Weronika Bilska, Vita Drygas, Jolanta Dylewska, Magdalena Kowalczyk, Hanna Polak, Małgorzata Szyłak – the Polish camerawomen without whom it is difficult to imagine contemporary documentaries, just to mention such titles, as Close Ties (2016) by Zofia Kowalewska, Piano (2016) by Vita Drygas, Po-Lin: Slivers of Memory (2008) by Jolanta Dylewska, The Whistle (2013) by Grzegorz Zariczny, Something Better to Come (2015) by Hanna Polak, Communion (2016) by Anna Zamecka.

One cannot deny the international success of those movies, as well as the fact that these camerawomen contributed to the individual form and character of each of those films.


Among Polish camerawomen there are those who not only stand behind the camera, but also successfully direct documentaries. Joanna Dylewska is one of the most outstanding amongst them and she has worked with Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness, 2011 and Spoor 2017), Sergey Dvortsevoy (Tulpan, 2008) and Przemysław Wojcieszek (Louder than Bombs). As a camerawoman and documentary film maker she has made five films. These are mostly works that try to talk about the Holocaust in a new way, from a time perspective and without ideological prejudices. One should mention two full-length documentaries that almost completely comprise of archive materials. Chronicle of the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, according to Marek Edelman and Po-Lin: Slivers of Memory are examples of the perfect artistic transformation of archive materials –films that were once made in the ghetto by the Nazis (Chronicle of the Uprising...) and amateur films made by Jews, home movies created before the outbreak of the war (Po-lin...). Those pictures were confronted with a verbal commentary, in Chronicles of Uprising you can hear the voice of Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the uprising, and in “Po-lin...” the narrator reads the fragments of The Book of Memory recorded by the Jews who survived. As a result, this old material somehow gets a new life and lets the viewer notice an individual with their universal history.

Another interesting camerawoman and documentary film maker is Hanna Polak. Her films open up a broader discussion on the relation between the author and the protagonists chosen by her. In the Oscar-nominated The Children of Leningradsky (2005) she told the story of the children who live in Moscow's railway stations and their everyday life which is marked by alcohol, drugs and violence. While she was working on the film, she started a foundation in Russia that helps children living on the streets. She is an author who not only stands behind the camera, but also tries to show her protagonists' ups and downs. When we talked, she described the moral dilemmas she encounters while making a film: “There are moments when I have to decide, whether to help or to shoot and often I do those things simultaneously. Probably helping is always more important. Anyways, when I shoot, I help too, since who will show it all if not me?”. In 2015 Hanna Polak made a documentary Something Better to Come that was awarded at the IDFA in Munich and Chicago, among others. It is a unique film, an exciting microcosm of human fates, the effect of more than 14 years of the director's friendship with Julia who lives on a landfill site near Moscow. For all those years, Polak has visited the inhabitants of this place, brought them medication and food, collected money to help them and documented their life. The result is an individual chronicle of a life, a portrait of a girl who becomes a woman before our very eyes. This picture is coloured with the warm and insightful perspective of the author. Currently, the director is working in Iraq on her new project about the massacre of the Yazidis. This project has won awards from Czech Television and HBO Europe.

One of the most interesting films in terms of camerawork and directing is the documentary Piano by Vita Drygas. This unusual film tells the story about a piano that is being carried to the barricades on the Maidan. It is saved by a student of the Music Conservatory in Kiev and becomes a symbol of the revolution in Ukraine, and the resistance against authoritarian rule. The Maidan was a polygon of documentary makers who, in the times of digital cameras, produced new film materials as if on a factory line. In this tangle of documentaries, Piano offers a different type of film story-telling: symbolic, poetic and distant. The construction of the pictures is torn: once you see the pictures from Maidan in this very spontaneous moment and then the film lets you take a breath and the poetic pictures make you shift your thoughts somewhere else.


Bilska, Kowalczyk, Szyłak – each of these camerawomen has her different way of painting the microcosm of human issues in documentary cinema. Nevertheless, the creative activity of those artists has a lot in common. All of them peep under the lining of things with particular thoroughness and sensibility, abandoning the formula of intervention footage and try to create something more on the screen – an emotional portrait of their protagonists.

In Grzegorz Zariczny's film The Whistle (2013), an unpretentious documentary, the camera watches a representative of the young and excluded, who cannot find his place in the world. Almost 30 years old, Marcin lives with his mother in a provincial town near Kraków and works as a football referee in the lowest league every week, quarrelling with local football fans and amateur football players alike. Marcin' cheerfulness is visible in his relations with others, his mother and girlfriend. Bilska's camerawork focuses on intimate matters, confirming the power of the “pure” and the long observation of reality.

Another intimate film with Weronika Bilska's camerawork is Close Ties (2016) by Zofia Kowalewska. This is a bitter-sweet story of a 45-year-old marriage, a picture of intimate emotions, carefully recorded with due respect to the protagonists' privacy. When I asked the director of the film about the kind of shooting in Close Ties, she answered: “we shot with a long lens, the camera was always in another room, never close to the protagonists. We did not want the grandparents to feel uncomfortable because of the camera. This method helped us minimise the camera's influence on their behaviour. On the set, the camera was on practically all the time. Most of the scenes shown in the film are the moments when the protagonists “forgot” that they were being filmed”.

An example of tender observation in an intimate space is the documentary Bon Appetit by Jakub Maciejko with Magdalena Kowalczyk's camerawork. The camera observes the owners and clients of a mini-bar off the beaten track in Warsaw. It does not interfere in their world, but observes it from the side, not commenting upon their behaviour. This observation created not only a documentary record of the everyday life of a certain place, but something more – a moving, funny and thorough portrait of people to whom work is an opportunity to meet other human beings and chat about matters both big and small.

A camerawoman who is unusually sensitive to real reactions, behaviours and emotions is Małgorzata Szyłak, the author of the pictures End of the World (2015) by Monika Pawluczuk and Communion by Anna Zamecka, which received the European Film Award. In End of the World Szyłak's pictures create a profound essay on human condition. Resigning from the simple, intrusive poetics of a footage and focusing on capturing the nightlife of a city and scenes accompanying an audition at the end of the world, lets her lose insignificant details – faces, names, labels – and bring to the forefront the most beautiful and universal aspects of humans. In turn, in Communion, Szyłak accompanied 14-year-old Ola and her family with a camera. At first glance, this film can be associated with the cycle of intervention documentaries that accuse the world of something. However, the director and camerawoman focus on the world of children: Ola and her younger autistic brother. While watching subsequent scenes, you do not feel that the images accuse the social services, the mother or the father of anything in particular. They rather show the inner world of children, their emotions, feelings, sorrow, the need to feel loved in a family. This is a type of film that – like all the films mentioned in this text – talks about people and not their problems.


Daniel Stopa