Affect, Identification and Communion: The New Generation of Polish Documentary(2)

Author: Masha Shpolberg

Krzysztof Kieślowski

An oversaturation of films dealing with Polish national history, the desire to produce films the will speak to audiences across Europe and beyond, and the creation of an institutional scaffolding to support young filmmakers – both male and female – has made this new generation of documentarians possible. Their films in turn are working to expand popular notions of subjectivity and the political. All of the aforementioned films take as their premise the idea that every human life is worth living: that both the criminals and the handicapped, the children and the elderly, the underloved and the sidelined, can still lead meaningful lives. They intentionally set out to normalise occasionally transgressive, as in the case of the post-prison reintegration films, but mostly just discomfiting behaviours: in Close Ties, for instance, the idea that the elderly might and do still have sexual lives, in Daniel that the mentally handicapped have romantic desires. In this, the films are essentially pedagogical. Their aim is to train us to be empathetic and open-minded beings, to recognise what we share with those on the margins or those not often represented in either elite or popular culture.

Anastazja Dąbrowska (Director of Daniel)

If this sounds all too familiar to the Western reader, that is because these films attest to an odd convergence between the values of liberal democratic societies and the persistence of Marxist humanism in Central and Eastern Europe. Humanism – the belief in the inherent value of human beings and their capacity to create meaning for themselves without deferring to the divine or supernatural – dates back, of course, to the Renaissance. While in the West the concept grew outmoded over the course of the twentieth century, it re-emerged in postwar Central and Eastern Europe in a powerful way. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of 1956 had opened the door to critiques of Stalinism and the in-humane form “really existing socialism” had taken. Where traditional Marxism placed an emphasis on abstract, disembodied processes (e.g. class struggle), Marxist humanism sought to recast the individual human being at the centre of these processes. The humanist emphasis on common needs, on the dignity and worth of every individual, and the significance of the everyday, came to be seen as the only possible antidote to totalitarianism. In deeply Catholic Poland, in particular, it offered a way of extending the values embodied by the Church into the officially atheist public sphere.

The new generation of Polish documentary is deeply informed by this humanist tradition. In espousing humanism, however, their films refuse to give in to sentimentality. Unlike many American films dealing with the topic of disability and social or economic marginalisation, these are not films about overcoming adversity; they are films about living with adversity – day after day, after day. No film illustrates this better than Communion. The film opens with a medium shot of 13 year-old Nikodem, Ola’s younger brother, practicing putting his belt through the loops of his pants. Standing in front of peeling wallpaper in a sparsely furnished room, he tries and fails, and tries again. Each time, the belt ends up twisted or double-backed on itself. “Wrong, wrong, wrong,” Nikodem chides himself. It is a trying scene to watch, yet the camera remains still, allowing the scene to go on far longer than would have been necessary for the viewer to “get the point”. Zamecka consciously subjects the viewer to Nikodem’s frustration and pain. In filming the scene so unflinchingly, she forces the viewer to reckon with the extent, the gravity of Nikodem’s disability.

Anna Zamecka (Director of Komunia, Communion)

At the same time – and this is where some contradictions set in – these are films that do not shy away from using their protagonists’ emotions to make a point. (I am consciously avoiding the word “exploitation” here). The strictly observational style most of them embrace strengthens the mechanisms of identification by ensuring that nothing reminds us or calls into question, the presence of the filmmaker. Moreover, both The Walking Spark and Starting Point, are inflected by what Bill Nichols in his famous taxonomy calls the “performative mode” of documentary. Both films are structured as a dialogue that unfolds between the convicted criminals and a “sensitive soul” willing to listen without judging. In the case of the feature, The Walking Spark, former Warsaw gangster Piotr tells the story of his life to Magda, an artist who has been moved to make an animated film about him. The film mixes three kinds of footage: Piotr’s conversations with Magda when he visits her and her loving family at their summer house, Piotr’s everyday life back in Warsaw, and bits of Magda’s graphically striking animation. In the case of the short, Starting Point, Aneta tells her story to the elderly, handicapped woman assigned to her care as she wheels her around the snow-covered garden of an assisted living centre.

In both films, the protagonists are called upon – and accept – to perform their repentance twice over: first, through deed (the caretaking work they do), and secondly, through word (the stories they tell in front of the camera). Though they ostensibly address themselves to another character in the film, the presence of the camera transforms their narration into a highly public form of confession. The way the camera lingers and the editing slows down, implies that the expression of emotion in these films is highly prized: proof of the characters’ humanity and the possibility of redemption. In The Walking Spark and Starting Point, a look of regret and the sight of tears is all the viewers needs to expiate the guilt of these otherwise all too charming characters. Confession opens the door to communion.

Now to return briefly to Zamecka’s film: half-way through, Ola and Nikodem rehearse Nikodem’s first communion. Ola cuts a potato into thin slices and Nikodem practices opening his mouth to receive the long-awaited “wafer”. This scene is fundamentally one of estrangement. In a very understated way, it points out just how unnatural both the religious ritual of communion and the social integration it comes to represent in the film really are. (Despite its title, Communion is not a film about the relationship of (wo)man to God but (wo)man to (wo)man).

Nearly all of the films discussed here offer glimpses of communal bonding as the thing most desired by their protagonists, all the while implying that such communion can never be anything but fleeting. Despite the title hero’s inability to find love, Daniel ends with the image of the group hug shared by Daniel and friends also living with Down syndrome. Piotr in The Walking Spark smiles only once in the whole film – when singing along with everybody at the birthday party for Magda’s four year-old daughter. Starting Point cuts off abruptly after Aneta phones her mother to say that she has been released early from prison and will be coming home. And Close Ties ends with the elderly husband apologising to his wife in front of friends and family at their 45th wedding anniversary. The presence of these witnesses at the end of Close Ties – both witnesses present within the film, and the future viewer as witness – is key for “communion” here means something a bit more specific than simply a “human connection”. While many of the films document one-on-one interactions, the communion aspired to always takes place along a one-to-many model, with characters re-joining a family or a group.

The few films that fall outside the trend I have tried to describe here – Michał Marczak’s Sundance-winning hybrid documentary Wszystkie nieprzespane noce (All These Sleepless Nights, 2016), the politically ground-breaking transgender documentary Mów Mi Marianna (Call Me Marianna, 2015) and Teresa Czepiec’s creative short Superjednostka (Superunit, 2014) speak to the desire for communion precisely in their portrayal of its lack. Czepiec’s film in particular is notable for the way it frames a number of characters living alone in one of the largest communist-era housing complexes in Poland. A title card informs us that the building was constructed as a “machine for living in” according to the principles of Le Corbusier. For the next 20 minutes, the camera roams the building, starting at its boiler-room underbelly and working its way progressively upwards. As it enters apartments seemingly at will, we are introduced to some of the inhabitants: a young boy coasting through the endless hallways on his tricycle, a sports-obsessed middle-aged man jogging up and down the building’s many staircases, and an older man struggling to move his car out of the garage.

While the men are associated with mobility, the women nest – and it is the aging women who are the show-stoppers. The extreme widescreen format (2.39:1) transforms their kitsch-filled interiors into entire universes in which their loneliness is the glowing star. One woman purrs lovingly to her seven (or more) Siamese kittens. Another talks to her dogs and a third – to the fish in her wall-size aquarium. They recall the characters who inhabit Diane Arbus’ photography: resolute in their eccentricity, empowered in their vulnerability. The film concludes with a crane shot of the cat-lady out on her balcony at dawn. As the shot grows ever wider, her isolation is matched only by the monolitic solitude of the building itself.

In an interview he gave in 1996, just a month before he passed away, Krzysztof Kieślowski claimed that he switched from documentary to fiction filmmaking when he caught himself documenting emotions he felt neither he nor the viewer should be privy to: “I simply object to barging in with a camera on people’s feelings. A few times in my life, I managed to film emotions and I was very happy to have found myself there with a camera. I remember well a scene from First Love: a boy, after his daughter was born, simply burst out crying. After that, I thought, do I have a right to film this, or not? […] I came to the conclusion that I must not be there with a camera. This is the main reason why I stopped making documentary films. I saw that it was better to hire actors and buy glycerine at the drugstore, squeeze a few drops into their eyes, let them cry.” 4 For Kieślowski in the end, there was no way to capture strong affect on camera without exploiting his subjects. (Though, as Eugénie Brinkéma points out in The Form of the Affects, the tear is the most overdetermined of emotional expressions in our culture. 5One wonders if Kieślowski would have felt the same way about a squeal of sheer delight…)

Kieślowski habitually described his documentary work in interviews as one of “description”: his films, and those of his generation, set out to describe what the Polish poets Julian Kornhauser and Adam Zagajewski called “the unrepresented world” (świat nieprzedstawiony) in order to emancipate their viewers, to create an outside to an otherwise totalising system. Consequently, their films privileged institutions over individuals, and appealed to the viewer’s intellect rather than to his or her emotions.

Where the films of Kieślowski’s generation sought to render strange that which passed every day for normal, the “new generation” of Polish documentary seeks the inverse: to normalise the strange. A glut of heavy historical documentaries and a desire to produce films that would speak beyond national borders are now leading young, documentary filmmakers to import more of the techniques of fiction cinema into their work. Largely centred on a single disabled, marginalised or otherwise isolated protagonist, these films compel the viewer to empathise and thereby to assume a new subject position: to step not outside the system but into another’s shoes. In this case, the work they perform can be termed one of “inscription”. These films do not distance viewers from the world, they inscribe us deeper into it. It has become a cliché now to speak of texts that “give voice to the voiceless”. These films are, of course, significant in that regard: they are still representing parts of the human experience, which have previously lacked representation, and in this they are inherently political. But they feel less interested in political process than in a singular emotional state: the one Anna Zamecka finally gave us a word to describe – communion.

4. Krzysztof Kieślowski. “Fragments of the Meeting at the Ósmego Dnia Theatre.” Interview with Marek Hendrykowski and Mikołaj Jazdon on February 24, 1996. Reprinted in: Renata Bernard and Steven Woodward (eds.). Krzysztof Kieślowski: Interviews. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2016, p.181.
5. Eugénie Brinkéma. Chapter One, “A Tear That Does Not Drop But Folds” in The Form of the Affects. Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 1-26.

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.