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 Throughout the 1970s and (after Martial Law was repealed) the 1980s, Polish documentarians would produce daring films that shed light on the individual’s relationship to the institutions of power and the limited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.

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.

Polish documentary

Two Worlds

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.

polish documentary

Close Ties

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.

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.

Polish documentary


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.

Polish documentary


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).

Polish documentary

The Walking Spark

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.

Polish documentary

Polish documentary


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.

  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
  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.

About The Author

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.

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