"Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu" no. 5/2020


Re-remembered dolls

Klara Cykorz


Sooner or later, children discover that the gender division (which is obvious, but at the same time mysterious, sometimes irritating, sometimes exciting – depending on what kind of a child you are at that particular moment) also applies to professions. There are more “feminine” and more “masculine” professions – one learns this by looking at the grown-up world, the TV, and colouring books. There are more moms who are nurses than dads who are nurses, and it’s obvious that a dad will be driving a tractor more often than a mom; your uncle is more likely to be a firefighter than your aunt, and usually the only man employed in a kindergarten is the janitor. A man can be a great fashion designer, but your local tailor will be a lady, not a man from the neighbourhood. A child begins to understand these things, even if their home is an exception and it is their dad who stitches things up or together. The explanations as to why (where, since when) it is so, will not appear all at once, they trickle out through the years, evolving, changing, and being subject to reappraisal.

And now I’d like to ask the readers of “Pleograf” to imagine a world in which the profession of film director is just like, maybe not that of kindergarten teacher, but maybe like a school teacher or shop assistant. A world in which film directing bears connotations of something between taking care of children and ballet, between cooking dinner and accounting.

Zdjęcie autorki tekstu z dzieciństwa

The primal director's gesture, from the author's private archive

Women are naturally predisposed to becoming film directors, as was observed several years ago in The New Yorker by Joey Soloway, one of the most expressive creators in American television of the last decade. (Their Transparent was one of the most radical titles of the new wave of “artistic”, feminist, queer TV. A profile by Ariel Levy was published in December 2015, before Soloway came out as a non-binary person, and is strongly rooted in the opposition between “women” and “men” in the film industry). We all know how to do it [direct]. We fucking grew up doing it! It’s dolls. How did men make us think we weren’t good at this? It’s dolls and feelings. And women are fighting to become directors? What the fuck happened?[1].

I remember reading it, and I remember how the association made between directing and dolls struck me with its refreshing obviousness (like when a glass of water makes you realise how thirsty you actually were). But the most important part here was the past tense: what the fuck happened? Soloway didn’t use the conditional, they didn’t ask us to imagine anything. They referred to the past – the memory of a world in which playing with dolls is the first, the primal, gesture of a director.

This is also my past: a world in which directing is gendered, just like taking care of children or accounting. This is neither utopia nor fantasy. A memory: once it has been stirred, it becomes full of concrete dates, names, titles, and physical praxis. Coincidence, but nonetheless possible; a resultant of limited, but nevertheless pre-existing, possibilities and some ethos.

As a small girl, I believed that, for women, film direction was an area much like school. People read to me (it is actually my mom’s superhuman abilities that hide under this impersonal form); I watched a lot of Polish People’s Republic films for children on the TV, adaptations of popular books. Thus, I was introduced to the avant-garde sensibility by Wanda Jakubowska and her King Matthew I (Król Maciuś I, 1957), to realism by Anna Sokołowska and her Bułeczka (1973), a screen adaptation of the novel by Jadwiga Korczakowska (I had these two films on video tape, recorded from the TV and I still know them by heart. It might be important for this elaborate anecdote to mention that before I learnt to read, I was fascinated by opening and ending credits – I even named one of my plastic dolls after a dubbing director). I loved Hanna-Barbera cartoons; how was a small Polish girl to know that “Hanna” and “Barbera” were the surnames of two men? (Still in love and in disbelief). My initiation to grown-up social problem films came quite early, when I saw Crows (Wrony) by Dorota Kędzierzawska (1994); a terribly depressing film, almost psychedelic in its darkness, shot in the familiar architecture of nearby Toruń. (Several years later, when I was in junior high, Kędzierzawska came to Chełmno to shoot I am [Jestem, 2005]; we were excited by what was probably just a rumour: during the casting, it was said that kids were allowed to smoke cigarettes). The film world seemed close and accessible (Prussian bricks in Kędzierzawska’s work) and without limits (the classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett was brought to the silver screen by a female Polish director; a real irony of fate, considering Agnieszka Holland’s complicated lot as an emigrant director). When I was approaching the end of primary school, my dad had the completely mad idea of showing me Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977), in which Krystyna Janda clearly overshadowed Wajda with her on-screen charisma. I enjoyed dressing up like her (Janda, that is) and walking around (with a brisk step) in a denim jacket. But this was already the twilight of my faith, my belief in the femininity of the profession of director. In the last grade of primary school, I came up with a masculine alter-ego for my tomfoolery with film. This, however, is a completely different story, which shall be told another time.

What’s important is the fact that my curious childhood mistake did not stem from making something up or having an overactive imagination, but from distorted proportions – mistaking a significant minority for a majority (a rather popular mistake, the main building block of worldviews). This mistake of mine had its internal logic: it resulted from a particular cultural capital (books) and nationality (the significant place taken by a Polish woman, Jakubowska, in post-war cinematography). And finally – from the affinity of cinema for children and about children with the femininity of education, as well as the opportunities given to female directors (Sokołowska would be a classic example here), but only within the realm of cinema for the youngest viewers, which was not very prestigious. The latter was once called the second strategy for exclusion by Krzysztof Tomasik[2], Monika Talarczyk also wrote about opportunities that simultaneously become exclusion[3]. But I did not know anything about this. I did not know that I could be an unimportant viewer, or one important only from the commercial perspective of studios that invest in family cinema. (Notabene, if I had been an American girl waiting for the feature debut of a female director from Disney’s studios, I would have waited until my adulthood).

This belief was also rooted in particular ways of playing: of course, some boys could be convinced to play house or theatre, but football was their default performance; moreover, boys who showed too much interest in dolls risked being bullied. In this sense, films and television plays – not necessarily puppet theatres, also those featuring actors – had more to do with the kind of play that is tacitly meant for girls. Incidentally, Bułeczka by Sokołowska includes a double plot – one with a woman director and one with a girl director. The titular character, Bronia, nicknamed Bułeczka, played by Katarzyna Dąbrowska – who would later be cast in Queen of Bees (Królowa Pszczół, 1977) by Janusz Nasfeter – lives with her distant family: her uncle, her cousin (the same age as her), and their housekeeper. The mother of the cousin, and aunt of Bułeczka, is a theatre director and is absent for most of the film. The film’s action takes place in Wrocław and the aunt works in Koszalin – she’ll only be brought back home by her daughter’s serious illness. I don’t remember interpreting this sad plot as being critical of the professional and artistic careers of women; I knew that the film itself was directed by a woman (the handwritten opening credits in Bułeczka were particularly attractive), and in my mind the absent mother was just like the fathers of children I knew who travelled to work in Sweden or Germany; I was too small to make a distinction between these cases. The family being apart was the sad thing, not that the mother was a professional artist, even if the main character, Bronia, who has a predilection for directing, says to the aunt (when she sees her in flesh for the very first time) that if you are a director, you must leave your little daughter. To this, the aunt answers that she lives with the hope that she’ll eventually be able to come back home and return to Dziunia and Bułeczka every single day[4].

Bułeczka, dir. Anna Sokołowska, 1973, poster by Maciej Żbikowski, source: FINA

In the most remarkable scene of the film, Bronia performs or, in effect, stages a play in the dining room, in front of an audience of stuffed animals and dolls – The Princess on a Glass Hill. Her sour-faced cousin Dziunia plays the princess while Bronka wears a pot on her head, as she has cast herself as the brave knight. A fictional storm is raging (the sun shines outside the window). The show ends with mangled cacti and the fire brigade invading the house. I tried to recreate the complicated set of the Glass Hill for several years with no success. (Recreating the scenes from the train and Dziunia’s room was much easier – it was enough to reorganise the pillows on the sofa in a certain way). Home theatre and film permeated each other.

And I stand my ground: this femininity in directing was not merely fabricated to obscure or enrich the reality I witnessed. I misconstrued information that was (in a way) diligently collected (what was so attractive about the opening and end credits, if not the truth: the truth of production, the truth of the backstage, the most important questions: but how is this done, but how does it work?). Apart from Ms Hanna and Ms Barbera, all the female creators and directors listed were or are real individuals. This feminine world of the art of film directing was not real, but it was not completely unreal either. It was a small world, but concrete enough to eat into the distinction between presence and absence. I do not need to fantasise, to imagine a world in which directing is a much more feminised profession – all I need to do is to remember it. The masculinised culture of cinema is haunted by the memory of feminised cinema[5].

Obviously, the consequences of this are two-fold. On one hand, it is associated with a sense of loss (What the fuck happened?). On the other, it provides a surprising perspective (if a world in which directors are female used to seem obvious, “commonplace”, I don’t need to apologise or feel guilty every time I express my anger towards the discriminatory structures of the film industry). This is a memory of a radically different (or even simply radical) thinking about myself and the world that I would like to protect from infantilization and reification as a sentimental cliche. The memory of childhood cinephilia does not have to be a memory of “enchantment”[6]. The figure of an innocent child ‘seduced’ by cinema is based on an insidious opposition – between child and adult, between an irrational subject and a subject-who-knows. Whereas it seems to me that it would be a shame to leave the paradoxical position of the grown-up-viewer and critic towards the child-viewer to the mercy of nostalgia and sentimentalisation of the child’s experience. It is not about considering the child-viewer, this anthropological ‘other’, who almost all of us used to be at some point, to be a source of some “primal” or “authentic” cinephile experience. Just the opposite: it is about seeing, remembering the child as an interpreter who creates a kind of knowledge and about treating this knowledge seriously, as a challenge to our grown-up, reasonable customs and sensibility.  


Translated by Monika Folkierska-Żukowska 

[1] [accessed on: 6.10.2019] [back]
[2] K. Tomasik, Polskie reżyserki filmowe [Polish female film directors] 1919–2002, “Kultura i Historia” [Culture and History] 2004, nr 6, [accessed on: 6.10.2019]. [back]
[3] M. Talarczyk-Gubała, Biały mazur. Kino kobiet w polskiej kinematografii [The White Mazurian. Women’s cinema in Polish cinematography], Poznań 2013, s. 321–323. [back]
[4] On one hand, Monika Talarczyk interprets the motif of the mother in Bułeczka and the scene of the conversation in the kitchen from the perspective of a realistic fairy tale, and, on the other, through the sense of guilt of the working mother. M. Talarczyk-Gubała, op. cit., p. 355. [back]
[5] The ontologically uncertain status of this world-memory brings me closer to the “hauntology” perspective. Grzegorz Grochowski writes in the introduction to the “hauntology” issue of “Teksty drugie”: The main property of a phantom seems to be even on the level of colloquial understanding the haunting phenomenology of something immaterial […]. On top of this common reading, academic interpretations are built, in which the phantom form is usually meant to be a figure of paradoxical existence beyond oppositions (presence/absence, spirit/matter, active/passive, animation/deadness etc.), that which both is and isn’t, suspended between being and non-being visible, although elusive. Spectral analysis thus emphasizes the role of cognitive mediatisation, reveals the broad scale of intercession spanning between the polar opposites... G. Grochowski, Numer nawiedzony [The haunted issue], “Teksty Drugie” [Second texts] 2016, nr 2, s. 8–9. [back]
[6] Por. A. Helman, Spojrzenie dziecka metaforą kina [A child's perspective as a metaphor of cinema], “Kwartalnik Filmowy” [Film quarterly] 2013, nr 2; R. Koschany, Dziecięca kinofilia [Child cinephilia], tamże; R. Koschany, Baśniowe małe kina [Fairy-tale small cinemas], [in:] Bajki dla Janki [Fables for Janka], red. K. Kuczyńska-Koschany, J. Maleszyńska, J. Szczęsna, Poznań 2003. [back]


Keywords: women’s cinema in Poland, children and youth cinema, Anna Sokołowska, reception

Klara Cykorz – graduate of cultural studies, film critic, award recipient in the Krzysztof Mętrak competition (2018). She has her own column, “Gadanie” [talking] in “Dwutygodnik” [Fortnightly], devoted to TV series.

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