Just before Christmas 1970, strikes and protests broke out among shipyard workers and students in Poland’s port cities over shocking food price hikes. As a Finnish consul departed the scene, alarm hit members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs crisis team as they realised, he might have photos of the unrest on him, and would need to be stopped under some false pretence. «Maybe a car accident?» proposed one. «If he has a camera or case, steal them.» The telephone conversation is one of many archive recordings that exist of exchanges between members of the team as they frantically coordinate logistics to quell the public show of dissent.
Polish director Tomasz Wolski has brought these recordings to life in 1970, which had its world premiere at Nyon’s Visions du Réel, using stop-motion animation to create puppet-like incarnations of the power players, smoking behind their heavy office curtains as they scheme. Their concern over photographs reminds us that propaganda and having control over the engineering of image was everything to the leaders of this repressive political system. Citizen discontent was only a problem if it was shared and witnessed on a large enough scale to fuel outrage and solidarity or an international public relations embarrassment, according to their authoritarian logic. The fewer pictures in diplomatic hands and Western newspapers, the better, the crisis team in Warsaw assumed.
Making films about civil resistance is, of course, a way to wrest the narrative back from oppressive regimes that seek to control populaces by determining the official story, regardless of historical truth, and imposing silence on any inconvenient facts. When shot in the heat of the moment, such documentaries inevitably tend to bring us inside events through the perspective of protesters, for reasons of access and affinity. Sergei Loznitsa’s acclaimed Maidan (2014), for instance, trained its observational gaze on Kyiv’s main square, capturing the evolution and rhythms of grassroots mass mood as demonstrations built, day by high-stakes, violent day, into revolution in Ukraine. More than fifty years after the deadly events of December 1970, Wolski has the advantage of accessible archives to shed light on a different perspective of civil unrest: the then-secret machinations and methods of a cynical regime as it tried to make a very vocal problem go away — at least from the eyes of the world stage.
propaganda and having control over the engineering of image was everything to the leaders of this repressive political system.
The animated scenes, with their muted olive-greens and browns, dial phones and plumes of cigarette smoke, palpably evoke communist times, and a sense of a Warsaw power elite operating in their bureaucratic fortress at a total remove from realities on the ground, even as they relay information and second-hand updates back and forth. This is in counterpoint to the black-and-white archive footage from the era of the tense scenes in the shipyards and streets of Gdansk and Gdynia, as fighting erupted between protesters and police, and strikers chanting «Thieves!» set fire to the building of the Provincial Committee of the ruling party in Gdansk.
As the revolt intensifies, the crisis team advocates more brutal methods to quash it, advocating the firing of live rounds at feet in the crowd and bringing in the military. Fliers justifying the reasons for the price increases (and blaming them on the regime’s foes) are also printed and dropped from the air over the northern cities, in another desperate attempt to control the narrative. Radio Free Europe, the broadcast mouthpiece of US anti-communism during the Cold War, may have gotten wind of the protests, potentially spreading the news and inspiring workers in other communist states, is also voiced by ministers. The sight of tens of thousands of stirred-up and hostile demonstrators is described as «sociologically a different phenomenon» — the courage to resist oppression and call out corruption, when seen by a formerly resigned and docile citizenry, can be contagious, and this is what the communist leadership most feared. Military might is «an essential part of society», the crisis team concluded from the fatal events, rather than voicing remorse.
Impossible to hide
The protesters were dispersed, and a curfew outside working hours and ban on public gatherings imposed, but not before 41 people, some victims as young as fifteen, were killed, and 1,164 injured. More than 3,000 were arrested, in accordance with leadership demands, and their «profiles prepared for television» — a propaganda move to villanise those out on the streets and show that dissent has grave consequences. The protesters, however, garnered much sympathy at home and abroad. Though they stated their aims were economic rather than political, the meaning of the events was clear to many: when a regime will fire at its own impoverished citizens, the manufactured illusion of a future utopia cannot survive. And the evidence is impossible to hide forever.
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