In 1971, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Bohdan Kosiński and Tomasz Zygadło, three eminent if then still young documentarians, co-signed a manifesto entitled “Documentary Filmmakers Make Their Case.” In the manifesto, they argued against film critics who had grouped their films together at the Krakow Film Festival that year, claiming that they represented a “new generation” of Polish documentary.

 “The division between old and young documentary filmmakers that was made in Krakow and afterwards is in the best case an intellectual shortcut” they wrote. “It would be much fairer to divide filmmakers according to the quality of their work, interests, artistic styles, their attitudes towards the issues being debated…”


The new crop of documentaries, though robust, seems marked by a withdrawal from the political and the institutional into the domestic and interpersonal. Like many of their Anglophone analogues, these are character-driven documentaries, centred on a single compelling protagonist. Almost invariably, these come from the most vulnerable sectors of society – children, the elderly, the mentally or physically handicapped, and repentant criminals. Maciej Adamek’s Two Worlds (Dwa światy, 2016) follows 12 year-old Laura, who must help her two deaf parents negotiate even the most mundane of every day activities. One of the strongest Polish documentaries of recent years, Anna Zamecka’s Komunia (Communion, 2015), centres on 14 year-old Ola, who must care for her autistic brother and alcoholic father. And the protagonist of Hanna Polak’s heartbreaking epic Nadejdą lepsze czasy (Something Better to Come, 2014) is a young Russian girl named Yula who grows up on garbage dump outside Moscow. Shot over the course of 14 years, the film follows Yula from age 10 until age 24 as she cares for her hard-drinking mother and toils to get them out of the dump.

Other films are set in less dire circumstances, but nevertheless look towards society’s margins or explore psychologically painful domestic situations. The heroes of Marcin Kopieć’s feature, Nauka chodzenia (The Walking Spark, 2015) and Michał Szcześniak’s Academy Award shortlisted short (say that twice!) Punkt wyjścia (Starting Point, 2014) have served sentences for racketeering and voluntary manslaughter, and are now seeking to reintegrate into society. The former, in particular, seeks to anchor the criminal past of its hero, Piotr, in an exceptionally difficult childhood. The eponymous hero of Anastazja Dąbrowska’s short Daniel (2015) is a teenager with Down syndrome looking for romance and human connection – as are the estranged, elderly husband and wife in Zofia Kowalewska’s short Więzi (Close Ties, 2015 – also shortlisted for the Academy Awards). Finally, Paweł Loziński’s Nawet nie wiesz jak bardzo cię kocham (You Don’t Even Know How Much I Love You, 2016) and Julia Staniszewska’s Trzy rozmowy o życiu (Three Conversations About Life, 2016) explore toxic mother-daughter relationships.

Masha Shpolberg

Masha Shpolberg is a Ph.D. Student in Film and Media Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University

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