DOK Leipzig, a traditional international documentary and animated film festival based in Leipzig, took place last month. One of its panels was "The Documentary as Firebrand? The Polish Example", co-moderated by Grit Lemke, head of the fest’s film programme.
Part of the panel's theme dealt with how the innovative "Polish Film School" developed as a form of disobedience against the communist regime – and how the Polish film industry may have become significantly less politically inclined since liberalisation in the 1990s.
Oppression in the latter half of the 20th century served to ignite filmmakers' interest in politics as well as creative choices to get around the regime's mandates, Lemke told the ECPMF. They would shoot things from strange angles and fly things through, pretend to obey directives and put in other elements that actually stood for criticism, she said.
She cites Happy End (1972) and How to Live (1977), both by groundbreaking Polish director Marceł Łoziński and featured in DOK Leipzig's "Retrospective Polish Documentary Film" series this year. The former criticised anti-Semitism in Poland by staging a tribunal and having people take on roles, as in a psychological experiment (but without mentioning the Jews). The latter – banned in Poland during the communist regime – was also an experiment: It involved a staged competition for the best socialist family, with hired actors to provoke reactions in those competing and expose some social realities.
Polish films right now tend to be about family and other social institutions, but to not really politically provoke or hurt, Lemke said during the panel. But in her view, perhaps paradoxically, this is not because of censorship, but rather due to the contrary.
"They had an agenda back then", Lemke later told the ECPMF. "Now there’s a generation in Poland that grew up in freedom. At the moment [the cinematic landscape] is not political at all almost. But probably this will change in the next few years."
Because the political situation in Poland is so horrible, with nationalism and extreme right-wing politics, young people will probably become interested in politics again."
Censorship rears its ugly head in Poland
Polish civil society is already getting more politically active. Increased engagement by young people became evident in nationwide protests earlier this year against new legislation seeking to curtail media freedom and against proposals to outlaw abortion on all circumstances (the so-called "black protests"). The right-wing government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), also under pressure from the European Union, has put both items on hold.
Currently in Poland, local authorities and the public broadcaster are major sources of support for the film industry, which makes it directly vulnerable in times of oppression.
The Polish Film Institute opened in 2005, within the scheme of establishing regional film funds across the country. In this system, local authorities set money aside in their annual budget specifically for filmmaking.
A competition takes place where experts choose which films should receive funding. Their value for regional development is listed as one of the main selection criteria.
As for the public broadcaster and television market leader, Telewizja Polska (TVP), it is a major co-producer and financer of feature-length films, besides TV series. TVP is currently headed by Jacek Kurski, a PiS politician and former member of the EU parliament. It is a signal of the current pollicisation of public broadcasting in Poland, in a way similar to the scenario in Spain.
Since it returned to power in Poland in 2015, PiS has been attempting to take full control of the hiring and firing of TVP's executives, as well as dictating reporting practices. This has already caused hundreds of job losses.
Filmmakers speak out
A young documentary producer told the ECPMF after the panel that he is already feeling the weight of censorship from the Polish public broadcaster, and the need to come up with metaphors to convey certain ideas. Older film industry veterans are used to this, as they expressed when Lemke threw a question to them:
"We all heard what happened to the head of Polish television. How do you think it will affect filmmaking?"
Renowned Polish filmmaker Maciej Drygas replied that this is "not particularly fascinating, as the same things have happened" over the previous 30 years. People in power want to control (public) TV, and while the fact is perhaps more publicised now, it involves the "same mechanisms" as in the past.
"Public TV has always been one of the governing party", said Drygas, whose provocative 1991 film Hear My Cry was also part of DOK Leipzig’s "Retrospective" series. He suggested that his documentary is an example of more political-oriented filmmaking that remained upon liberalisation.
Drygas recalls a censor, in his earlier days, checking productions to see if "nothing wrong" had been said about the system. Regarding more recent times, Krzysztof Gierat, director of the Krakow Film Festival, recalls being fired as head of the public TV's film agency after the PiS party first came to power in 2005.
In a separate interview with the ECPMF, Gierat noted that before the establishment of the Polish Film Institute, the agency "was the most important and biggest producer in the country". He said he signed an agreement to be the director for four years, but after just one year, "the political situation was changing and they were changing also the persons of this public TV".
According to Gierat, his boss told him it was nothing personal – they just wanted to have a "political friend" heading the film agency instead. Another 150 high-level employees of the broadcaster were also fired at the time, he recalled.
Gierat said at the panel that he was disappointed that no members of Polish public TV were present, "because I'm very interested to hear what kind of plans they have and what we can have in our submission, in our selection next year" in terms of films.