Leisure Time and Liberated Time – Sebastian Cichocki Sociologist and curator Sebastian Cichocki situates the amateur film movement in Poland in relation to the state’s wider organisation of labour and leisure

Poster designed by Grzegorz Laszuk displayed in Warsaw, June 2004
Poster designed by Grzegorz Laszuk displayed in Warsaw, June 2004

Enthusiasts, a new project by Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings addresses a specific socio-cultural niche – amateur film making in the times of PRL, the Polish Peoples Republic. “Collecting” and re-presenting, overlooked aspects of cultural production, while refraining from the actual manufacture of new art objects is a provocative tactic adopted by the artists. It has been developed in some of their earlier projects: for example in Capital (Tate Modern and the Bank of England Museum 2001), the publication The Value of Things (Birkhauser/August 2000), and the installation Free Trade (Manchester Art Gallery 2002). Lewandowska and Cummings have focused on the economic, aesthetic and social relations that make art-works possible. The art project turns into a diagram of a sort, evoking and making relationships to non-art contexts. Economic conditions, the political climate, and access to education still play an important role in re-writing art history, as well as in determining what a contemporary art exhibition is, could, or should be. What Lewandowska and Cummings make evident, is that art practice is not suspended in a vacuum but exists within a relational network built from commercial culture, mass entertainment, education, tourism, etc. In their projects the artists expose certain invisible or repressed structures, thus encouraging viewers and art institutions to critically reconsider notions of collection, value, and even what a relevant art practice might be: also, how these connect to other extra-artistic activities – and again just such questions are posed by the Enthusiasts project. The Amateur film making movement reached its apogee in the 60’s and 70’s of the 20th century, and this material has never been researched, archived, or properly appraised. It belongs to a mysterious domain of “time after work” in the PRL [Polish Peoples Republic] epoch, when leisure time was equated with a ‘liberated’ (or, one should more accurately say, a ‘regulated’) time, earned by the collective effort of the international workers movement, as official propaganda would claim. For contemporary ideologues it amounted to the most precious (and one of the most troublesome) achievements to be enjoyed of the former Eastern Block countries. Sociological texts from the 50’s and 60’s – justifying the right to relaxation – refer to the Marxian ‘realm of freedom’. In volume III of Capital Marx explains “In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production”. 

This is not to say that leisure time didn’t raise suspicion during communist Poland: it was a realm difficult to control, as it opened opportunities of individual exploration and expression, it left time for reflection and inventiveness, while offering the possibility of building new interpersonal relations (not based on ‘the only right and proper’ brotherhood of workers).  Through tracing the leisure-time background against which the amateur film clubs operated, it will give a context through which to read their activities. 

Greater access to free time (or ‘wczasy’, to use a term from Polish sociology to describe the activities outside a labour sphere) was an invention of the first decades of the 20th century. Earlier it was a privilege reserved to the upper classes – aristocracy, landed gentry, and the financial elite. Hence the term ‘leisure class’ introduced by American sociologist Thorstein Veblen  in 1899, with reference (first of all) to the American plutocracy. The birth of  ‘leisure time’ was brought about by technological progress and its correlatives: automatisation, limitations on child-labour, narrow specialisation, and the expansion of trade union movements. After Veblen, ways of spending leisure time were interpreted as ‘displays of power’ – an indication of rank, distinction and social status. When leisure time became the property of the wider ‘masses’, it quickly turned into a vision of a new commodity, as well as a new right available to all. Wiesław Stradomski wrote in 1968 “Along with advancements of specialization – one of the characteristics of industrial organisation of production – is that the humanistic essence of labour declines, as it is split into minute operations performed by skilled workforce, who may never see a final product of their common efforts. Their respective jobs require of them neither knowledge nor creativity. The level of responsibility drops down to a minimum. (…) And here lie the roots and the reasons for development of amateur film making, an activity, which at the very core lays a complete creative –as well as re-productive – act, without intention of a direct financial gain”. 

‘Leisure time’, as a relatively new phenomenon in PRL, was a source of various unexpected problems. Any form of relaxation which didn’t conform with the ‘achievements of workers ideas were depreciated in sociological literature of the 60’s. For example, in official publications the ‘wczasy’ dispensed in accord with Church holidays – times of religious observances- were met with contempt and seen as a form of a  “prolonged sleep and languorous sloth”. The same publications would remind believers that Christianity is all temperance and asceticism, and so making them feel guilty of laziness and sluggishness if they didn’t devote their leisure time to religious practices. In contrast, ‘secular’ leisure in socialist countries was promoted as one of self-improvement, community activism, and above all of promoting folk traditions; in the form of writing songs, preserving crafts, or conserving vernacular architecture, etc. It was important, not only how one was productive under socialism, but also how leisure was invested – to what extent one’s free time was useful for the State. As Andrzej Makarczuk argues “What counts is not only whether a particular employee is a member of various cultural federations, associations and clubs of interest –and so playing active part in cultural life- but also in what manner do they participate; what for example, as well as how do people read.” The amount of leisure time in the PRL increased systematically during the 70’s. A two-day weekend was introduced and for the first time people enjoyed ‘free Saturdays’ (only on every second week to begin with). Along with these transformations arose a need for leisure to be creative and educational (read: better controlled and organized into a surveillance structure). Very quickly a set of new, highly specialized institutions emerged such as PTTK (Polish Tourist and Ramblers Association), Association of Allotments, Polish Philatelist Federation, the collecting of coins, dolls, books, postcards, minerals, and even butterflies was an extremely popular past-time. The scale of this phenomenon can be grasped by looking at the number of members involved, for instance, by the mid 60’s the Polish Philatelist Federation had 100 000 members. An important factor in the State policy of promoting ‘leisure time’ were the number of new educational and cultural institutions – those addressed to adults in particular – which played – in a steadily expanding urban environment- a role as intermediaries between producers of cultural goods and their audience. In sociological studies from that time one can find warnings that cultural production was being exposed to ever faster commercialisation, as professional artists gained more and more significant status. As Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński observed “Professionalization of culture reduced cultural expression by amateurs to the level of a hobby. […] A DIY approach has been superseded by a ‘look-listen-and-read’ attitude. The former is treated as an anachronism, and the hobby – simply an amusement”. 

Amateur Film Clubs (AKFs) – there were over 200 in the 60’s, all registered with the Federation of Amateur Film Clubs based in Warsaw (FAKF) – may serve as an example of a how state ‘leisure-time ideals’ could be appropriated by the members in a highly independent and creative way. As Aleksander Kamiński discusses in his book from 1965 “amateur film making, in contrast to passive rest and entertainment, belongs to the self-developing occupations, together with self-education and community activism. Amateur creativity – argues Kamiński – “is an authentic creativity, and no art historian could deny this nowadays […] It would be damaging to make a distinction between good professionals and bad amateurs”. The author warns of “a dangerous distortion through one-sidedness, and narrow specialisation similar to those tendencies shaping the modern professions, stripped of humanistic value and humanistic meaning. Beware of joining «passing fashion» to which the amateur may succumb in order to «strengthen» their position in the local community, only to end up as one of the all too ubiquitous dilettanti”. This clearly demonstrates how the question of leisure stirred emotions and brought about anxieties in the State authorities. Questions were asked whether access to leisure has been equally distributed among different professions and social groups. ‘Free time’, as some sociologists observed, was an urban phenomenon, virtually unknown to rural communities. Officials  wondered how leisure could be exploited for a common advantage, how, in face of its pervasiveness, educational institutions and social services should respond to it, and last but not least, how much freedom should the amateur artists be granted. Sociologist Józef Baran juxtaposed social activity with cultural participation: he saw the former as community-oriented, and therefore worth institutional support, while the latter, perhaps springing from more selfish motives, seldom returned a benefit to others. The idea of amateur film making itself provoked various reactions. Even in Fotografia, a magazine which devoted occasional space to film-making, one could find severe criticism. K. T. Toeplitz writing in the weekly Świat in 63 argued “However it remains fashionable, I am fairly sceptical towards various hobbies. It seems to me that a person, who wants to be reliable and to perform their professional duties properly, has no time left for a hobby. That is why I distrust the whole idea of the amateur film movement” –But opposite opinions were also present. Wiesław Stradomski in his already quoted text on The Significance of Grass-roots Film Making emphasizes “a compensatory  function in amateur film which, could be seen as a protest against academism, and routine, cheap commercial productions where bad taste rules”.

It might be interesting to look at the results of a poll Leisure Time in Urban Environments (OBOP, 1960, Zygmunt Skórzyński and Anna Powłoczyńska). Among a few-dozen forms of the most popular entertainments and amateur cultural pursuits, film making took 14th position (ranking higher than attending sport events or entertaining guests).  Generally, amateur activities organised into club forms were given the lowest positions by respondents; while theatre, opera, and television were among most popular (although 41,5% of respondents hadn’t seen any TV at all back then!). Amateur film clubs were treated with a certain amount of distrust: they somehow limited expression, yet simultaneously were responsible for providing equipment, film stock, travelling funds, and access to festivals and competitions. First and foremost they were treated as sort of technical support, allowing members to indulge in activities otherwise too expensive, if not altogether impossible. And clearly, members of film clubs were sometimes influenced by local administration and party officials, and put under pressure to shoot propaganda material similar to that already present in the official media. As Krzysztof Zanussi (who during the 50’s began his career as a film maker in AKF Nowa Huta in Cracow) wrote in Fotoamator magazine: “martyrology takes up the most prominent place – showing war museums, memorials, death camps, cemeteries, monuments, serious subjects of considerable weight, far outweighing the skills of amateur film makers”. 

Founded in 1964, the amateur film club AKF “Kalejdoskop” in Turek is a good example of such a tension. It is enough to say that the Propaganda Department of the County Committee of the PZPR [United Workers Party of Poland] and the Department of Culture of the County Council were among its ‘patrons’. In exchange for patronage by the local authorities, and financial backing (5.000 zloty’s a year -a rather mean sum, the equivalent of a two third’s of an average monthly salary) the film makers were encouraged to produce films about local events, and sites of historical interest. War related themes were among those most appreciated. During the Cold War period, the citizens of the former Eastern Block lived in permanent fear of violent confrontation. According to communist propaganda the West was ready to strike at any time, any day. The “Kalejdoskop” club released a film called Veto about which Halina Krüger wrote in Fotografia magazine in 1968) “A toddler is playing cheerfully under a Christmas tree drops a glass ball [in Polish bombka describes such a ball, but it’s also the diminutive of bomba – a bomb], next a rapid cut, and we see fragments of a an official newsreel showing bombs falling on Vietnam villages. The film ends with a «souvenir» photo of American soldiers posing on top of a tank adorned with Merry Christmas.” 

Who exactly was the amateur film maker? Jerzy Petz explains in Fotografia1968 “As the very name indicates it is a person, who makes films out of inner need– to please himself, to relax after work, to make his life richer.[…] Some documented their private lives, and their films were just keepsakes, a ‘moving’ family album of a sort. There was also another, a very distinctive approach: that of an amateur who wants to share his world with others, who wants to represent his life, his passions, his doubts, and the circumstances of his emotional life.” Some amateur artists in communist Poland also enjoyed a relative freedom – their passion allowed them to explore subjects which were impossible to include in officially approved film and television production: homosexuality, youth subcultures, promiscuity, laziness, satire, etc. Amateurs also voiced critical opinions about their surrounding reality (in times when trespassing the sphere controlled by censorship could bring about serious repercussions) simply because they were… amateurs. In their films, made in the 60’s and 70’s, Poland does not always appear to be a socialist Arcadia, because depressing cityscapes, littered with misconceived architectural developments are far from idyllic. Marek S. Szczepański wrote from this perspective in the 90’s: “Urban planning and architecture of the PRL epoch constitutes, and will constitute for a long time to come our everyday environment. Abandoned city centres, spatial chaos, the ghastly planning of tenements that resemble concentration camps, tight and poorly built cubicles that serve as flats; all this, affects the daily lives and well-being psyche of city dwellers. Urban and architectural space determines to a large extent how shoddy, untidy and aggressive we are“.  Amateur film makers were some of the most sensitive to these problems and responded, by registering the worst aspects of living in socialist cities. “Old town houses are lousy, people are ugly and disfigured, cats are miserable”, commented K.T. Toeplitz” in the magazine Fotografia in 1969 on the Ryszard Zielerek’s film My Street. As another example we could take a feature entitled The Blind by Edward Poloczek from AKF “Śląsk”, showing appalling working conditions in Silesia. It was shot mainly on location, in the underworld of the mines. Irena S³awiñska reviewing the film in the weekly Przemiany (1957) wrote “They lead us into their houses, via the con-men and swindlers, who only wait to snatch and hook something and squeeze money out of it. The windows are boarded-up with tar paper and give the impression of abandonment. You hear the sound of violent arguments and quarrels. The kids who breathe this air will turn-out exactly the same as their parents”. Due to amateurs like Poloczek in the 50’s or Franciszek Dzida AKF Klaps, Chybie in the 70’s, we get to know some of the concealed faces of communist Poland. In what can be called a perverse re-reading of official propaganda, they turned their leisure time into a ‘liberated time’ – endowed with the most powerful of creative potential. Amateur film makers are amongst the most observant chronicler’s of a neglected past. Today, strategies of reflection, where one scrutinizes long forgotten paraphernalia, utensils, stories, habits, and prejudices are a commonplace for the artist. Spheres of leisure and work interpenetrate each other: for example work, services, fun, exercise classes, and therapy have become an indiscriminate whole. The film makers were trying to find cracks and splits, they present their own methods of segregating, documenting and filing away time that has past, but in various ways still shaping the present. Particularly given that in those past times, the ‘realm of freedom’ envisioned by the theoreticians of new social order didn’t materialize: free-time is still in demand. 


Wiesław Stradomski, Rola i znaczenie amatorskiego ruchu filmowego w rozwoju kultury, „Fotografia” 1968.

Andrzej Makarczuk, Aktywność społeczna pracowników, Warszawa, 1984.

Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński, Czas wolny – współczesność i perspektywy, Warszawa, 1975.

Aleksander Kamiński, Czas wolny i jego problematyka społeczno-wychowawcza, Warszawa, 1965.

Józef Baran, Społeczne funkcje socjologii pracy, Warszawa 1985.

Marek S. Szczepański, Miasto socjalistyczne i świat społeczny jego mieszkańców, Warszawa 1991.