Affect, Identification and Communion: The New Generation of Polish Documentary(1)

Author: Masha Shpolberg

Krzysztof Kieślowski

In 1971, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Bohdan Kosiński and Tomasz Zygadło, three eminent if then still young documentarians, co-signed a manifesto entitled “Documentary Filmmakers Make Their Case.”1 In the manifesto, they argued against film critics who had grouped their films together at the Krakow Film Festival that year, claiming that they represented a “new generation” of Polish documentary. “The division between old and young documentary filmmakers that was made in Krakow and afterwards is in the best case an intellectual shortcut” they wrote. “It would be much fairer to divide filmmakers according to the quality of their work, interests, artistic styles, their attitudes towards the issues being debated…”2

Despite the filmmakers’ disavowal of themselves as a “movement”, the manifesto signalled the emergence of a new form of politically and socially engaged documentary in Poland. Indeed, as the retrospective organised at DOK Leipzig this year attests, 3 Polish cinema was already recognised as the pre-eminent documentary tradition in the former Soviet bloc, and the films of Kieślowski, Kosiński and Zygadło, among those of many others, would go on to cement that fame. Throughout the 1970s and (after Martial Law was repealed) the 1980s, Polish documentarians would produce daring films that shed light on the individual’s relationship to the institutions of power and the limited choices available to citizens within the communist system. (It is interesting to note that the 20th anniversary of Kieślowki’s passing has prompted a number of other festivals and institutions to host full retrospectives of the filmmaker’s work, including the documentaries he produced in the first 15 years of his career. Such retrospectives have taken place at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (February 2014), the Klarafestival in Brussels and Antwerp (March 2016), the LET’S CEE Film Festival in Vienna, and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York (October 2016)).

At the risk of following in the Krakow critics’ footsteps, I would like to argue here for the rise of yet another “new generation” of Polish documentary, a generation united not only by age group but also by a consistent, albeit very different set of “interests” and “artistic styles”. While Polish fiction features have been on the rise, with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida taking the Oscar for best foreign film in 2015, documentaries have been particularly strong and well-represented at international festivals. In addition to the Polish retrospective this year, DOK Leipzig featured 12 contemporary documentaries across its different sections. In recent years, Polish documentaries have consistently won awards at Sundance, Locarno and IDFA, and have been nominated for the Academy Awards.

Urząd (The Office, 1966)

In keeping with national tradition these films are invariably defined by a formal rigour. The cinematography often feels as composed as in a fiction film. Preference is given to the medium close up and the long take, ensuring the patient observation of seemingly mundane details. But the issues addressed and the narrative structure have changed significantly. As the titles of some of Kieślowski’s documentaries demonstrate – The Office, Factory, Hospital, Railway Station – the masterpieces of the 1970s tended to concentrate on institutions. These films featured an ensemble cast of characters who, in their anonymity, were supposed to stand for a particular demographic – usually a profession or an age group. With few exceptions (such as Marcel Łoziński’s memorable 1974 film, A Visit), these films were concerned with experiences that were typical for Polish society at that time and made extensive use of metonymy to circumvent censorship. In this way, the dysfunctional school or hospital would come to stand in for Polish society as a whole.

The new crop of documentaries, though robust, seems marked by a withdrawal from the political and the institutional into the domestic and interpersonal. Like many of their Anglophone analogues, these are character-driven documentaries, centred on a single compelling protagonist. Almost invariably, these come from the most vulnerable sectors of society – children, the elderly, the mentally or physically handicapped, and repentant criminals. Maciej Adamek’s Two Worlds (Dwa światy, 2016) follows 12 year-old Laura, who must help her two deaf parents negotiate even the most mundane of every day activities. One of the strongest Polish documentaries of recent years, Anna Zamecka’s Komunia (Communion, 2015), centres on 14 year-old Ola, who must care for her autistic brother and alcoholic father. And the protagonist of Hanna Polak’s heartbreaking epic Nadejdą lepsze czasy (Something Better to Come, 2014) is a young Russian girl named Yula who grows up on garbage dump outside Moscow. Shot over the course of 14 years, the film follows Yula from age 10 until age 24 as she cares for her hard-drinking mother and toils to get them out of the dump.

Other films are set in less dire circumstances, but nevertheless look towards society’s margins or explore psychologically painful domestic situations. The heroes of Marcin Kopieć’s feature, Nauka chodzenia (The Walking Spark, 2015) and Michał Szcześniak’s Academy Award shortlisted short (say that twice!) Punkt wyjścia (Starting Point, 2014) have served sentences for racketeering and voluntary manslaughter, and are now seeking to reintegrate into society. The former, in particular, seeks to anchor the criminal past of its hero, Piotr, in an exceptionally difficult childhood. The eponymous hero of Anastazja Dąbrowska’s short Daniel (2015) is a teenager with Down syndrome looking for romance and human connection – as are the estranged, elderly husband and wife in Zofia Kowalewska’s short Więzi (Close Ties, 2015 – also shortlisted for the Academy Awards). Finally, Paweł Loziński’s Nawet nie wiesz jak bardzo cię kocham (You Don’t Even Know How Much I Love You, 2016) and Julia Staniszewska’s Trzy rozmowy o życiu (Three Conversations About Life, 2016) explore toxic mother-daughter relationships.

Inevitably, the characters in the majority of these films lead lives framed, structured, or supported by the institutions of social welfare. That’s what makes it all that much more striking that these institutions and their representatives appear in the films always in a benign light, and only fleetingly. When Ola and her father receive a visit from a social worker in Communion, the camera stays tightly focused on Ola. We never see the social worker’s face; we only hear his questions and see Ola reply. The camp counsellors at the special needs camp where Daniel is set are ever only fuzzy figures in the background. And in the two prison films, the protagonists come into contact with officials exclusively when they need something – the protagonist of The Walking Spark, when he decides to search for his father, himself serving a sentence for murder, and in Starting Point, when the heroine asks for a temporary release in order to spend the Christmas holiday at home with her family. All these “figures of the law” are kind and sympathetic – uncannily so for films premiering the year that Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party came to power.

The fundamental difference appears to be this: the documentaries of the 1970s appealed to the viewers’ intellect, asking them to derive the filmmaker’s argument from the films’ highly conceptual and often iterative structure: for example, Kieślowski’s presentation of 24 hours in the life of one Szpital (Hospital, 1977), or Marcel Łoziński’s re-editing of a street poll into two very different films in Ćwiczenia warsztatowe (Workshop Exercises, 1986). The focus on a single, goal-driven protagonist and a linear narrative allows the “new wave” of Polish documentary to appeal to the viewers’ emotions instead, employing something like the identification processes inherent in mainstream fiction cinema. Viewers are not asked to think about the realities portrayed on screen, but to feel their way through them. My own intuition is that the situations portrayed on screen are often still too difficult for identification, evoking something closer to empathy instead.

There are three very pragmatic explanations for the rise of this new generation and its subsequent shift in focus. The first, and the easiest, way of understanding this recent retreat into the personal would be as a reaction against a longer strand of Polish documentary filmmaking: namely the post-1989 outpouring of historical documentaries addressing the painful and previously taboo subjects of Polish-Soviet and Polish-Jewish relations. This is a cross-over tradition that has tended at times to dominate both documentary and fiction filmmaking, and has not yet exhausted either its subject matter or the variety of aesthetic means available to filmmakers in their quest to reconstruct and interrogate that history. The controversy surrounding this year’s war drama Wołyń (Volhynia), about the 1943-44 massacre of Poles at the hands of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, makes this abundantly clear. The new documentaries’ bracketing of politics, history and social institutions in favour of an all-encompassing present, on a national level then, feels like a release from the accumulated weight of Polish history.

The second has to do with the economics of global documentary production. The primary intended audience for “the generation of 1971” was the national one. Produced under communism, their films sought to help Poles cognise their situation, and in so doing, to regain a certain degree of mental distance and freedom. Festivals were critical to these filmmakers’ success – but only in as much as the prestige of screenings and awards abroad coaxed the authorities into allowing them to go on making films at home. And at the festivals themselves – at Leipzig first and foremost – their films were prized precisely for their national or regional specificity, their role as windows onto a particular political and historical reality.

With the 2004 integration of Poland into the European Union, one cannot help wondering if the retreat into a culturally generic domestic space is actually a leap over the border, a way of making Polish films more appealing to international audiences. After all, the most intimate also tends to be the most universal. It comes as no surprise then that Communion won the Best Documentary award at the Warsaw Film Festival as well as the Semaine de la Critique award at Locarno and the Young Eyes Film Award at DOK Leipzig, or that Close Ties won the Silver Dragon for Best Documentary Film at Krakow and the Golden Dove at Leipzig, before being screened in competition at IDFA. The list of both national and international awards for each of these films could go on and on.

Siedem kobiet w róznym wieku (Seven Women of Different Ages, 1978)

Finally, the third has to do with a conscious politique culturelle on the part of the Polish government and the Polish film establishment. Due to lack of funding for film projects, an entire generation came through the National Film School in Łódź in the 1990s and found it impossible to actually make films. To correct the situation, Andrzej Wajda, the late patriarch of the Polish film industry, set up the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing in 2001. The School’s part-time schedule made it possible for working, adult professionals to pursue the course. A number of the filmmakers discussed here (including Anna Zamecka, Teresa Czepiec and Michał Marczak) are graduates of its DOK PRO section, helmed by Marcel Łoziński, Jacek Bławut and Vita Żlakeviciute. In addition to training students, the attached Wajda Studio co-finances student projects. In 2008, the Polish Filmmakers’ Association created the Munk Studio, a similar production company that exclusively finances debut projects. When the economy finally began to take off in the aughts, the government followed suit, establishing the Adam Mickiewicz Institute for the promotion of Polish culture abroad in 2000 and the Polish Film Institute in 2005. These institutions have been instrumental in providing young filmmakers with both funding and visibility. Additionally, more women than ever before are entering a profession that, prior to 1989 and for most of the 1990s, remained resolutely male.

1. The manifesto was first published in Polish as “Dokumentarzyści o dokumecie” in Polityka 28 (1971).
2. Bohdan Kosiński, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Tomasz Zygadło. Trans. Aleksandra Kaminska and Monika Murawska. “Documentary Filmmakers Make Their Case (Poland, 1971). Reprinted in Scott MacKenzie (ed.) Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures. University of California Press, 2014, pp. 464-469.
3. See Carmen Gray’s coverage of the festival here

This article was originally published in senses of cinema in December 2016.


Masha Shpolberg is a Ph.D. Candidate in the joint Comparative Literature and Film and Media Studies Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on Eastern European cinema and the evolution of documentary film form.