Between Two Realms – Tadeusz Sobolewski Film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski explores the relations between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ film cultures in the Peoples Republic of Poland (PRL)

Regał ze statuetkami i pamiątkowymi odznaczeniami nagród zdobytych przez AKFy na pokazach festiwalowych
Regał ze statuetkami i pamiątkowymi odznaczeniami nagród zdobytych przez AKFy na pokazach festiwalowych

In his poem Elegy 1994 Adam Zagajewski describes the visions of a fifty-year old Parisian immigrant reminiscing about the country of his youth – the Polish People’s Republic.[1]  He writes about the ‘grey landscape’, about ‘concrete blocks’ and about life at that time being like an eternal waiting room.  But, at the end of this gloomy list, he proposes a conciliatory act and acknowledges this world as his own: ‘We lived there and we weren’t foreigners.’

Poland takes on very different forms in the memory of different generations. Its image alters when viewed from the perspective of grand history, of the upheavals of systems and social conflicts, and when viewed from a personal perspective.  Looking retrospectively at the 1960s and 1970s, it seems like a revolutionary time, when history was moving fast, and progress was being made.

During the 1960s the shadow of repression was cast over students and the intelligentsia in 1968, and over workers in 1970.  The ensuing decade is associated with an opening out on to the world, with a liberalisation, which encouraged opposition as the authorities withdrew in the face of society. It seemed that things were becoming a little more colourful in the grey Polish People’s Republic.  The production of colour televisions and small family cars began, bananas and oranges appeared on the market-stalls, and whiskey and coffee could be bought for dollar vouchers in special shops. During the latter half of the 1970s, ration coupons for meat were already being introduced. Thanks to loans from the West, there was an apparent economic boom.  The strikes in 1976 weren’t crushed so bloodily as those of 1970 when the police on the Baltic coast shot and killed workers. A Polish opposition, which lead to the foundation of Solidarity in 1980 was forming, and Andrzej Wajda broadcast its origins to the world in his film, Man of Marble, 1977.  

The Children of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL)

To the young people living at that time, timidly testing the boundaries of freedom and experiencing our first social initiations, time seemed to pass too slowly.  From the first samizdat publications smuggled in from the West, we became able to identify the characteristics of the system in which we were living.

A joke about two worms, a mother and a daughter, emerging from under the ground onto the green grass was popular at that time.  “See?” said mother-worm, “that’s what the world looks like.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  But we have to go back underground.”  “Why?” asked the daughter.  “Because that’s where our fatherland is” came the reply.  This tale suggests a sharp awareness of the boundaries between what was and wasn’t allowed and the presence of a wall separating Poland from the free world.

Yet the awareness of the ‘children of the PRL’ was somewhat different: there was an important but undefined sense of hope and goodwill that extended to the governing system, even though there was an aversion to its policies and methods. The founding of the  ‘Solidarity’ movement was based on this goodwill.  From today’s perspective, it looks as if conspiracies against the authorities were commonplace and that the declining world of the PRL was sharply divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’: the regime and an opposition plotting against its authority.  In truth, even the oppositional KOR, (Committee for the Defence of the Workers) appealed to the support of people within the regime. Such a high-ranking official in the Communist Party as the Minister of Culture, for instance, decided to send Wajda’s Man of Marble into production and paid for this decision with his job. In his memoirs, published after 1989, it’s evident that he didn’t regret the decision; he preferred to go down in history with the film rather than with the disintegrating regime.

For a young citizen in the PRL, looking critically at the system in which he/she was living, a gulf existed between reality and the expressions of the prevailing ideology. The ideological mantra incessantly repeated on television and on the front pages of daily newspapers was clearly recognised as a smokescreen; on the subsequent pages of the same paper, you could actually read about what life was like. Although George Orwell’s 1984 – published in samizdat form – enjoyed great popularity at the time, we were not living in an Orwellian country and nobody was being forced to love Big Brother. For those brought up in a western democracy, it is hard to understand a situation where the authorities are referred to as ‘they’. 

The key to the common consciousness of workers and artists was their shared ability to operate in these dual realms of truth and propaganda.  This was positive, insofar as it favoured the formation of enclaves of freedom; negative, insofar as it accustomed people to a dualistic morality.  Cinema in the 1970s – in a style, which became known as ‘Cinema of Moral Anxiety’- shared the need to break this addiction to dualistic thought with the poetry, fine art and theatre of the time. The arts tried to speak out, to strip bare the widespread lies and to test the boundaries of truthful representation.

An Invisible World

At that time, showing ‘the world as it is’ on film was practically a revolutionary act. The participants of film festivals marveled at the fresh outlook of Filip, the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff, 1979, * a key film of the decade.  In this film, Filip, an amateur filmmaker, evolves from documenting official factory functions, to freely observing the world and, finally, himself.

The State at that time functioned as one enormous corporation, which coerced its workers into loyalty. This forced everybody involved in public life – apart from a small elite of the opposition from the mid-1970s – into playing a dualistic game.  Nobody in Polish cinema depicted this entanglement more keenly than Kieslowski in Camera Buff and, later, in Blind Chance, 1981**. Kieslowski also represented the privileged status that filmmakers and artists enjoyed in the PRL.  In Camera Buff, the factory manager starts to treat Filip with growing admiration as the filmmaker becomes increasingly successful through showing films at amateur festivals, and eventually on TV.  The worker with the camera, whose films were shown on television, became a man of respect.  In close parallel, the authorities of the day treated the greatest Polish film directors – Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and the young Kieslowski – in a similar way.  Even though they revealed the system’s duplicity in their films, the political authorities held them in high esteem.

Although Kieslowski was never an amateur filmmaker, Camera Buff depicts his career path to a certain degree.  It portrays the drama of the creative artist in the PRL, who was paid by the state but spoke in his own name and communicated with the audience over the heads of the authorities. Kieslowski’s moral dilemmas were far greater than the problems experienced by the man who is acknowledged as Filip’s prototype – Franciszek Dzida. Dzida was a filmmaker and founder of a film club attached to the sugar refinery in the small Silesian town of Chybie. At a screening of amateur films in Krakow in the mid-1970s, Kieslowski admired Dzida’s documentary called Stranger, a film whose style characterizes the ‘Cinema of Moral Anxiety’.  Stranger portrays a girl who is a seasonal worker at the local sugar factory and exposes the depressing factory’s interior, the canteen and a bleak room at the workers’ hostel; a love scene even features a news commentary on a TV in the background. The film looks dispassionately at ordinary life, through the eyes of a ’stranger’ or outsider, creating the effect of a distance so characteristic of Polish cinema of that decade. By residing outside of  ‘normal’ cinema, Dzida’s films interested Kieslowski and were shocking, especially through their explicit eroticism. 

The Freedom of the Amateur

Unlike the enthusiast, the concept of the amateur currently has negative connotations implying a lack of professionalism. And yet, despite all the limitations, and the censorship to which even the smallest publication in the PRL was subjected, the status of being ‘amateur’ in the PRL allowed a margin of freedom and a sense of security not accorded to professional filmmakers. 

Franciszek Dzida’s story of how his film club celebrated May Day provides an interesting appendix to the experiences of Kieslowski’s hero in Camera Buff.  “On the grounds of it being a Workers celebration, we asked management to allocate more stock to us so that we could film the parade with five cameras,” Dzida says.  “But we only loaded one camera.  We hid the rest of the stock for our own purposes.  Everything would have come out into the open, of course, if anyone from the factory had wanted to see what we’d recorded of the parade.  But, luckily, nobody cared.  During the parade, we made the most of our privilege: we didn’t have to carry flags or banners.  We just walked at the side, carrying empty cameras.  The very fact that we had a camera gave us a distance from what was happening around us.  Now, years later, our films of the parades have become valuable archival material and they’re watched in Chybie.  Although, no doubt, some people would prefer not to see themselves carrying those banners…’[2] 

The proverbial greyness of life under that system was actually rich in nuances, as witnessed in the amateur films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s made in clubs which existed inside factories and Cultural Centres.  (In 1967, there were 213 of them in Poland).  These films show a life ‘far from a picture of Socialist Arcadia’ with glimpses of the creative acts of ordinary people, some of whom underwent a similar transformation to that of Kieslowski’s character Filip by picking up a camera. The camera gave Filip a chance to master reality by distancing himself from it and by taking responsibility for his experience. In the last, famous scene of the film, when Filip literally turns the camera on himself, he matures as an artist and moves from observation to participation. 

An awareness of what was being created did not necessarily accompany this growing maturity. When he was a juror at the festival of 8 mm films in Polanica in 1967, the well-known columnist of Warsaw’s Kultura magazine -who signed himself as Hamilton- described his first contact with an amateur film and its author as follows:  ‘I’m watching Jozef Sapa’s Mother.  The most banal trivialities – buying meat in a market, a neighbour coming to borrow some salt – become art.  An old woman falling asleep in front of a television is a whole drama.  I ask the author how he did it.  He mumbles something about wanting to show a mother’s heart.  But then again Bunuel didn’t have much to say when he was asked what he wanted to show in Viridiana either.  He wanted to say something important and knew that he had to show it precisely in that way and no other.’ (3)]

Free Time

It would be asking for too much to expect social commitment, criticism and a reassessment of stereotypes from amateur films of that time, although such daring can be found in Polish ‘mainstream’ cinema from 1956 to 1982. Rescued from oblivion, the value of amateur cinema lies in the way that these films flow from ordinary life, free time and time after work, representing a phenomenon of those years under the Socialist system.  Paradoxically, despite the cult of work and the collective ideology proclaimed in the PRL, there was more free time then, than there is now. After 1989, in a country, which has at last recognized the value of money, work never stops for many people. It was different then: regulated working hours were treated as a social achievement. Despite the institutionalisation of amateur creative arts, concentrated in factory clubs and Cultural Centres, there was a more general aspiration towards individuality. When you review the titles of films which won awards at the National Polish Festival of Amateur Films [OKFA] since 1963, the twin drives of PRL culture is striking. There is either a preoccupation with the reigning ideology, or a concentration on individual expression and observation of the ‘everyday’, a reality free from any propaganda slant.

To a certain extent, while they nourished individual expression the clubs also restricted creative freedom. In exchange for free technical equipment, film stock, the possibility of trips and participation in film festivals, club members had to ‘pay’ the local authorities and Party committee with films commissioned for special occasions, such as the May 1st parade. These films tended to replicate official templates in order to preserve the profile of a local dignitary on film; official functions were recorded with deadly seriousness.  

Yearly amateur festivals would include themes in the vein of ‘50th Anniversary of the October Revolution’ or ‘The Sea Nourishes and Enriches.’ These would encourage the production of films calculated to achieve success, and which mimicked official propaganda, as omnipresent then as commercial advertising is today. In an article from 1966 about amateur cinema, a well-known critic discussed the flood of amateur kitsch: ‘We watched a series of melodramas and tear-jerkers […] demonstrating a hunger for real love and the heavy fate of the age…’ Nevertheless time and time again, even where over-exploited patterns dominated, real scenes appeared and ‘bad literature gives place to true observation which becomes art in front of our eyes.’ (4)

With the passing of time, the imperfections of those films are less glaring: truth often breaks through and reality was more closely observed than it appeared at the time. The films are, after all, documents from another world, almost from another planet, which was the PRL. The amateur movement had its own classics: Edward Poloczek from AKF (Amateur Film Club) ‘Slask’ in Katowice, Engelbert Kral from AKF ‘Alchemik’ in Kedzierzyn, Franciszek Dzida from AKF ‘Klaps’ in Chybie, Leszek Boguszewski from AKF ‘Sawa’ in Warsaw and Piotr Majdrowicz from AKF ‘Awa’ in Poznan who today organizes the hugely popular, international festival of independent cinema in the same Cultural Centre. Also Ryszard Zawidowski from AKF ‘Nowa Huta’, ‘broke the bank’ in the 1960s by walking off with most of the festival awards. He directed films with the young Krzysztof Zanussi, who went on to become a world famous director and founder of a new stream of Polish cinema, a cinema which also gave us Krzysztof Kieslowski.  Zanussi had little in common with the workers’ milieu in which AKF ‘Nowa Huta’ was active, and yet the diverse circles of cinema production and distribution, of festivals and prizes interlinked and influenced one another so the class division wasn’t so acute.

What linked all these attitudes was a certain kind of attention and tenderness towards observed reality  which is rare today.  I once asked Kieslowski if, as a student, he felt distant from his surroundings in the ugly workers’ city of Lodz where he was living and studying.  Kieslowski dismissed this by saying, “We loved that town, those people.  I don’t think you can make a film without such feeling, without a feeling of closeness, or sympathy.  This was my world after all, I simply described a world which I understood, I wanted to describe it and tell people about it, since I lived there.” (5)

Between Different Worlds.

The discovery of these forgotten amateur films provides a more complex picture of that reality, of a country ‘behind the iron curtain’. As Marysia Lewandowska expressed in a recent interview, “The history of Poland, a country once known as PRL, is part of European history. It is not something isolated or shameful, or something to be forgotten. (6)

One of the paradoxes of the drastic change in political systems is that we are, once again, losing access to the real world. A civilisation which forces people to work ever more intensively, which consumes ever greater portions of our private lives, kills the sense of reality in a different way than under a Socialist ideology.  What is the equivalent of the old Workers’ Day parades in a society subjected to the media pressure of a globalized commercial culture?  It is said that the media has ‘devoured’ reality and that advertising billboards have screened off natural landscapes just as political slogans did under the previous regime.  However, an expedition to the distant planet of PRL, to visit enthusiasts who didn’t differentiate between passion and art, carries within itself a note of optimism; Camera Buff showed this possibility symbolically.

Harder rules dominate the highly formulated, homogenized ‘global’ culture than those of provincial PRL. The temptations of losing one’s own soul, of dishonesty, of speaking with someone else’s voice, in someone else’s name, are also greater. The attitude of those amateurs, those enthusiasts, proves important in every system and under all conditions.  The digital camera makes recording the world easier but does not stimulate us to question its formation. We need something more.  Enthusiasm.


*   Camera Buff  (Amator), 1979.   Director:  Krzysztof Kieslowski; cinematography: Jacek Petrycki.  35 mm.,colour, 112 mins.

**     Blind Chance (Przypadek), 1981.  Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski; cinematography: Krzysztof Pakulski.  35 mm., colour, 122 mins.

1) Elegy Adam Zagajewski first published as part of Ziemia Ognista [Fire Earth]

wydawnictwo a5, Poznan1994

2) Franciszek Dzida in Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings, Enthusiasts (Entuzjasci z amatorskich klubow filmowych) exhibition catalogue CCA, Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw, 2004 pp.63-64

3)Wieslaw Stradomski – The Amateur Film in Poland. (Film amatorski w Polsce) Centralny Osrodek Metodyki Upowszechniania Kultury, Warsaw 1971.

4)Wieslaw Stradomski, op.cit.

5)Tadeusz Sobolewski – Child of the PRL. Essay-Journal (Dziecko PRL-u.  

Esej-dziennik)  Wydawnictwo “Sic!”. Warsaw 2000.

6)Marysia Lewandowska  – Enthusiasm as real capital (Entuzjazm jest prawdziwym kapitalem). Opcje (Options) no.3, Katowice 2004, p.47.

(Translation by Danusia Stok, January 2005)