Young and old, post and presocialist, cosmopolitan and provincial, pan-European and concertedly national – these are some of the divisions between the muchdiscussed two Polands. “It’s too simple, but it’s also true,” said a young man in a Warsaw club, who spoke of his trip to Cairo where he and his friends began talking in English when they saw older Polish people, preferring to speak with foreigners rather than their countrymen. “We feel we are European.”

The outlooks of the two Polands permeate the programming, professional organizations, audience responses, and even awards at two proximate documentary festivals: the 7th annual Planete Doc Review in Warsaw in May and the 50th Krakow International Film Festival in June. Founder and director of Planete Doc , Artur Liebhart aims to “cultivate documentary culture,” and make the films “a source of widening horizons,” in contrast to screening them for distribution deals.1)Quotes from Artur Liebhart come from personal interviews and emails with the author between 2009 and 2010. Unless otherwise noted, all other quotes come from personal interviews at Planete Doc and Krakow in May-June 2010. While his Warsaw event focuses on bringing acclaimed foreign documentaries to Polish audiences, the Krakow Festival concentrates on promoting Polish documentaries, plus shorts and animated movies, abroad. According to director Krzysztof Gierat. Krakow’s documentary competition and market stem from its roots as “a window to the world for Polish artists, and for the Polish audience primarily an oasis of freedom.”

The Cove Hunt In Japan

Film critics take pleasure in heralding new waves, as in the case of current Polish fiction films. 2)See Dan Bilefsky, “Polish Film’s Amoral New Wave,” published June 14, 2010 in the New York Times: www.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/arts/15iht-reverse.html_r=1&pagewanted=1&partner=rss&emc=rss But if the differences between the two documentary events appear stark at first, the experience of each festival shows how the two Polands – the nationalistic and internationalistic – simultaneously co-exist. Similar breaks and overlaps appear throughout post-socialist Europe. Yet Poland’s concern with its national identity makes differences of definition particularly visible in documentary’s reflections of reality:

For example, Liebhart’s conservative programming at Planete Doc festival is combined with savvy promotion through his company Against Gravity. During May, housed in the monolithic but multifarious Palace of Culture, the festival screens the most recognized documentaries of the past year, such as the Oscar-winning but overblown The Cove, as well as the lyrical and incisive A Blooming Business [see box]. Films are selected primarily for their disclosing of global issues. Yet its releases are creatively timed to Polish media events, and its festival selections are dynamically propagated through new media, as in an updated version of the communist-era “Houses of Culture.” The company’s collection of Indian documentaries came out with the DVD distribution by another firm of Slumdog Millionaire, and its set on China with the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing. The festival’s over 37,500 spectators via its Video-On-Demand service equalled its numbers in theatres. While in three days, its “Weekend with Digital” screened six films in twenty cinemas simultaneously outside of Warsaw. The coordination is conducive to the debates between audiences in the capital with other cities.

At the Krakow festivals it is fast revealed that both mindsets are at work: one presiding at the Polish Filmmakers’ Association, and another at a panel on Polish documentary at the training session Virtually Yours! The mindset is not determined by age, as producer Krzysztof Kopczyński of Eureka Media both presented the report on documentary at the Association, and also gave the panel’s keynote.

At the Association, Kopczyński concluded that members would need a couple of years to develop marketing skills, attract Englishspeaking critics and appeal to international festivals. But the Q&A session that followed showed the resistance to his recommendations, and that a belief in the sheltered author persists within the socialist state. 3)In Polish, this attitude is called “postawa roszczeniowa”. “We like to moan,” as a young volunteer says in Cockney tones. You would not know from the complaints that Polish documentaries earn international acclaim while adhering to a set of traditions.

Dorota Roszkowska organizes the Virtually Yours! training for opportunities in new media, as well as the pitching session Dragon forum at Krakow. She attributes the distinction of Polish documentary to qualities evident in its recent films: First the respectful observation, like the concentration on patients’ faces in Chemo; then the preservation of humanist sympathy with unexpected angles, as in the portraits of isolated men in The Dog Hill; and third, the distillation of a society, as in the summation in Underground Women’s State of the post-socialist nation’s 1993 laws which only target those who help a woman to have an abortion.

In the past year, such characteristic traits have brought Polish documentaries renown: Poste Restante won the European Film Award for its examination of undeliverable letters in the country. Six Weeks was awarded Best Short Film at IDFA for its exploration of mothers’ decisions to give up their children for adoption, including shots recreating the newborns’ points of view. And Rabbit à la Berlin received an Academy Award nomination for its narration of how the wall dividing east and west Europe became a preserve for hares. 4)In an interview on the website of the Czech Institute of Documentary Film, the filmmakers note the liberties they took with archival footage to convey the rabbits’ point of view: www.dokweb.net/en/documentary-network/articles/keyword-rabbit-847/?tag=1 The works’ filmmakers span ages of Polish documentary, from Poste’s director Marcel Łoziński, whose name symbolizes the approach employed by a documentary school, to Rabbit’s producer Anna Wydra, whose international perspective was responsible for the film’s Oscar recognition. 5)For Łozinski’s stature within Polish documentary, see Tadeusz Lubelski’s history of the form to 2001: www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/es_film_dokumentalny

Director Agnieszka Odorowicz of the Polish Film Institute envisions another system for exploiting documentaries, by restructuring her Institute’s system of classification: Rather than accepting submissions for fictions, animations, and documentaries, the Institute would categorize them as authors, historical, or family films, supposedly in ascending order of appeal. As Odorowicz noted, the recommendation has already made documentarians and animators start to fear that their projects will receive less support in competition with fictions, while it is meant to clarify their budgetary needs and distribution possibilities. 6)This year the PISF instituted a competition for sales agents for the promotion of Polish features, complementing its initiative for the promotion of Polish documentaries. They can currently provide up to 50% of a film’s finances, although in the case of an author’s film this can be raised to 70%.

As Planete Doc’s selections can expand with its promotions, the programs of short fictions, animations, and documentaries at Krakow, can also be programmed more coherently.7)Studio Munka fulfills the function of the socialist-era film council, in its production of young filmmakers’ first professional works through the series: Thirty Minutes (fiction), Young Animation and First Documentary. Deficiencies in the two Polands could be remedied and enriched by mixing the principles of each film event.

The many Dragons awarded in Krakow included three national prizes for the same film by Marcin Koszałka, the sacred monster of Polish documentary, for his exposure of what he calls “the toxicity of the Polish family.” He won the Student Jury, the President of the Polish Filmmakers’ Association, and the People’s Choice awards for The Declaration of Immortality. This work, about a great mountain climber about to retire, includes impressive cinematography, such as the moment when one climber plummets down in silent slow motion. Koszałka calls the documentary a tribute to film as a medium “against the degradation of video.” His picture alters the views of the Film Institute, showing that an author’s name does not only need protection, but can also be the driving force behind commercial success.

Just as rebels may be tempered by conservative streaks, Poland retains both the weight and momentum of a time of transformation.


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References   [ + ]

1. Quotes from Artur Liebhart come from personal interviews and emails with the author between 2009 and 2010. Unless otherwise noted, all other quotes come from personal interviews at Planete Doc and Krakow in May-June 2010.
2. See Dan Bilefsky, “Polish Film’s Amoral New Wave,” published June 14, 2010 in the New York Times: www.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/arts/15iht-reverse.html_r=1&pagewanted=1&partner=rss&emc=rss
3. In Polish, this attitude is called “postawa roszczeniowa”.
4. In an interview on the website of the Czech Institute of Documentary Film, the filmmakers note the liberties they took with archival footage to convey the rabbits’ point of view: www.dokweb.net/en/documentary-network/articles/keyword-rabbit-847/?tag=1
5. For Łozinski’s stature within Polish documentary, see Tadeusz Lubelski’s history of the form to 2001: www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/es_film_dokumentalny
6. This year the PISF instituted a competition for sales agents for the promotion of Polish features, complementing its initiative for the promotion of Polish documentaries.
7. Studio Munka fulfills the function of the socialist-era film council, in its production of young filmmakers’ first professional works through the series: Thirty Minutes (fiction), Young Animation and First Documentary.
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Gabriel M. Paletz

Gabriel Paletz, Ph.D (screenwriting), with a BA from Yale University and PhD from the University of Southern California, is the first PhD graduate from the University of Southern California to study film theory and practice at the same time. Dr. Paletz has taught film history, criticism and production at College of William and Mary, Duke University and USC.