16th International European Documentary Film Symposium
Is the New Documentary. That New?
Situation in Polish Documentary Film
Miroslaw Przilipiak
Film Theorist

The title of my talk is „Polish documentary cinema – tradition, current danger, present day” which means that I’d like to speak about three things. First I’d like to make clear what I understand as tradition of Polish documentay cinema, then I’d like to say a couple of words about dangers that Polish documentary cinema faced after 1989, emphasizing especially the danger of commercialisation, and last but not least I’d like to comment upon the present situation and especially upon ways Polish documentary cinema tries to cope with the this danger.

Let’s start with what I understand by tradition of Polish documentary cinema. I must say that in my view tradition of Polish documentary cinema was shaped decisively in the 70s. It doesn’t mean that there were no good Polish documentary films before 70s or that there was no tradition of Polish documentary films before 70s but specifity of  Polish documentary film and especially of what I consider the main value of documentary genre  has been formed in the 70s. The 70s was a very good period of Polish documentary cinema – we can call it even the Golden Age – because there were then many excellent documentary filmmakers. I’ll mention only the most famous, the most well-known names as Marcel Lozinski or Krzysztof Kieslowski who gained internationl importance but there were many others which perhaps didn’t gain international recognition like Wojciech Wiszniewski – very important Polish filmmaker from of time, like Marek Koterski, like Krystyna Gryczeůowska, like Jacek Zygadůo and many many others.

So, I think that definition of value – what is valuable in documentary film – has been described on the basis of Polish achievements in the 70s. What were particular points of this definition and what was the situation of Polish culture, Polish society and Polish documentary film in the 70s? First, we often call this time the decade of distrust. Young generation in the 70s felt distrust towards the state and official ideology. They didn’t want to take everything that was officially said just for granted, they wanted to investigate it. It doesn’t mean that they had simple solutions of what to do, what was true, what was false – no, but their general attitude was that of suspicion and of distrust, and of willingness to investigate every fact and every slogan of official life. One important thing in the first half of 70s in Poland was popularity gained by a book devoted to literary criticism. Books of literary criticism usually are not very popular, but this particular book was. It was entitled “The Unpresented World” (Úwiat nie przedstawiony, Kraków 1974), and was written by two authors – Adam Zagajewski and Julian Kornhauser. Main thesis of this book was that Polish culture does not represent social world. It was not a political book and it didn’t deal with censorship, the main thesis was just that Polish writers for this or that reason were unable to represent social world. And this thesis, this idea became very popular among young, distrustful, suspicious documentary filmmakers, because this was actually their own conviction that vast important fields of social experience had not been described. They had not been described out of political reasons – that’s the simplest thing, out of censorship because the censorship did not allow entering many important topic in the public life, but it was only one factor. Besides there was also the question of public consciousness – what people are aware of and what they are not aware of. The structures – what is visible, what is not visible. What demands to be described in more profound terms. Kornhauser and Zagajewski put forward a very courageous idea, that things that have not been described in culture don’t exist. It is not enough that an individual has certain convictions and knows something; as long as a given topic, a given idea has not been expressed in public, it doesn’t exist. Many years later Krzysztof Kieúlowski, who was sort of a leader of this group of documentary filmmakers, when asked why the world should be described, answered something which is very important –  for me at least – that it’s very difficult to live in a world which is not described. So Polish documentary filmmakers in the 70s took upon themselves task to describe undescribed reality, being convinced that this is a task of great social importance and moral value, that moral obligation of a documentary filmmaker is to present undescribed world because it is very difficult to live in the world which has not been described.

What it can mean is a matter of  large discussion, which I am not going to get into now. I’d like only to stress here that politics and censorship are only points of departure, that there are many aspects and fields and layers of reality which are not described and from them stem sort of paradoxical definition of documentary, according to which documentary filmmaking is a way of revealing undescribed, unrepresented world by the  visible one, that is, revealing the invisible by presenting the visible. This is one aspect of Polish documentary film tradition which was decisively shaped in the 70s.

The second aspect stems the role of art. It’s not only Polish way of thinking but of many countries in Central Europe. I find this way of thinking in Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian  Czech thinking – the tendency to think of all phenomena of symbolic communication in terms of art, that they belong to the world of art. In particular Polish situation two factors were crucial. First one was Polish history – we didn’t have our state for over 120 years so we could preserve our national identity was by means of culture. Therefore culture fulfilled very important function and artists were sort of leaders of nation. Second thing which was common to all communist countries was that so called mass culture was very thin, almost non-existent. In time after WW2 when there was a big explosion of mass culture in the West, with all good and bad which it brought with it (but mostly the bad I suppose), the communist countries were sort of fenced off  from this. We didn’t have commercial cinema, we didn’t know commercial books and it seemed that there was no need for that. And only after 1989 this fence collapsed and we were flooded by mass culture western style. But it was much later. In the 1970s  everybody who entered the field of culture considered himself or herself an artist. Everybody thinking about these things used categories from aesthetics. So Polish documentary filmmakers of the 70s also thought of themselves as of artists and they were treated as artists and their films were duscussed in terms of art, of metaphors, of symbols, of means of expression, of originality. Documentary didn’t belong to the sphere of information and public education – which was the most common concept of documentary filmmaking in the West – and was not the part of mass culture and entertainment industry – but was discussed in the context of art, as an artistic endeavor. I believe this is not only Polish peculiarity. For example, watching yesterday Czech documentaries about whom I don’t know anything I realized how similar they are to many Polish documentaries and I think that there is common concept which lays at the base of them. So the role of art and artistic attitude was the second thing which formed the tradition of Polish documentary. What stemmed from that was the the natural possibility of making films using broad spectrum of means of expression without limiting themselves to something which could be considered pure documentary. Polish documentary cinema has never had a strong tradition of direct cinema, of observational film. It has never had strong tradition of rhetorical form of documentary, which would fulfill educational or persuasive role. I don’t mean that there were no Polish documentary films like that but they didn’t form mainstream. There was also one organizational factor. The only way to make films in Poland in the 70s was to graduate from film school. That is, someone who didn’t graduate from Lodz Film School (later also from Film School in Katowice) couldn’t make films in Poland. And it was a custom, almost a law, that every graduate should start not with a feature film but with a short film and short film then meant documentary. One should start with documentary no matter whether he was interested in documentary or not, no matter whether he had the inclination toward the documentary or not. The result was that some filmmakers, like, for example Grzegorz Królikiewicz or Wojciech Wiszniewski who had sort of Baroque imagination, who had sort of Gothic visual style, who were soaked with strange images, were forced to make documentary films. In effect they made films which were very intense  emotionally and visually, carefully elaborated, on the brink of what is ordinarily considered documentary form. One more organizational factor was that these young Polish filmmakers were given opportunity to make films in state owned film studios – there were at least 4 studios like that. That meant that they didn’t have to make documentary films for television which was a common habit in western documentary film in the 70s. And they weren’t severely supervised as far as political dimension is concerned. They could make these contestational films, these films of distrust, these films of dissent in Poland in 70s without submitting to strict expectations from the state, without fulfilling political obligation. Two main trends stemmed from the whole situation. The first one was to make films which were sort of social metaphors. A filmmaker made a film about a certain thing, let’s say, about factory, about school, but this film was intended  as a metaphor of a larger situation, usually politically oriented. I’d like to quote what Marcel Lozinski said about that: “Everybody knew when Kieslowski made his film “Factory” it was not only about a difficult situation at the Ursus Plant and when Zygadůo depicted the denunciation and breaking of characters at a certain school he had not only this school in mind. All those films were relating to something that today you call the system. The films were a form of metaphor.” [Marcel Ůoziński, Trzeba odnaleęă ten jeden delikatny ton, “Kino” 1992 nr 8]. This was one current of Polish documentary films in the 70s. The second one is called in Polish  “document kreacyjny” which can be translated as “creative documentary” although it sounds a little bit strange in English. I came across a term “performative documentary” employed, for example, by Bill Nichols, for the same sort of thinking, or else “poetic documentary”. What is meant  by this phrase? “Creative documentary” is a documentary which uses full spectrum of filmic means of expression in order to express what filmmaker wants. Some Polish documentary filmmakers – Wojciech Wiszniewski was the most extreme – wrote what characters said in their films, they had studio setups, they used very strange, full of exression camera movements, colours or the lights, their soundtrack was extremely elaborate and refined, etc. This creative attitude toward documentary meant that you may use everything as long as a certain link with documentary filmmaking is kept. So when our German colleague said two days ago that for him documentary is rather attitude than strict recipe, I fully agree with him and I think this is the way of thinking which also belongs to the tradition of Polish documentary cinema.

I can now conclude this part, summing up what I mean by tradition of Polish documentary as it has been shaped in 70s: documentary film is a form of art. It may make use of wide spectrum of means of filmic expression. Its mission is to uncover unrepresented world from under the veil of ideology. Especially privileged form of expression is metaphorisation.

This entire concept collapsed at the beginning of 90s. First, film studios which in the 70s  gathered documentary filmmakers just collapsed because the state wasn’t interested in sponsoring them. There was a big discussion in Poland, which lasted until quite recently, whether the cinema is an industry or a form of art. Polish authorities couldn’t decide on that. Admittedly, they did sponsor Polish feature cinema, in some part at least, but they decided not to sponsor documentary films at all. So the film studios which produced documentaries either collapsed or they lost founds for documentary films. That was one factor, let’s say, organizational. Secondly, it seemed that there is no need to use methaphors when everything could be said just like that. It stemmed from very a limited understanding of the notion of unrepresented world and of limiting that to the matters of censorship.

So, on the one hand the filmmakers lost their track; the same concerned also other spheres of public life. On the other hand, the sites of Polish documentary film production just lost their financial basis. Instead of state owned studios a hundred some studios were established by filmmakers – usually very small ones, everybody could establish his own studio so you may say that the situation was  better, because there were so many places where one could make documentary films. But this situation had also a dark side – only one institution which used to buy documentary films – the public television. Polish documentary film gained independence from the state - which was good (although this dependence was not extremely harsh in the 70s) - but it became dependent on television. This was quite new, because Polish documentary cinema in its best was independent from television until then. Dependence on television meant that documentary cinema faced all dangers that were brought by television of 90s together with the wave of mass culture. The situation was dramatic, because, as I said before, there was no tradition of mass culture in Poland and in post-communist countries before that. Moreover, television worldwide (or at least westernwide), witnessed a rise of a new phenomenon: commercialization of documentary genre. Until mid-80s documentary film had never been endangered by commercialism. Until the 60s documentaries belonged to the realm of cinema, but they did not take part in commercial circulation of the films. In the 60s they became a part of television but entered mainly the domain of public information and  education not the realm of commercial entertainment. Commercial networks didn’t like documentaries because they knew that there was no big demand for them, so they pushed documentary films to worst hours. For commercial networks documentaries served primarily as a way of fulfilling obligation of social or political mission. They knew very well that mass public doesn’t want to see documentary films. British theorist Hal Himmelstein aptly wrote: “Documentaries have been more than ever second class citizens in the world dominated by melodramatic and comedic television entertainment.” [Himmlestein Hal, Television News and Television Documentary, in: Television: The Critical View, Horace Newcomb (ed), fourth edition, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 280/281.] He wrote that in 1984 and it was quite plain then that it was true but at the very moment the situation began to change. Two new things appeared. First was increasing supply of audiovisual materials documenting reality due to camcorders, public service cameras etc. Many people started to document reality and audiovisual materials of this kind increased dramatically in its amount. Secondly, the audience, which had not been particularly interested in documentary films until then, displayed growing interest in them. In the middle of 80s public started to watch documentary materials. Not sort of documentaries which had been before – a new form of documentary television emerged. It combined documentary material with television entertainment – in two main forms: sensational, when documentary materials filled in the structure of, one, let’s say, police chase film, and  melodramatic when materials about disasters or human mishaps filled in melodramatic structures displaying human fate. And it clicked: for the first time in history general public became interested in viewing documentary material as long as they were combined with structures of entertainment. And a new term appeared which one can come across in the literature from the late 80s – “reality programming” or “reality show”.  According to Richard Kilborn – the author of, I believe, the first definition of this new phenomenon, reality programming involves: “the recording on the wing – (meaning spontaneously - MP) – and frequently with help of the light-weight video equipment the events in the lives of individuals or groups. They attempt to simulate such real life events through various forms of dramatized reconstruction and the incorporation of this material in suitable edited form into an attractively packaged television program which can be promoted on the strength of its reality credentials. The idea of packaging so central to the operations of television in today’s world is a crucial factor in reality programming.” [Richard Kilborn, How Real Can You Get…? “European Journal of Communication” 1994 vol. 9 nr 4, p. 432].

So, Polish documentary in the beginning of the 90s  became dependent on television, and at the same a new trend of commercialization of documentary had risen worldwide (or westernwide at least). What was the reaction? Actually this wave of commercialized documentary filmmaking came to Poland with certain delay – in the second half of the 90s and the reaction of Polish television was twofold. We have actually two big networks of private television in Poland and one network of public television, each of them having several channels. One network of private television is not interested in documentaries at all. Second one is interested in commercial documentaries – that is, they made and they still make many documentary films about sensational events of this or that kind and they broadcast Big Brother. The other thing is public television. Public television responded to this new demand for commercialized documentary filmmaking by a form of docusoap. Between 1999 and 2004 there was real flood of docusoaps in Polish public television. In this five years about 30 big docusoaps were made in Poland, daling with all possible topics. There was a docusoap about newborns and wonder of new life, about army, about farmers, about miners losing their job as a result of reforms in mining, about models, about cheerleaders, about Polish diaspora in the USA, about singles seeking life partner by  single ads, about female city guards, about emergency services, about kids in kindergarten, about orphans, about people taking driving lessons and preparing for driving exam, about people taking part in a contest in which the main prize was a space journey, about female erotic dancers, about single fathers, about alcoholics, about Polish farmers, visiting farms in Western Europe, about Polish troops in Iraq, about debt collectors, about young girls in prison, about the most popular Polish private detective, and several docusoaps about the police. So I would say that the answer of public television to this new hunger for commercial documentaries was docusoap – it seemed to be somehow nobler than Big Brother and sensational documentaries. And this wave stopped dramatically one year ago when the new management of Polish public television decided not to produce docusoaps anymore for the time being. So it was very sharp start and very sharp end.

What is the situation of Polish documentary film now, and documentary film tradition, after this wave of commercialism? I would like to refer to two films which I brought here with me to Riga. First one,“Crowned Rat” was made by Jacek Bůawut, a distinguished polish cinematographer, who made cinematography to some very important Polish feature films and, a distinguished documentary filmmaker. In the 80s he belonged to the current of creative documentary and he made some very important films. Than he sort of disappeared, he left Poland and he made some films in Japan and in some other countries which I know nothing about. And when he got back he took upon himself this challenge of docusoaps and made two docusoaps. One of them was the most popular docusoap in Polish public television – about army, about air cavalry – the brave soldiers who travel by helicopters and descent upon the territory of enemy. The second one was about alcoholics – about circle of alcoholics and this film which I brought here, “Crowned Rat”, is based on this docusoap about alcoholics. Jacek Bůawut just took up certain scenes, certain film material and made up a new story about Michaů Maluda, who was actually a secondary character in his docusoap but became main character in this film. And this film bears numerous traces of docusoap – that is its bad side. It is not fluent and sort of jerking. But I’d like to pay attention metaphorisation, achieved by means of two motives. One motive is that of “crowned rat”. “Crowned rat” is part of hallucination of a drank, his ultimate hallucination, delirium tremens. One may say that this is a hellish dimension of human existence. And the second one is the motive of swallows. So, one may say that this story about this man is spread between two poles, between two oppositions, between, let’s say,  this king of dark side, the “crowned rat” and the second one which is close to heaven. Which means – I’m not sure whether this attempt is successful or not – but I can see in this an attempt to break out of the realm of sheer registration, observation, to refer all this story to something which is not visible, to something which has metaphorical value and I find the connection between this film in this respect and what I said before about tradition of Polish documentary film. And of course this film presents the unpresented world in the simplest form of this word.

Second film, “Generation C.K.O.D.” on the surface is about young generation of Poles, but I think that the most important thing in this film is a reflection upon a situation of rebellion and rebels in the world of media. This group became quite popular as a sort of proponents of rebellion against many aspects of Polish life. For a long time they were, so to say, “offish”, meaning, that they didn’t belong – and didn’t want to belong – to so called “official culture”, werent shown on television, and so on. But at the moment of shooting the film this situation was changing – journalists and television crews started to come, and the group was tempted to join the ranks of commercial entertainers. Piotr Szczepański tries to describe this situation from many points of view, for example, from formal point of view. He uses frames in frames, and many frames one by one and he changes texture of his film and he makes allusions to many other films in order to make sure that the viewer realizes that the main subject of the film is not “Generation C.K.O.D.” as itself but the image of “Generation C.K.O.D.” in media. And making this more general – the subject of this film is a situation of rebels in media culture. Everybody knows that rebellion is a part – very well selling part – of media culture.  So what may be the solution for a rebel being aware that his rebellion is used against him actually, because he may be used as a media package? This theme is tackled upon all the time in conversations between these young people – whether they should allow to be filmed, whether they should enter media culture, whether they should go to record company, whether they should allow television to do with their image what it television wants to do. Or perhaps they should just cut off in a garage and don’t enter this world at all risking loosing their jobs, or perhaps they should try to find their own authenticity in this situation – rebelling and at the same being aware of the fact that their rebellion is used against their intention. And I think that in two places I can find a connection between tradition of Polish documentary and this film – I think first of all – the richness of means of expression is characteristic, as I mentioned before, several textures, image textures and ways of editing material and framing and camera movement. It’s quite visible, that Piotr Szczepański didn’t want to limit himself to sheer observation. Second thing is his attempt to reach a structure of reality, to extend beyond what is visible in an attempt to grasp what is more profound and crucial to this part of reality which he describes. - Home
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