"Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu", no. 5/2019


Present Moments of the Past – On Contemporary Creative Documentaries in Two Variations[1]

Katarzyna Mąka-Malatyńska


Wojciech Wiszniewski

Wojciech Wiszniewski, 1980, fot. Piotr Jaxa, source: Forum

Out of all the creative documentary filmmakers, Wojciech Wiszniewski remains the most influential among contemporary documentarians. The impression is to some extent driven by the fact that the author of Primer (Elementarz, 1976) has consistently employed surprisingly clear poetics which, in turn, have made all references to his movies easily identifiable. That does not mean, however, that they’re based on simple allusions or hints. In her essay tracing the relationship between Marcin Koszałka’s Declaration of Immortality (Deklaracja nieśmiertelności, 2010) and Wiszniewski’s work, Urszula Tes meticulously identifies references to Wiszniewski, whose existence was corroborated by Koszałka himself[2], notices similarities of attitudes toward the characters with regard to the reality captured on film and presumed audiences. The essence of this artistic understanding seems to lie in the fact that both filmmakers strike a balance between feature and documentary, using the means and devices reserved for action flicks, thus flouting the arbitrary and artificial line between creation and representation[3], Tes also identifies the contradictions – shifts in the meanings of individual narrative devices that ultimately produce different, albeit not contradictory, artistic visions: Wiszniewski’s work, based on symbol, metaphor, and allegory, meshes quite well with the vision proffered by Koszałka who, since his 2007 effort Existence (Istnienie), has been veering ever closer toward symbolic, baroque concepts based on intense contrasts meant to elicit cognitive discomfort in the audience. Wiszniewski’s work is dominated by symbols and allegories rooted primarily in history and national mythology, a notion that has been thoroughly explored in available literature. Although symbolic thinking is present in Declaration..., it mostly references rather universal meanings[4].

Today, clear traces of Wiszniewski’s poetics can be found in the work of Marcin Koszałka as well as in more recent examples, of which I picked two for further examination: Piotr Stasik’s Opera About Poland (Opera o Polsce, 2017) and Marcin Strauchold’s Plica Polonica (2017). The vision of the meaning and function of the documentary implicit in both pictures seems to converge with both Wiszniewski’s ideas and his artistic practice. In his diploma thesis, the future director of Primer wrote: The role of documentary artist should be to inform the society as to the current state of reality rather than to obfuscate it. This is how we should define the social engineering aspect of filmmaking[5]. A couple of years later, he added: By touching on matters of paramount importance, the artist becomes the marshal of collective emotions. (…) In my opinion, an artist’s self-actualization stems only from his ability to sense and express the collective experience. (…) I don’t want, however, my notions to be accepted without question. What I do want is to lock the viewer into a dialogue, with full respect of both parties’ right to their own opinions. But in order to make such a discourse possible, I have to flesh out both the pros and the cons[6].

Piotr Stasik is also perfectly aware of the influence that a documentary can carry. He believes that documentary filmmaking can and should change society, with the baring of wounds and weaknesses being the starting point of the process: I believe the cinema has causative power, and that a picture might give rise to a process of collective psychotherapy which we sorely needs as a nation. (…) Only after we manage to break out of this torpor, after we identify our weaknesses, name them, tame them, will we be able to implement real change in our lives[7]Opera About Poland is a collage in which the documentarian attempts to use contemporary and archival images, as well as intimate and public declarations, in order to examine what being Polish means nowadays and what Poles themselves are like. The idea behind the film, therefore, seems especially close to Wiszniewski in his capacity as the author of Primer, once described as a portrayal of the Polish spiritual landscape of the mid-1970s[8]. Stasik speaks openly of being inspired by Wiszniewski’s seminal work: As part of our coursework on documentaries at the Wajda School, we were shown hundred best Polish documentaries, including Wiszniewski’s Primer. Although brief, the film shocked me profoundly, it was the first time ever that I felt that this was the type of film I was interested in making. I was very fond of his elusive storytelling, his poetry-like form. Memory of the film came back to me right after I started work on Opera About Poland. Even though I tried to avoid any direct associations, the more I tried to steer clear of Primer, the more I realized that I would not be able to complete my film without engaging with Wiszniewski’s picture in a sort of dialogue[9]. The two films differ quite a lot, something we will explore later in this essay. We should note here, however, that the difference in scale between the two is visible at first glance: Wiszniewski’s film is an unassuming, eight-minute-long piece, incredibly compact and filled tightly with meanings; Stasik, on the other hand, produced a forty-minute-long essay, shot in multiple locations with a large cast.

The specific production and distribution character of Strauchold’s short film  created as a film school study piece  precludes us from making any direct references to any of the author’s statements or interviews. This, in turn, leaves us with only the work itself as the object of our contextual analysis. Like Wiszniewski’s work, Strauchold’s short is more an attempt at synthesis than at developing a complex line of argumentation; although short, the film still aspires to draft a comprehensive description of the social or, to put it more precisely, national reality, while its ultimate goal is to shake the conscience of the audience. While trying to diagnose why the plait became so prevalent in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Poland, the author paints the portrait of a more contemporary Poland, drawing parallels between the past and the present, he identifies intractable faults of Polish mentality, faults embodied by the plait. The plait is usually a product of worry and misfortune, nearly all men suffer from it, but not all afflicted suffer because of it, declares the narrator of the film, pulling quotes from seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century medical treatises[10]. In 1978, responding to a Kino magazine survey, Wojciech Wiszniewski wrote: The reality that surrounds us is anchored in the past. I myself, as part of that reality, am rooted in time past. In my films, I try to make the audience realize that particular sense of continuity[11]. This view of the past through the lens of the present endures in nearly all of Wiszniewski’s shorts. Primer, however, remains the best example thereof. The film opens with a long dolly shot along walls adorned with portraits of Polish kings and then cuts to a shot of a figure wearing a black cloak embellished with white letters walking down a hallway. Then, the voice-over comes on, speaking words that seem taken out of a textbook: Although the author of the Primer is dead, his idea lives on, eternal. And so, already in the prologue, a story about a schoolbook for reading practice becomes inextricably linked with Polish history. From now on, the past will be an inherent part of the present.

frame from Elementarz

frame from Primer, dir. W. Wiszniewski, 1976

The notion of socially impactful documentary is not the only common link between the works of Wiszniewski, Stasik, and Strauchold. The ingenuity and novelty of Primer and Wiszniewski's other films, as well as the two contemporary pictures, is rooted primarily in their form – that of the creative documentary. It seems that both Stasik and Strauchold are particularly attached to Wiszniewski’s view of creation in documentary filmmaking and the relationship between reality and its cinematic representation that constitutes its foundation. In his attempt to conceive a more comprehensive definition of documentary cinema that he included in his diploma dissertation, Wiszniewski wrote: The author of the documentary performs a peculiar process of symbolization, a transposition of social reality into the language of visual and auditory signs. The viewers, therefore, are presented with enciphered elements of reality. And they accept the film only when their interpretation thereof seems consistent with their own perception of reality[12]. Thus, the director of Wanda Gościmińska, a Textile Worker (Wanda Gościmińska. Włókniarka, 1975) draws attention toward two significant elements of documentary filmmaking: the mediating function of the sign and its original (that is: subjective) character. Mirosław Przylipiak offered commentary on the former in his overview of documentaries representing the creative strain of the genre: Their exploitation of the weakening of the relationship between the filmic reality and the filmic image is based on treating finished footage more like an assemblage of signs used to create new meanings than a photograph whose impressions need be described using their social coordinates[13]. During production, this particular way of thinking translates into the use of specific means of cinematic expression, such as special visual effects (slow-motion footage, time-lapse footage, double exposure, etc.), unusual angles and camera direction, and deliberate distortions in sound design and profilmic space, which is subject to numerous scenographic interventions[14]. Borrowing a term from poetry analysis, Stefan Czyżewski calls the character and selection of means representative of the creative documentary an oversystematization[15]. The creative character in Wiszniewski’s vein also implies invoking a precisely defined arrangement of symbols: To put it differently, Wiszniewski wrote in his master’s thesis, it is about communicating a picture of national culture or its specific, detailed manifestations, or its synthetic outline, its essence, using forms of expressions that are commonly understood within that particular cultural environment[16].

In one interview, Stasik stressed that Opera About Poland is not a sociological essay, but rather an attempt to write a poem about my home country[17]. Consequently, he drew attention not only to the emotional tone of his film, but also to its form, which veered much closer to poetry and away from the precepts of observational cinema. Thus, Stasik’s film fell well within the traditions of the creative school of documentary filmmaking: Polish documentarians are fond of individual stories, unusual figures, smaller communities. This focus on the micro scale is often accompanied by a "fly-on-the-wall" filming style, pursued in order to remain transparent toward the viewer and loyal toward the character. None of these characteristics can be found in Stasik’s effort. Instead, the director immediately imposes a comprehensive vision of his picture, painting a portrait of the collective, the mass, the (let’s not shy away from the word) nation. He openly manipulates the messages and merges the filmed faces of his countrymen with a specific, not exactly affirmative, vision of reality[18]. In Plica Polonica, a rare example of creative documentary among the shorts produced by the students of the Łódź Film School, the narrative structure is also nearly completely subordinate to the line of argumentation, most of the featured situations are staged, and camera angles rarely reflect the perspective of any of the characters. The deliberate artificiality is palpable almost from the very opening shot.

This insincerity ultimately becomes fuel for grotesque and irony – two overarching categories, organizing both Wiszniewski’s masterpieces of the short film form as well as the contemporary productions discussed herein. Invoking these categories resonates with the belief in the social importance of documentaries. Michał Głowiński wrote: The first and foremost quality of grotesque is that it challenges presumed notions embedded in our social consciousness (or imposed thereupon), negates widely accepted notions about the world, our behaviors, history, social life, psychology, and that, subsequently, it questions the sanctioned axiological order[19]. Grotesque is not cynical, because although it is itself a critique of a specific value system, it ultimately does not deconstruct that system fully, but instead rearranges the existing elements into a new order of values.

In Strauchold’s film, grotesque is born of the juxtaposition of the plait narrative, itself inspired by medieval treatises, with (staged) portrayals of contemporary Poland, ultimately reaching its peak in the finale, in which a letter from the director of the museum which has a preserved plait on display is read out: The plait is not, nor has it ever been, evidence of hypocrisy or backwardness, but only of what we now know to be a misunderstanding of medicine. We believe that even the possibility of associating the plait, regardless of whether by metaphor or generalization, with the broadly accepted cultural depiction of obscurantism, is reason enough to refuse your petition to use said exhibit in your film. Mere moments later, however, the solemn figure of the museum director seems to jokingly wink at the authors of the film and the audience: And between us, you could easily make a similar plait yourselves. Then, we transition to the formal presentation of the exhibit, carried by elegantly dressed men resembling funeral parlor employees. Ferried on a litter, the plait glides in front of a static camera, finally disappearing through a pair of open doors. But what we’re watching is not a funeral. The first bars of Chopin’s Funeral March quickly give way to Wagner’s Bridal Chorus. A symbol of our many faults, the plait cannot be simply buried; it’s destined to linger a long time, maybe forever.

Thus, grotesque becomes an aesthetic dominant in Strauchold’s film. Stasik’s Opera About Poland, however, remains unbridled by it. Instead, it embraces irony as a device to unmask the makeshift character of the reality it describes. Drawing primarily on the usage of specific words or phrases – sometimes they are incredibly critical of the current situation in Poland, while at other times they’re seemingly banal, like newspaper ads, or emotional, like intimate confessions. Their diverse nature meshes well with the collage-like structure of the film, manifested at nearly every organizational level. Most importantly, however, in each case they’re employed in a highly ironic manner. At times, irony may seem an immanent quality of the quoted text, e.g. Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dziennik pisany później (Journals Written Later)[20], or the custom narrative written for the film[21]. Sometimes, the irony emerges on the intersection of text and picture, like in the scene portraying the preparations for the Corpus Christi procession, accompanied by passages from a statement from the Polish Parliament’s Press Office commenting on a recent request to say mass for rain, or the scenes in which shots of picturesque Polish towns and villages are set against the controversial sermons of Fr. Piotr Natanek, an ardent proponent of enthroning Jesus Christ as the King of Poland by the country’s lay and religious authorities[22]. As noted by Michał Głowiński, irony is the antithesis of official, normative thought[23]. By definition, therefore, Stasik’s message is supposed to express the artist’s own views and contradict the official image of the country.

Plica Polonica

frame from Plica Polonica, dir. Marcin Strauchold, 2017

Naturally, the relationships between the work of Wiszniewski and the films of Stasik and Strauchold observed at the macro level (attitude towards documentaries in general, the reality–film relationship, categories such as grotesque and irony) are also reflected on the micro scale: in the staging of individual scenes and narrative sections, in staging methods, the use of words and music, in camera direction and unusual camera angles. The parallels are especially clear in Plica Polonica. Like Wiszniewski in Wanda Gościmińska, a Textile Worker, the author split the film into individual parts, clearly identified with a custom signal and captions: Diagnosis, Causes, Symptoms, Course of Illness, Treatment, Testimony. They seem to closely mirror the highly-ordered structure of a medical diagnosis sheet. We should note, however, that the closing sequence of Strauchold’s short – the unfinished burial of the plait – is a direct reference to the story of the model textile worker or, more precisely, its epilogue: young workers ride the elevator to the top of a newly erected building, from which they gaze out at construction work and buildings rising all around them. The visual is accompanied by an incredibly drawn out rendition of Dąbrowski’s Mazurka. Like Wanda..., an early section of the film features the camera moving like a pendulum, revealing another character with each swing. The film also includes multiple shots of a crowd looking silently into the lens. Such posed crowds are a recurring motif in Primer. Gościmińska rarely speaks into the camera, too; most of the time her voice is coming in from off screen. Her manner is careful, studied, although the delivery clearly marks her as an amateur. Strauchold goes a step further – and altogether strips his characters of speech, leaving them nothing except the ability to cough. Isolated wheezing sometimes coalesces into collective, "national" coughing; a clamor but one wholly devoid of meaning.

Strauchold is just as eager as Wiszniewski to portray his characters in everyday situations. But he doesn’t try to use them to tell individual stories. In wide shots, he frames them looking at the television, drinking tea, working at their desks, cleaning. One of the couples engages in sexual intercourse, the depiction of which mirrors the one in Primer. With only their moans in the background, the lovers look directly into the lens. The characters of Plica Polonica, meanwhile, are assembled on a theater stage, illuminated with floodlights but otherwise steeped in black. They neither speak into the camera, nor to each other. In the meal scene, eerily reminiscent of the family dinner in the home of Wanda Gścimińska (here too the camera rides on a dolly down the table), the characters’ eyes are glued to their phones and tablets. Off to the side lays a handful of discarded flags, while the head of the table is occupied by a blinking, snowing television set. From this we may surmise that the lack of communication and understanding, the film’s theme, is what ultimately contributes to the outbreak ravaging the nation, the formation of the eponymous plait. The film theatralizes social reality, and distills relationships down to empty gestures, the process symbolized by the empty confessional; through its grate, we see people playing cards and drinking booze. At one point, they all gaze silently into the camera. The crowd seems to be participating in some sort of protest, but we do not learn what drives it and what the demands are. The protesters even have different colored flags. Suddenly, some of the people on the tail end begin shoving and hitting each other with the flags, but the gestures remain meaningless. Equally empty are the scant words that appear throughout the film, aside from the narrator speaking off-screen. The words are mostly excerpts of the lyrics to Boże, coś Polskę (God Save Poland)Ukochany kraj... (Beloved Country), and Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino (Red Poppies on Monte Cassino), overlapping each other, blending into unintelligible gibberish. In the Symptoms section, the characters stand assembled in a seemingly endless line. In the background, we hear passages from rather regrettable parliament speeches, ultimately overdramatized by the media, made into overnight sensations, and widely ridiculed. Repeated across all media outlets and stripped of their original context, these snippets remain merely a symbol of boorishness, stupidity, and poor manners. They are accompanied, as are many other portions of the film, by Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major.

At both the structural (the clear division into individual sections) and the individual scene levels, references to both Wanda Gościmińska, a Textile Worker and Primer are all too obvious. For Strauchold, the documentalist paradigm embraced by Wiszniewski becomes a starting point for the development of new meanings. Contrary to Wiszniewski’s approach (with Primer being the exception), the author of Plica Polonica does not attempt to tell a story about a collective body through the lens of individual circumstances. The collective body or, more precisely, its spiritual condition, is the true protagonist of the short. To some extent, Strauchold’s methods of analysis and description resemble those Wiszniewski used in Primer. With one significant difference: Primer is essentially devoid of off-screen narration, whereas Strauchold uses it to cement individual scenes and visuals and as an important source of meaning. Based on historical sources, the quasi-medical story of the Polish plait offers bitter but amusing commentary on our modern reality. It seems to suggest that not much in our mentality has changed over these hundreds of years, that the plait has been our speciality centuries ago and still is one today. At times, the commentary refers directly to specific scenes (when men start to pummel one another with flags, the voice-over says: Indeed, it is difficult to imagine something more repulsive and disgusting), but most other times the link isn’t as clear cut. Its primary function, however, is to extract the grotesqueness from individual visuals.

Opera About Poland also features a number of scenes directly inspired by Wiszniewski’s work. These indisputably include shots portraying the characters – portraits of children against a black backdrop and wide shots of the characters against buildings they live in or some other outbuildings. The voice-over narration they employ, however, is vastly different. Where Wiszniewski uses passages from Władysław Bełza’s patriotic poem Katechizm polskiego dziecka (Catechism of the Polish Child), delivered by a number of different children’s voices, Stasik instead chooses confessions, memories, or ads from the local newspaper. Like Wiszniewski, Stasik inspires the viewers to reflect by keeping static shots of the characters just a little too long on the screen, and encourages them to answer that same questions the director of Primer posed some years ago. To quote from the text posted on the producer’s website: We want to tell a story of contemporary Poland. But it will be one devoid of journalistic or political provisionality. One operating at the level of archetypes, symbols, anthropology, philosophy, and metaphysics. What Poland is, really? How do we feel about it? What are we like? What’s happening with us? Which ethoses and values help us and which hold us back? Are we, as a nation, bent on self-destruction? Have we been slowly committing suicide since time immemorial?[24]. The dolly shots that were such a distinct feature of Wanda Gościmińska, have also been used quite heavily in Opera About Poland. Their purpose, however, was radically different in the latter. While in Wiszniewski’s work they were instrumental in building the image of the protagonist, Opera... uses them to depict scenery – Polish landscapes, sprawling and empty, often shrouded in fog or thin rain. This, in turn, makes them much more sweeping in scope: they’re drawn out, often shot from a drone. One of these scenes opens the movie – it depicts a shopping mall parking lot, with the camera orbiting a single shopping cart standing amidst the emptiness. These snippets serve as something of a counterweight for the film’s leitmotifs, namely, footage shot through the front windshield of a car. Together, they made Opera About Poland into a road movie and placed it in a broader cultural context in which traversing space translates to insight and contributes to the process of shaping the protagonist’s consciousness.

Opera o polsce

frame from Opera About Poland, dir. Piotr Stasik, 2017

The other leitmotif is associated with the eponymous opera. Recurrent across the film are shots depicting the orchestra during their performance of a composition written by Artur Zagajewski which served Stasik as a sort of a starting point for his work on the film – the documentary grew from a collaborative multimedia project between Artur Zagajewski, Piotr Stasik, and Piotr Gruszczyński. The opera, unusual due to being stripped of vocal parts, was unveiled to the public on October 8, 2016, at the Sacrum Profanum Festival. Thinking back, Stasik said: The preparations took years. The idea was conceived by composer Tadeusz Wielecki, who suggested we combine the documentary genre, my area of expertise, with contemporary music, of which I have been an ardent follower[25]. The vocal parts have been replaced with a reading of the libretto, which has been weaved into the soundtrack in the film version. The picture was rounded out with images shot by the documentarian in the course of his travels. The eponymous opera and Stasik’s picture are similar in scope and have similar roots. By using the term in the title, the author draws attention to the gravity of the subject, but not necessarily of the form. Stasik’s cinematic language is devoid of pathos, and is guided instead by grotesque, veering closer to comic opera. It does, however, carry traces of a certain conventionality, deliberate artificiality (particularly in the scenes depicting many of the permanently anonymous characters).

The impact of Wiszniewski’s work is reflected, first and foremost, at the film’s ideological level and in its individual scenes. The structure of Opera About Poland, on the other hand, resembles Godfrey Reggio’s celebrated Qatsi trilogy more than any other Polish documentary work[26]. Zagajewski’s score is piercing and haunting. Early in the movie, it reverberates with subtle yet slightly annoying violins right after the narration cuts out. Over time, however, it begins to glide along with the words, becoming more and more trancelike and thus similar to Philip Glass’ score for the Qatsi trilogy. The tension it evokes seeps into the climax, in which the off-screen narration enumerates the most popular methods of suicide and follows it up with a description of the burial customs in the Trobriand Islands. At that point, the pace of the editing picks up: individual shots get more and more compressed, while the visuals get more diverse, in terms of both composition and content. The music, growing ever louder, suddenly transitions into a rendition of the folk song A uśnijże mi, uśnij (O Sleep For Me, Sleep), performed solo and a cappella by Halina Szelestowa. The lengthy shot depicts a garden at dawn and empty swing sets hanging from tree branches and billowing slightly in the wind. The similarity to Qatsi stems chiefly from the nature of the score in Stasik’s movie and his use of specific visual devices, such as slow-motion sequences or frame duplications. Reggio’s pictures are collage-like, they consist of a series of visuals based primarily on associations. Qatsi and Opera About Poland share an echo-like quality – they’re built around the recurrence of images, around semantic and visual leitmotifs. In contrast to Reggio, however, Stasik curbs the role of music and makes it subordinate to the word. The words and the music come together to form the mood of the picture, but it’s the word, clashing against the image, that remains the fundamental carrier of meaning. Word usage in Opera About Poland lends legibility to the line of argumentation drawn by the author and clarity to its central thesis. Stasik diagnoses the condition of contemporary Polish society, critiquing the insincerity of lay and Church authorities and the hypocrisy of the citizenry. The closing scenes seem to argue that the degeneration of the Polish character has been driven primarily by infantilized, superficial religiosity, stripped down to basic, empty ritual.

In contrast to Reggio’s work, Opera About Poland is deeply intimate in tone, like Stasik’s earlier effort, 21 x New York (21 x Nowy Jork2016), which drew a mosaic-like picture of the modern man from the stories of people encountered in the New York City subway. In Opera About Poland, the director uses more than just the confessions of the characters – making the picture even more personal. After all, it opens with a caption immediately introducing the first-person perspective of the narration: I don’t know what to do. Every morning I climb into my car and drive in a different direction. Although subsequent assertions, pertaining to dreams, are pasted together with official and private statements functioning in public spaces such as blogs or literary works, those opening lines clearly define the film as a personal statement, reverberating with the author’s critical views. This places the film within the broader trend of personal documentary, although it does so in a fairly non-obvious manner. Stasik does not appear before the lens, we can’t hear his voice, but these opening captions encourage us to consider the Opera About Poland an attempt at self-analysis, or, rather, an attempt to present the author’s own views on the reality around him. As such, the film makes no claim to objectivity, offers no space wherein to confront views and positions. It presents an original perspective, a record of emotions. Opera About Poland is a confession, but voiced out by multiple characters. An amalgamate of intimate tone and an attempt at diagnosis intent on disrupting the collective slumber, it finds expression in a statement uttered by one the child characters, the declaration itself a counterpoint to the spoken narration: I feel powerless. I feel rage and fear. I feel anger. The scene is preceded by a shot of an eagle nailed to a cross – an image that has already appeared at the beginning of the film.

The essence of the opera’s author's framing of his own work and the mission of the artist seems to be expressed by his choice of inserting Jacek Malczewski’s Błędne koło (Vicious Circle) in the closing parts of his movie. Stasik splits the breakdown of the painting into a series of brief close-ups, focused primarily on the grimacing figures, faces twisted with emotion. Then, he combines them with shots of children riding wooden rocking horses, people marching in some sort of nationalist protest, people storming the supermarket for a Black Friday-type deal, Kashubians doing the feretron dance, finally concluding the sequence with a reveal of the monumental painting in a wide shot that nevertheless still fails to show it in its entirety. The center spot in Malczewski’s composition is taken up by a boy sitting on a ladder, surrounded by a tangle of strange figures, depicted in foreshortening and in peculiar poses. The right side of the painting is brighter, and the faces positioned there seem to express happiness, whereas the left-hand side was painted in darker tones and the figures featured there seem burdened with negative emotions. The picture was conceived in the early stages of Malczewski’s symbolic period[27]. The figures were painted in a highly realistic manner, but were simultaneously imbued with hidden meanings and surrounded with surreal elements. At its core, Błędne koło is an allegory of the fate of the artist, symbolized by the seemingly lost boy sitting on the ladder. The ladder itself, its legs standing far apart, represents the choice that the artist is faced with, while the strange tangle around him represents the maelstrom of his thoughts. Błędne koło is an expression of the fundamental dilemma of the artist: should he paint the merry, cheery aspects of life, to raise the nation’s spirits or quite the opposite – paint evil to safeguard his audience from its wickedness. At some risk of overinterpretation, we might say that Malczewski concealed in his painting a veiled reference to the conflict that raged around the time of its creation between the Warsaw and Krakow schools of history. The former embraced historical narrative as a method of developing positive models, whereas the latter was characterized by a tendency to, as prominent writer Stefan Żeromski later put it, rub salt in the wounds. The very character of Malczewski’s work seems to lend credence to that particular context: Often times, the martyrology of a nation devoid of a homeland blends with the personal mental experiences of the artist, his melancholy, his doubts and disappointments. Themes like suffering and the meaninglessness of human effort, the destructive power of the female element, and the timeless value of art – all typical of the Young Poland movement – also made frequent appearances[28]. To use a more modern term, Błędne koło combines the more self-referential (even biographical) themes with a deeply-held belief in the obligations that art has toward the nation. This perception of art in its somewhat simplified form is reflected in Stasik’s film, wherein the intimacy of a private confession clashes with the challenges faced by contemporary society.

Jacek Malczewski Błędne koło

Jacek Malczewski, Błędne koło, 1895-1897

According to Malczewski, both compositions – Melancholia and Błędne koło – 'inspired Wyspiański to write Wesele. The dancing circle from my Błędne koło finds itself mirrored in Wesele, as its central theme'[29]. Although Stanisław Wyspiański’s masterpiece may seem a far-fetched context for Opera About Poland and Plica Polonica, two rather modest documentaries, it is true that characters in both movies seem caught in torpor, stuck in a dream, just like the characters in Wesele (The Wedding)[30]. The Romantic tradition of portraying the nation using symbols, subsequently filtered through the art of the Young Poland movement, was later exploited, although not without a dose of irony, in the creative documentaries of Wojciech Wiszniewski. Today, it has resurfaced in Stasik and Strauchold’s short films, both of them less ambiguous and bereft of symbols than Wiszniewski’s work. By invoking the nineteenth-century ethos of the artist and the ideas and forms developed by Wiszniewski, both of the contemporary directors manage to steer their works away from the social and political indifference so often exhibited by contemporary documentary, as well as from the immediacy and emergency that characterize televised and online factual communications. The attitude of documentarian Piotr Stasik and student filmmaker Marcin Strauchold toward tradition is seemingly best described by a passage from Thomas S. Eliot: We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity[31].



Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

[1] The title of the essay is a reference to the closing lines of a T.S. Eliot essay, wherein he writes of the poet thusly: And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living. T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent [in:] The Sacred Wood. Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Dover Publications, Mineola 1998, p. 33. [back]
[2] My film is a sort of homage to the people I consider masters of the craft. To Dziworski and Wojciech Wiszniewski. These two directors stressed form first and foremost. While I, on the other hand, simply don’t see beautiful things. Ewa Szponar Speaks with Marcin Koszałka, (accessed July 18, 2013). [back]
[3] U. Tes, Deklaracja nieśmiertelności – inspiracje kreacyjnymi dokumentami Wojciecha Wiszniewskiego [Declaration of Immortality – Drawing Inspiration from Wojciech Wiszniewski’s Creative Documentaries], "Świat i Słowo" 1(24) (2015), p. 147. [back]
[4] ibidem, p. 150. [back]
[5] W. Wiszniewski, Film dokumentalny jako instrument oddziaływania społecznego [Documentary Film as Instrument of Exerting Social Influence], "Film na Świecie" 12 (1976), p. 66. [back]
[6] Po 35 latach [35 Years Later], "Film" 32 (1979), p. 2. [back]
[7] P. Stasik, Łatwiej nam marzyć o wolności niż z niej korzystać [It’s Easier to Dream of Freedom Than to Use It – Małgorzata Steciak Speaks with Piotr Stasik], (accessed July 7, 2017). [back]
[8] M. Hendrykowski, Elementarz jako dokument artystyczny [Primer as Artistic Document] [in:] Wojciech Wiszniewski, ed. M. Hendrykowski, Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, Poznań 2006, p. 121. [back]
[9] P. Stasik, Łatwiej nam... op. cit. [back]
[10] The closing credits feature the following sources: L. Perzyna, Lekarz dla włościan [A Doctor for Farmers], Kalisz, 1793; J. Dietl, Sprawozdanie Komisyi w Towarzystwie Naukowym Krakowa związanej w celu zbadania choroby kołtunem zwanej [Report of the Committee Appointed by the Krakow Scientific Society to Investigate the Illness Called Plait], Krakow, 1872; E. Sassonia, De plica quam Poloni gwoździec, roxolani kołtunem vocant, Florence, 1600. [back]
[11] W. Wiszniewski, Młody film polski – próba sondażu [Modern Polish Filmmaking – a Survey Attempt] "Kino" 8 (1978), p. 13. [back]
[12] W. Wiszniewski, Film dokumentalny... op. cit., p. 65. [back]
[13] M. Przylipiak, Od konkretu do metafory. Zarys przemian polskiego filmu dokumentalnego lat 70. [From Specifics to Metaphors. Outlining the Transformation of Polish Documentary Cinema of the 1970s], "Kino" 1 (1984). [back]
[14] M. Przylipiak, Dokument kreacyjny [Creative Documentary] [in:] Encyklopedia kina [Encyclopedia of Filmmaking], ed. T. Lubelski, Biały Kruk, Kraków 2003, p. 252. [back]
[15] Stefan Czyżewski, “Dokument kreacyjny – gatunek paradoksalny” [Creative Documentary – a Paradoxical Genre], Film&TVKamera 2 (2007), 20. [back]
[16] W. Wiszniewski, Film dokumentalny... op. cit., p. 65. [back]
[17] P. Stasik, Łatwiej nam... op. cit. [back]
[18] Ł. Badula, Coście uczynili z tą krainą? [What Have You Done with This Land],,o,polsce,coscie,uczynili,z,ta,kraina,recenzja,filmu,tytul,artykul,28459.html (accessed July 18, 2017). [back]
[19] M. Głowiński, Groteska we współczesnej literaturze polskiej [Grotesque in Contemporary Polish Literature] [in:] Intertekstualność, groteska, parabola. Szkice ogólne i interpretacje [Intertextuality, Grotesque, Parabola. Outlines and Interpretations] Universitas, Kraków 2000, p. 155. [back]
[20] Among others, Stasik quotes the following passage from Stasiuk’s book: Poland, the abandoned island. (…) Amidst ruins, graves, and minefields. I often thought of how it’s splayed out between East and West. Inert and drowsy, among the everlasting birch trees. On the sand. Picking its nose, rolling the pickings into little balls, dreaming of its fate. Its future marriage, past violations, or the possibility of joining a convent. A. Stasiuk, Dziennik pisany później [Journals Written Later], Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2010, p. 134. [back]
[21] It’s evident most clearly in the list of injunctions and failures styled to resemble the sermons of Fr. Natanek. In the first part of the scene, shots of the faithful taking Communion are accompanied by a voice issuing what amount to commandments, delivered in a preacherly tone: 

Take off your shoes after you enter your home!
Hang up curtains in the windows!
Never use cheery colors!
Throw out the old, wooden floor and put down plastic panelling!
Talk politics at the family table!
Watch TV for at least two hours every day!
Vote for whoever – even better, don’t vote at all!
Speeding is allowed as long as there are no speed traps around and the other drivers warn of police patrols ahead!
You don’t have to clean up after your dog if no one’s looking!
Stop smiling to passersby on the street!
Never protest whenever someone justifies their behavior using faith or the wellbeing of nation!
Don’t question their intentions at all!
Wear clothes that blend in!
The only gay person you’re allowed to like is your neighbor and that only if they’re nice!

Then, in the second part, individual characters and groups appear before the camera to continue the tirade:

Marry and have children!
Never refuse a pastoral visit!
In case of war, never hesitate – fight, even if it’s pointless!
Get a good car!
Cheat on your taxes! Remember that your country is the best in the whole world!
Don’t think!

Thus, the film enumerates, à rebours, the greatest sins of the Polish society. [back]
[22] The efforts of Fr. Piotr Natanek have led him to receive a clerical suspension from Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz on July 20, 2011. See: Official statement of the Metropolitan Bishop of Krakow regarding the clerical suspension of Fr. Piotr Natanek, (accessed Jul. 5, 2017). [back]
[23] M. Głowiński, Ironia jako akt komunikacyjny [Irony as Communicative Act] [in:] Ironia, słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2005, p. 11. [back]
[24] (accessed Jul. 15, 2017). [back]
[25],Spiew-nonfiction-Dokumentalna-Opera-o-Polsce (accessed Jul. 15, 2017). [back]
[26] That detail has already been pointed out by reviewer Łukasz Badula, see: Ł. Badula, Coście uczynili... op. cit. (accessed Jul. 18, 2017). [back]
[27] Błędne koło was finished in 1897. Three years before, Malczewski finished Melancholia which concluded his patriotic-martyrologic period and opened his symbolist phase. [back]
[28] Leksykon malarstwa od A do Z. Od początków do współczesności [Painting Lexicon. From Ancient to Modern Times], eds. P. Szubert and P. Trzeciak, Muza, Warszawa 2006. [back]
[29] S. Krzysztofowicz-Kozakowska, Jacek Malczewski, Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, Wrocław 2005, p. 2. [back]
[30] The theme of sleep and dreaming reappears throughout Opera About Poland – in images of children wandering through the bushes, filmed in slow motion and out of focus, and in the closing lines: I don’t know whether all of this happened. I get up everyday and say to myself: "This was your life". [back]
[31] T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent... op. cit., p. 28. [back]



Present Moments of the Past – On Contemporary Creative Documentaries in Two Variations 

This paper is an attempt at examining contemporary creative documentary filmmaking in Poland. The author focused on two documentaries: Piotr Stasik’s Opera About Poland (2017) and Marcin Strauchold’s Plica Polonica (2017). Both directors continue the tradition of searching for form in the spirit of Wojciech Wiszniewski. The filmic poetics that Wiszniewski proposed in the 1970s, straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction cinema, proves still relevant today. Subject to modifications implemented by more contemporary authors, it continues to serve as an excellent vehicle for universal meanings while simultaneously offering the directors considerable journalistic “bite.”

Keywords: documentary film, creation, staging, Wojciech Wiszniewski, Piotr Stasik, Marcin Straucholdr

Katarzyna Mąka-Malatyńska, PhD, Associate Professor at the Adam Mickewicz University in Poznań; teaches at the Chair of Film, Television and New Media at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and at the Łódź Film School; author of multiple articles and papers on documentary filmmaking and Polish cinema, published in ImagesKwartalnik FilmowyStudia Filmoznawcze, and numerous books, including Krall i filmowcy (Poznań, 2006), Europa Europa (Poznań, 2007), Ludzie polskiego kina. Agnieszka Holland (Warszawa, 2009), and Widok z tej strony. Przedstawienia Holocaustu w polskim filmie (Poznań, 2010); co-editor of numerous volumes on non-fiction cinema (Zobaczyć siebie. Polski film dokumentalny przełomu wieków, Poznań, 2011; Pogranicza dokumentu, Poznań, 2012); editor of Od obserwacji do animacji. Autorzy o filmie dokumentalnym (Łódź, 2017); member of the editorial board of Images magazine and the online portal (Filmoteka)

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