daily life that an old invalid father shares with his crippled son? The demonstration is given to us in a very fine portrait of a photographer in his rôle, Benek Blues. At a distance rarely as right as this in such a delicate situation — filming infirmity and promiscuity — the filmmaker succeeded in creating within the extremely tight space of this little theatre, a very delicate and attentive portrait which owed a lot to her long experience as editor.

Christophe Postic

Guests : Marcel Łoziński (director), Rafael Lewandowski (director), Jacob Dammas (director), Wojciech Szczudo (producer).

Thanks to Barbara Orlicz-Szczypula and Katarzyna Wilk (Krakow Film Foundation), Joanna Skalska (Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing), Andrzej Bednarek and Marcin Malatyski (National Film of Łódź), Wojciech Szczudo (Kalejdoskop Film Studio), Ula Niegowska, Maciej Nowicki, Ania Szczepanska. With the support of the Polish Institue of Paris (Maciek Hamela) and of the French Embassy (Romain Masson).