«What is most important in Polish culture?» «The Catholic religion», one exclaims. «Brave men», adds another with no delay. Youths of the ultra-conservative right are out having a party. Glasses clink, coy smiles are exchanged. It is all glam.
An active member of the Brotherhood, a young man named Antek, did not fall short of invitation. Both feet on the gold-starred European flag, he dons a black suit for the occasion, adorned by a flamboyant bow tie and a piece of cloth that sits in his breast pocket, with a hint of old-fashioned sophistication peeking out. Such an attire is no stranger to many of his fellow ultra-conservative ‘brothers’ as they come on occasion all buttoned up, swirling around the dance floor with girls who radiate «the pre-revolutionary femininity.» When chic is not on the agenda, the young men of the Brotherhood are out and about staging protests. Lining the streets during the tenth Pride Parade, scores of the black-clad youths brandish assorted placards, tirelessly attempting to conflate homosexuality with paedophilia and whatnot. Declarations of similar tenor uttered through a megaphone ensue, taking the level of absurdity to ever-new heights.
Lensing a person whose political leaning drastically differs from your own can be an arduous exercise for any documentarian. When Hanka Nobis set foot in the radically homophobic Polish Catholic Brotherhood for her debut documentary project Polish Prayers, keeping an open mind was key to understanding its members and what goes behind the curtain. «My intention was to make a film that would portray the many facets of right-wing radicalism and to do so with an open heart», Nobis says. «The first step towards change is understanding.»
Declarations of similar tenor uttered through a megaphone ensue, taking the level of absurdity to ever-new heights.
This approach warrants the film unique access to the ultra-conservative group beyond the boisterousness of its protests. Images captured in the film are also of the group’s daily goings-on as they hike, converse about growing their alliance and camp out in the woods, seeming at ease with the camera and one another. These leisure pursuits bring out a sense of camaraderie within the Brotherhood, which they all seem to cherish, including Antek. Yet, as the film unfolds, Antek grows more and more estranged from the group, coming to grapple with reconciling some of the group’s right-wing Catholic mores with humbling life experiences that he samples. Doubts start to set in, he says, when he falls in love with a girl who shows him that you can be a moral person and have beautiful ideals without believing in God. He starts questioning premarital celibacy, the institution of marriage and ultimately, the existence of God. «Till today, I’d been doing things a bit… Automatically, without much reflection,” he confides to a fellow member of the Brotherhood.
The camera keeps a tight focus on Antek’s character that you cannot help but become drawn to over the course of the film. Despite the complexity of his journey, the film remains undeterred in canvassing its many intricacies. The result is a bruisingly candid observational portrait of the young man whose metamorphosis is delicately captured within the film’s measured chapters. A chasm between Antek—who traverses the political spectrum, perhaps owing to his nuanced sensitivity, young age and unmoored values—and the others in the Brotherhood feels most tangible one hour into the film when we witness Antek on the other side of the barricade, marching, now as an ally, in a colourful pride parade and later in a feminist protest.
Above and beyond Antek’s inner struggle, the documentary reveals the wider reality of homophobia in Poland, a staunchly Catholic country where the LGBT+ community has long faced discrimination. The anti-LGBT animus has further deepened in Poland most recently, with the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość / PiS) fuelling the homophobic sentiment to mobilise conservative voters and instrumentalise it for political gains.