Les États généraux du film documentaire 2017 Doc history: Poland

Doc history: Poland

This long journey begins in the late thirties: even if most films from this period were lost during World War II, Polish documentaries at the time notoriously focused on social themes. Many filmmakers were avant-garde and experimental artists closely linked with circles of poets and painters (e.g. Stefan Themerson). After the independence in 1918, the new government controlled the main studios and supported only films dealing with current political issues, propagandist and nationalist themes, and educational works on picturesque folklore (the great exception is Nous arrivons by Aleksander Ford, 1936).
After World War II, a new generation took over and started from the ruins: Poland had lost more than 20% of its population; most of the pre-war Polish filmmakers had been killed or had left the country. Between 1947 and 1949, with the help of the USSR, the Communists came to power, banned all the other parties, nationalized and centralized every form of cultural expression. The Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism was the new banner: every bridge with prewar Poland was destroyed, every film or book far removed from the doctrine was condemned as the expression of bourgeois formalism. It’s astonishing that, even in this tragic context, some Polish filmmakers found a way to express their ideas, struggling for film form against propaganda. Inondation won the Palme d’Or for Best Documentary in 1947: it was a wordless prayer for human solidarity, devoid of ideology. Many films were censored (e.g. La Mine, 1947) and, until the mid-fifties, very few great films appeared. Paradoxically, the true enemy of Socialist Realism was actually realism (e.g. Quand tu dors, 1953): there was nothing realistic in all those emphatic propaganda films on class struggle, those triumphant works about the victory of the new world against the old one, always using the same grandiloquent music and bombastic narration (e.g. Rue Brzozowa, 1947). At their best, these films are now fragile documents of an utopian vision. At their worst, they are tragic documents of servility.
After Stalin’s death (1953), things slowly changed. The film industry began developing and new production studios expanded (Warsaw Documentary Film Studio – WFDiF – was founded in 1949). Young directors newly graduated from the National Film School (founded in 1948 in Łódź) began to work using a sincere realistic approach. Thanks to the change of social and political climate, new subjects and ideas were now available to documentary.
After 1954, some films began to show the negative aspects of Polish everyday life under Communism, finally breaking the silence imposed by Socialist Realism. With Attention, les hooligans! (1955) the so-called “Black series” of documentary films (“Czarna seria dokumentu”) was born: it was a series of works overtly denouncing the dark side of Poland, dealing with alcoholism, prostitution, juvenile delinquency, unemployment, healthcare, housing. It was a complete break with the recent past and, even if short-lived (1955-1958), this series built the basis for the golden age of Polish documentary cinema (1959-1968), a period “where both industry conditions and relative freedom of both subject matter and filmic approach combined to create a perfect working environment” (Krzysztof Kieślowski). New filmic approaches were now possible: filmmakers started mixing fiction with reality in order to produce a new documentary truth, far from official narratives; the long tradition of Polish experimental film was now seeping into documentary cinema, and both were waging the same struggle.
Poland too was changing: in October of 1956, a reformist government led by Władysław Gomułka came to power in the wake of workers’ protests in Poznań. The effect of this change was a liberalization of Polish society and culture. Polish fiction directors began to show their films worldwide: most of them had been documentarists before (Andrzej Wajda, Wojciech Has, Andrzej Munk, Roman Polański). Now very few subjects were still off-limits (clear denunciations of Communism, direct attacks against the USSR), and filmmakers began to experiment dealing with the theme of transformation through the everyday working life in big cities, the growth and expansion of the industry (e.g. Un bateau est né, 1961), the new life of younger generations, jazz music and avant-garde theatre. Work was not shown as a titanic effort of men anymore, but using a more intimate approach, with a peculiar penchant for portraits and a sensitive focus on the individual (e.g. 24 Heures de la vie de Jadwiga L., 1967). The introduction of direct sound helped to maintain a strong interest in social themes, but now in a less ideological perspective (e.g. Psychodrame, 1969).
The audience of these documentaries was large since, from 1958, Polish movie theaters were obliged to screen short films (educational films, animation films, documentaries) before the main feature, a very important – economical and aesthetic – factor for documentary productions and filmmakers (this practice lasted until the eighties). Polish Television was also an important producer and regularly broadcast documentaries. World War II, Nazi crimes and the Shoah were becoming important themes of this new wave (e.g. L’Album de Fleischer, 1962). A lot of historical material had newly become available to filmmakers: many taboos started being broken down and hidden histories being told (e.g. Moi, le kapo, 1967).
In 1961 the Short Film Festival took place in Kraków. It was the first Polish film festival to be held in the country. The grand prize was awarded to a film made by Kazimierz Karabasz (a theorist, teacher and filmmaker). It was Karabasz, along with Jerzy Bossak, who gave rise to the Polish documentary school, a unique approach to marrying aesthetics with ethics, taking advantage of the artistic freedom in an economic system that funded artistic work without any commercial considerations. Karabasz was trying to open a new path to Polish documentary, following the social approach of the English documentary school, the formal vitality of Free Cinema, and the ethical lesson of Italian Neorealism. Most of the main characteristics of old documentaries (even the “Black series”) had now been abolished: instead of the voice over commenting the films and giving an ideological interpretation of the events, Karabasz pushed his students to let images speak for themselves and to favour irony over direct denunciation. In his view, filmmakers should avoid staging and interference with reality, select their heroes among ordinary people and portray them using a perceptive approach (e.g. L’Année de Franek W. (1966-1967), 1967). The traces of his lesson can be found in the work of his colleagues (e.g. Władysław Ślesicki) and protégés: he taught emerging crucial figures such as Krzysztof Kieślowski and Marcel Łoziński (both more politically and socially engaged than him).
In contrast with this observational and minimalist approach, an expressionist and maximalist approach emerged in the late sixties in creative documentaries (dokument kreacyjny) made mainly in the Educational Film Studio (WFO) in Łódź. Refusing the production methods employed in the Warsaw Studio, documentarians from WFO like Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Wojciech Wiszniewski, and Bogdan Dziworski began to push their formal research to the extreme, adopting surprising editing solutions, impactful photography, theatrical mises-en-scène: they “made use of means typical rather of fiction or experimental cinema, including staging, set design constructions, elaborate sound and an expressive visual style”.[1] It was the right answer to a bad political situation: after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the farce of the Communist government was becoming a tragedy clear to everybody, so documentary filmmakers radically deformed reality in order to show the deep side of the Real, the grotesque carnival of the State, the people’s haunted unconscious mind. Creative documentaries “deconstructed the audio-visual vocabulary of Socialist Realist ‘factual’ cinema, transforming particular elements of the propaganda language in surrealistic manner”.[2] They were not harsh denunciations anymore, they were dreadful masquerades, a sardonic new cinema of attractions.
The short-lived liberalization in 1981 enabled the screening of several documentary films that had been produced earlier but were censored by the authorities in the seventies, but at the beginning of the eighties, the political situation in Poland quickly changed. Martial law, which was imposed by Communist authorities from December 1981 to July 1983 drastically restricted normal life in an attempt to crush the political opposition and the Solidarity movement. The cinema industry was affected too: many filmmakers could not work anymore, many films were immediately shelved.
With the end of the Communist regime in 1989, the new Polish democracy put an end to the state-controlled and state-owned industry, transforming it into independent studios and companies, which were free to make their own financial decisions and production choices. In 1990, censorship was abolished too. The relationship between the State and the artist, as well as between the artist and its audience was altered dramatically. Filmmaking quickly shifted from a national and social mission to a professional business in a capitalist society. Times were changing, so was documentary cinema...

Federico Rossin

1. Mikołaj Jazdon, “Experimental Trends in Polish Documentary (1945-1989)”, in Kamila Kuc and Michael O’Pray (ed.), The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989, New York, Columbia U.P., 2014, p. 78.
2. Ibidem

Screenings introduced by Federico Rossin.

With support from the Institut polonais de Paris (Anna Biłos) and the Polish Film Institute.
Special thanks to Marzena Moskal (Institut polonais de Paris).