How Do We Look in a Broken Mirror?

Polish Documentary of the 1990s

Wieslaw Godzic

All of us at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival felt a great loss upon learning of the death of Kryzystof Kieslowski, the master director of both feature films and documentaries who served on the International Jury for YIDFF '91. We publish this piece on Polish documentary in his honor.

The Editors

"Interesting reading the filmography of Kieslowski: in the back it becomes apparent that a major portion of his works is documentary"

—a fragment of a letter from the SCREEN-L Internet discussion group


Americans are sincerely surprised that Krzysztof Kieslowski, perhaps the most famous Polish contemporary filmmaker in the world, devoted most of his artistic career to documentary. Such a reaction seems to be characteristic of a contemporary conception of documentary.

This article is aimed at providing an insight into Polish documentary of the 1990s--the period that has followed the "outbreak of democracy" in Eastern Europe in 1989. However, I shall try to avoid assuming the film critic's traditional point of view, which concentrates on enumerating dates, titles, and surnames and, in consequence, may not grasp the most characteristic and significant phenomena. My intention is to diagnose rather than describe. I would like to present my personal opinion on the condition of Polish documentary; that is why this article is not going to be a fully comprehensive study, since questions seem to me more important than univocal answers.

Let us start with a description of one documentary production process as depicted in the book by Sol Worth and John Adair entitled Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology, published in 1972. Adair, a university professor, wanted to carry out an experiment in which the Navajo Indians were to be taught how to make movies and the results thoroughly analyzed afterwards. Adair tried to explain the aim of his visit to the shaman of the Navajo Indians at a reservation in Pine Springs, Arizona.

The shaman Sam Yazzi's first question was,"Will making movies do the sheep harm?" "No chance," Adair answered with confidence. Yazzi brooded for a while and asked again, "Will making movies do the sheep good?" Sol Worth was forced to answer that, to the best of his knowledge, it would not. Yazzi pondered on this and asked, "Then why make movies?"

It seems that as time goes by, more and more people in contemporary Poland ask themselves the same question. Then why should anyone, including those abroad, be interested in typical Polish problems? In my opinion, if one wants to promote mutual understanding (i.e., the situation in which people exchange views and opinions by various means), then one should naturally be interested in what is shown in the media of other nations, since this may contribute to a better understanding of one's own culture. Poland and other Eastern European countries make an interesting illustration of how political or social conditions influence the status of audio-visual media. On the one hand, one may say that the situation of Poland is unique (in comparison with other well-developed, free market economies); on the other, however, it appears typical when confronted with the status of other Eastern European countries.

The situation in contemporary Poland is too often misjudged. Why? First I shall risk a thesis that it is shocking for an average citizen of the West to accept: the statement that living in a pluralist and democratic society is more challenging and difficult than living in a communist system. Although the country was oppressed by both a native and foreign regime, the social status quo made antagonisms clear, and life was, in a sense, simpler. Obviously, the more and more widespread nostalgia for "the former order" is itself an illusion and in error. There are, of course, a number of people who long for the past following the principle: the way it was, was the way it was, but it was; the way it is, is the way it is, but it is not. Both the Catholic Church, which has been a very powerful social power, and other social organizations must face a new problem: communism has been defeated and there is no longer an oppressor, but who is going to rule us now? In other words, who will become our enemy, since having an enemy is a must?

I want to talk about Polish documentary, but I must start by focusing on our social problems. This seems to be a fundamental statement to me: one is mistaken if one takes no account of film's social importance in Poland. I shall present the development and the decline of a particular tendency in Polish documentary on the basis of the latest films by Marcel Lozinski, which seem to match my intentions perfectly.

Let us begin by sketching a general outline of the Polish documentary tradition. In 1955, as so-called "social realism"--"socrealism"--was at its apex, there appeared a group of films which may be called "black" documentary. The films were focused on presenting social problems and conflicts which were banned from official discussion. The films by Borowik, Hoffman, and Skorzewski dealt with such problems as prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and alcoholism. In his history of Polish film, Frank Bren claims that these documentaries reject the idea that a filmmaker captures reality in movement and try to convince the viewer that filmmaking is a subjective phenomenon.1

What is even more crucial is that the "black series of Polish documentary" aroused much interest in the public. Documentaries were widely discussed in the press and during meetings in film clubs (that idea, transferred from France, was extremely important up until the 1980s). Finally, and this seems even more significant, these films preceded the performance of feature films or were shown in special cinemas designed for nonfiction films (the last of which was shut down a dozen years ago).

The public interest in documentary as well as the filmmakers' belief in their participation in a socially significant cognitive act of revealing "the truth" declined only towards the end of the 1970s. The distinction between the realist, "true" documentary and the false one (usually a tool of propaganda) was particularly clear then. The structure of Andrzej Wajda's Man of Marble ("Czlowiek z marmuru," 1976) seems to illustrate this dichotomy in a very convincing way. Four diegetic orders are explored to illustrate various levels of film credibility. Wajda makes use of: 1) authentic film newsreels from the 1950s (black and white), 2) newsreels reconstructed or produced in the 1970s (black and white), 3) fragments which illustrate the protagonists' utterances and show the way "it really was" (color) and finally, 4) a basic diegesis--that is, the story of the making of a movie about Birkut (color). The tension and contrast between the four diegetic orders and the opposition between "fiction" and "nonfiction" provide a unique semiotic context.2

In the 1970s a group of graduates from the Lodz Film School made an attempt to revive the tradition of documentary as understood by Jerzy Bossak, who had been an advocate and follower of John Grierson's concepts. Krzysztof Kieslowski, Marcel Lozinski, and Marek Piwowski believed that documentary could provide "realist" foundations for their future fiction films. They made a series of short nonfiction films, which would be made available to the public only after many years because of the censor's ban and which seem to eclipse their later fiction achievements. In the famous manifesto of the Krakow Group, the filmmakers claimed that the experience gained during the making of nonfiction films should be utilized in work on fiction film. This statement became a principle foundation of the Polish cinema of moral anxiety.

The idea that a documentary is more "true" than a feature film had been accepted by viewers from even before the era of the cinema of moral anxiety. Since nonfiction films preceded the main performance, the viewers used to watch the documentary and leave before the beginning of the feature film, regarding it as unable to say anything true of Polish reality. A quotation from Camera Buff ("Amator," 1979) by Kieslowski--"You just show what you see"--may be helpful in understanding the role of documentary for Polish viewers of the 1970s. Both fiction and nonfiction filmmakers of this period tried to follow this principle.

One may even state that with the establishment of the "Solidarity" movement in 1980, the social value and the "career" of documentary reached its highest peak. For instance, Workmen of 1981 ("Robotnicy '81")--a completely emotional and hyper-realist report of the strikes at the Gdansk shipyard--was regarded as "reality itself" and often contrasted with official television coverage of these events. These "hot" documentaries assumed the point of view of an average man on the street. In addition, one may find here the elements usually associated with feature films, such as personal tragedies or individual stories which are followed by a generalized commentary and reflection.

I, too, participated in these historical events and had an intense impression of incredible "emotional communion" with other Poles. The intensity of these reports' perception could only be compared to the tension achieved during a "religious ceremony." I feel that the documentaries of the first period of Solidarity (from August 1980 to December 1981) were regarded by the viewers as "truth, and nothing but the truth." What is more, if one analyzes this phenomenon in the light of the national experience that followed, it seems that this emotional attitude was a very important, inseparable element in such a unique perception of contemporary film. For young viewers, who cannot share this emotional context, the virtue of authenticity is no longer valid and film turns into the embodiment of a myth.

I would like to refer here to the doctoral thesis of Jadwiga Glowa in which the author tries to interpret Polish documentaries of the 1980s.3 According to Glowa, these documentaries have the structure of myths, the most eminent of which are "the myth of a mission" and "the myth of the average man." The former conveys the conviction that the Polish nation, including its defeats and failures during the fight for independence, is historically unique. The latter implies that the filmmaker should be particularly sensitive to the fate of the poor. Glowa analyzes the so-called "crowd films," which constitute a unique type of documentary in which crowds are presented during group ceremonies and such dramatic events as strikes. On the basis of these films and statements made by critics and the filmmakers themselves, one may identify a new role given to nonfiction filmmakers.

The terminology is very significant here: Polish terms imply that a documentary filmmaker is a director, an artist, not merely a producer or a maker, as he is called in English. Thus, a director of nonfiction films should have the following features:

a. he should not only be an artist, but an educator and a person actively engaged in social work;
b. he should be emotionally involved in the described events and identify himself with, or speak for, the poor and the wronged;
c. he should be a creator of national imagination, an "engineer of human minds and souls";
d. finally, he should not only describe the world, but try to change it as well.

It seems that in order to meet these requirements, a documentary maker should be a god, or . . . just a bit romantic. I should like to recall Erik Barnouw's famous concepts from in his book Documentary. Here is what Barnouw writes about the duties of a documentarist:

Though sometimes surrounded by animosities, documentarists persist, survive, and multiply. They also rejoice in a difficult mission--that of presenting evidence that may shift perspectives.... [D]ocumentarists see a world swirling with chaotic struggles and a perplexed humanity. They see work to be done. Every day, a documentary embarks on some pilgrimage to document something.4

In the case of Polish documentarists, the "pilgrimage to document something" has already been fixed by national and religious myths, and it is difficult to present reality because it is perceived through numerous filters which distort it.

I agree with Glowa's statement that Polish documentaries of the 1980s created myths rather than opposed the establishment or took an anarchist position. The cinema concentrated on creating a certain vision, an ideology rather than describing "life itself." To a large extent, this point of view is different from the concepts presented by Kieslowski, Lozinski, and others who wanted to describe and document the world, whatever it might mean. Western viewers find this difficult to understand because in democratic societies reality is either described or is likely to be described without any constraints, whereas in countries where the distribution of information is channeled and controlled by the authorities, this task seems to be in the least difficult. For this reason the best Polish documentarists of the 1970s tried to grasp reality as thoroughly as they could and to look at it without any prejudices or preconceptions. In this way the world caught by means of the camera was open to interpretation, not complete and unclassified. The images did not imply any univocal sense which would cause a reaction by the censor. A documentarist did not have any thesis he wanted to prove; at best, his only thesis was a conviction that the world was truly complex. Let us follow the progress of this conviction on the basis of the latest films by Marcel Lozinski.

Marcel Lozinski's career has not been typical, since he did not start, as most documentarists of the 1970s did, with documentaries only later to switch to "real" creation--that is, feature films. In one of his interviews, the director claims that he is interested in "documentary creation"; that is, with manipulating reality while also challenging elements that already exist in order to reveal a truth that would not have otherwise been revealed.

Lozinski must have thought of such a manipulation in Happy End (1972) when he presented a report on the actual negotiations between factory workers and their manager. The film was made without any prior script and, as a result, turned into a psychodrama in which the real intentions of the manager and workers are revealed. In the film A Microphone Test ("Proba mikrofonu," 1981), Lozinski focuses on presenting the everyday problems of a local broadcasting center inside a cosmetics factory. The conversations between the factory director and the broadcasting center manager resemble a psychodrama in form; the ideas and matters are less important than the hidden emotions and motivations of the speakers.

Workshop Exercise ("Cwiczenia warsztatowe," 1987) is one of the greatest and most important Polish achievements of the period. My opinion is not only that of a film critic, but also that of a member of the jury at the Krakow Short Film Festival, at which I witnessed a unique turn of events. The film was refused admittance to the main competition, but an independent jury of film critics nevertheless decided to offer it an award. According to the festival regulations, only a film which had been shown in a given year could be given an award. In fact, such a screening only took place during the festival in a projection room at Jagiellonian University. Even though only a few viewers had watched the performance, the requirements were met.

Workshop Exercise was made in one of the gloomiest periods of our history after World War II. After the failure of the Solidarity movement, an atmosphere of hopelessness and a lack of perspective dominated. This explains the results of the film's poll in which young Poles were asked to give their opinions of the present situation. The statements imply the speakers' disapproval of the official communist ideology and government. Sometimes cynicism accompanies desperation, especially when the interviewees express their lack of hope for a better future. In the middle of the film, Lozinski performs a trick, turns the camera around, and suddenly changes the perspective--and this time the same speakers present different views. The voices are different and the order of some of the statements has been changed, edited, and cut out. The effect of this manipulation is stunning: the Poland of 1987 turns into a joyful country of young enthusiastic people who blindly believe in the Party's policies.

In my opinion, the total meaning of the film exceeds its political or social context. One should rather speak of its three modalities:

1. the "obvious" meaning of the film was an accusation against the manipulations of communist propaganda;
2. after some time, the film became a kind of "confession" and act of repentance, an attempt to rehabilitate the cinema as a medium (Wajda's Man of Marble was a similar attempt with regard to feature film);
3. after a decade, it seems that the film expresses a primary disbelief in a documentarist's ability to document reality.

I think that the third interpretation of the film confirms Lozinski's more and more evident doubts as to the meaning of a documentarist's mission. The film 89mm Away From Europe ("89mm od Europy," 1989), which won an award at the Oberhausen Festival, shows the lives of workers who change the wheels of railroad cars at the Beest border station (the title "89mm" refers to the difference between the European track gauge and that of Russia). In one of the interviews which followed the screening of this film that shows two Europes (or rather two worlds), Lozinski said that he was no longer able to make a film about contemporary Poland. The basic difficulty consisted in the fact that Polish reality did not divide people into us and them any more--the division was no longer obvious or clear. Reality had become much more complex, more ambiguous and deprived of any guidelines. This, in turn, must change a filmmaker's perspective; he should acquire a new language, since meaningful winks at viewers are not sufficient any more.

Indeed, Lozinski's new film Anything Can Happen ("Wszystko moze sie przytrafic," 1995) seems to present such this new language and approach towards the viewer. The idea of the film is much more hazardous: the six-year-old director's son challenges elderly people sitting in a park with questions about such issues as the meaning of life, about religion and their greatest successes and defeats. What is more, the child does not just ask: in spite of his young age, he becomes a partner in the conversation. Polish critics who have analyzed the film usually stress the fact that the film illustrates a generation gap typical of every culture. Different generations obviously have different values and goals. However, one should assume a more analytical perspective when interpreting this unique documentary.

The film is a dialogue, a conversation, or an interview. In reference to Bill Nichols's typology presented in Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Lozinski's film seems to be an interesting case of the interactive mode of documentary. An interactive mode implies a filmmaker's actual relationship with the presented world. In this case, the interaction is of a particular kind: we cannot hear or see the filmmaker who makes use of an unusual medium: his son. According to Nichols, a filmmaker

need not be only a cinematic, recording eye. He or she might more fully approximate the human sensorium: looking, listening, and speaking as it perceives events and allows for response. . . . The possibilities of serving as mentor, participant, prosecutor, or provocateur in relation to the social actors recruited to the film are far greater than the observational mode would suggest.5

This is the case with Lozinski's film, but what is most significant is its inherent social meaning. By means of another of Nichols's theoretical terms (used earlier by Michel Foucault)--"technologies of knowledge"--one may suggest that Lozinski's film reveals the gap between old forms of internalized social knowledge (close to the notion of power) and their new manifestation. The former paradigm is characterized by such traditional Polish values as Catholicism, patriarchal domination over women in society, and preservation of the memory of the war. In contrast, the young generation represented by the boy, while not rejecting these values, moves to cancel them, not unlike what an invader does after conquering a country. At that moment, it has not been clearly decided what "new" values are to challenge and replace the "old" ones. Suffice it to say that the "old" ones are useless, illogical, and simply old. This may justify intellectuals' profound worries about the future condition of society.

Bill Nichols claims that even though the interactive mode may take various forms, it is always based on direct contact between the social actors and the interviewer, because the interviewer's questions are directed at the characters, not at the viewers. When analyzing the differences among modes of interviewing, Nichols says,

When interviews contribute to an expository mode of representation, they generally serve as evidence for the filmmaker's, or text's argument. When interviews contribute to an interactive mode of representation, they generally serve as evidence for an argument presented as the product of the interaction of filmmaker and subject.6

In the case of Lozinski's film, the situation is a bit different: the filmmaker has no voice or image, only his substitute or medium does. The child must have been taught or instructed as to which questions he should ask, but one may be sure that he formulated questions a bit different from those instructed. Thus, one may assume that he speaks for himself rather than for the filmmaker. In this way, the filmmaker's intentions projected on the medium are limited and become those of the medium. By means of this shift, Nichols's theoretical model is expanded in a significant way. The theses and statements presented in the film must have been negotiated to a certain extent. These could not have been, however, complete negotiations because of the interviewer's age. As a result, the film turns into a psychodrama of extreme tension between the medium and social actors. One woman even starts crying when asked about her life and begs the child to stop asking.

One may distinguish three spheres in which a transition or transformation has taken place through this film:

1.the film presents the decline of a certain paradigm of values, yet without indicating what should follow or replace them;
2.it shows the possibilities of the interactive mode of documentary, while also forcing the social actors to participate in a psychodrama;
3.the film is an ironic farewell to yet another old paradigm: the tradition of Polish film and that of the "Polish school" in particular (the viewer undoubtedly notices the exaggerated ornaments such as the peacock or the use of Strauss's music, which traditionally have been given particular meanings).

Is then Anything Can Happen the filmmaker's farewell to the previous model of the documentarist's mission and thus evidence of his disbelief in the traditionally perceived social role of documentary? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes. In addition, it is the attempt to deconstruct (in the literal, not Derridian sense) the whole formalist tradition of Polish documentary, to challenge its methods, iconography, and ideology. Many filmmakers recognize this transformation. Here is Maciej Szumowski's opinion as published in The Festival Gazette in 1996:

Some say that Polish documentary is flourishing and that this should be an argument for the revival of a national festival. However, the majority of films are produced by television, which imposes its own vision of the world. Establishing the festival will not be enough to make documentary resemble the greatest achievements of Marcel Lozinski or Krzysztof Kieslowski. Such documentary no longer exists.

Even if such a cinema no longer exists, one may ask whether there are any chances for its revival in the future, especially if one considers how the situation of Polish filmmakers is beginning to resemble that of Western ones. First of all, to understand the present condition of Polish documentary, one should notice that the cultural transformations of Polish society are rapid and influence more people than ever before in history. Seven years ago the society did not know such concepts as advertising, advertising agencies, and so forth. Now, it seems that it lives on advertising and the ideology of consumption. These issues have become the subject of the most interesting documentaries made in the last few years. Filmmakers such as Piotr Szulkin, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, and others deal with the issues of a developing show-business (and sex-business, too) or ponder over the cultural misunderstandings and chaos that result from these accelerated social transformations.

The subject that is missing in the new Polish documentaries is politics. Filmmakers are not apt to touch it, perhaps feeling that, as one of the characters in Workshop Exercise remarks, everything one says "may be regarded as an argument for or against something." I think that viewers have a right to feel deeply unsatisfied: in spite of the occurrence of a few extremely interesting presidential campaigns and parliamentary elections, no documentary dealing with these issues has been made so far.

Finally, one should consider the contemporary channels of documentary distribution. Lozinski and other filmmakers of so-called "high-standard" documentary (which today may be synonymous with "made outside television") claim that television reporting has destroyed documentary. Aversion towards television will not help much, however, since it is now the most powerful documentary producer and perhaps the only channel for its distribution (apart from festivals). Nevertheless, one should attempt to find alternative channels of documentary promotion and presentation. Undoubtedly, television will never replace cinema.

In the title to this article I have used a metaphor of "a broken mirror". What I want to say is that the common conviction that nonfiction film presents the truth (in contrast with propaganda newsreels and TV reports) has no validity any more. Documentary as a mirror reflecting reality has been broken into a thousand pieces. In the 1990s hardly anyone shares romantic ideas about our nation's unique mission. What is even more significant is the consequence of the above--a communicative breakdown between the sender and the receiver in the process of filmic communication. Both should communicate on the basis of common values and it would mean a complete failure of film subculture if filmmakers' and viewers' values were different.

To sum up, after Eastern Europe societies (and filmmakers) have won freedom and democracy, they seem willing to give up most of their historic burden, national tradition, customs, and myths in the face of a new "invader": a culture of consumption promoted by a free market economy. The latter imposes rules according to which everything can be negotiated--of course, this refers to ideas and values, too. Free market economies are open to any new fresh ideas or at least are ready to discuss them. The problem is whether the countries on the other side of the former "iron curtain" will be willing to satisfy the wishes shared by millions of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians.

—Translated by Dr. Kryzystof Loska



1. Frank Bren, World Cinema 1: Poland (London: Flicks Books, 1986): p. 47.

2. See Wieslaw Godzic, "Some Remarks on'Aesopean Communication' in Film," Semiotic Theory and Practice: Proceedings of the Third International Congress of the IASS, ed. M. Herzfeld and L. Melazzo (New York, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1988).

3. Jadwiga Glowa, "Polski film dokumentalny lat 80-tych" (Polish Documentary Film of the Eighties) (Ph.D. diss., Jagiellonian University, 1995).

4. Eric Barnouw, Documentary: A History of Non-Fiction Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): p. 346.

5. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991): p. 44.

6. Nichols, p. 48.

Wieslaw Godzic

Wieslaw Godzic Having received his PhD in the theory of cinema and art at Silesian University, is currently associate professor and head of the Film and Broadcast Division of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Has published books in Polish including Film and Pscyhoanalysis: The Problem of the Viewer (1991) and Viewing and Other Pleasures of Popular Culture (1996) and has written or edited many other works on film and popular culture. With the support of various foundations and scholarships, has travelled to the United States, Eastern Europe, and Norway to further pursued his research on film, media, and popular culture.