Sunday, June 12, 2011

Intoxicated with Telling the Truth

by Drew Martin

I saw an interesting movie this weekend called Far From Poland. It was made in 1984 by Jill Godmilow, an American documentary filmmaker. What was special about it was that after being denied a visa to go to Poland to witness Solidarity firsthand and document the movement, she decided to go ahead and make the movie in New York City. She had texts and recordings of famous interviews translated and reenacted by actors. These include Anna Walentynowicz, the crane operator whose firing in 1980 sparked the strike in the Gdansk shipyard, a ex-censor and a coal miner. The film closes with a fictional set of letters from General Jaruzelski to his daughter. The reenactment shows him under house arrest, which was part of his punishment for having imposed martial law on Poland while he was Prime Minister during communism.

The four acts are pasted together by the filmmaker's comments and discussions with her boyfriend while she was making this film. Interstitial Polish jokes and recounted dream conversations with Fidel Castro help glue it all together.

A review quote on the DVD jacket reads,

" the best of Goddard, it is film criticism and social criticism at the same time."

One question put to Walentynowicz was if she thought people are essentially bad because of how she was treated. She replied that people aren't evil, just terribly afraid. It was that fear that made all of the atrocities of communism possible and why it lasted for four decades. Walentynowicz went on to say that when the tables were turned, the Poles became
"intoxicated with telling the truth."

The DVD comes with a 16-page booklet, which leads with this piece by Godmilow...

I've been thinking for a long time that what is commonly understood as the progressive or liberal documentary is an inadequate form - a relatively useless cultural product, especially for political change. Its basic strategy is description and it makes its argument by organizing visual evidence, expressive local testimony and sometimes expert technical testimony into a satisfying emotional form...Though the liberal documentary takes the stance of a sober, nonfiction vehicle for edification about the real world, it is trapped in the same matrix of obligations as the fiction film: to entertain its audience; to satisfy, to assure the audience of informed and moral citizenship; to achieve closure. My question is: Is that of any political use?

The booklet contains a timeline of Solidarity and the End of the Communist Government of Poland, which reaches back to workers' strikes in June 1976 and continues until August 2005, when, at 82, Jaruzelski apologized for sending Polish troops to crush the pro-democracy Prague spring during the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The booklet also contains a manifesto of sorts...


1. Don't produce "real" time and space: your audience is in a movie theatre, in comfortable chairs.

2. Don't produce the surface of things: have a real subject and a real analysis -- or at least an intelligent proposition – that is larger than the subject of the film. If you forget to think about this before starting to shoot, find it in the editing room, and then put it in the film, somehow.

3. Don’t produce freak shows of the oppressed, the different, the criminal, the primitive. Please don't use your compassion as an excuse for social pornography. Leave the poor freaks alone.

4. Don’t produce awe for the rich, the famous, the talented, the highly successful: they are always everywhere and we feel bad enough about ourselves already. The chance to envy, or hate them, in the cinema doesn't help anybody.

5. Don’t make films that celebrate "the old ways" and mourn their loss. Haven’t you yourself enjoyed change? How are the "old ways" people different from you?

6. Keep an eye on your own middle-class bias, and on your audience's: don’t make a film that feeds it. Remember that you are producing human consciousness in people who are very susceptible to suggestion... and alone in the dark.

7. Don't address an audience of "rational animals": we have not yet evolved beyond the primitive urges of hatred, violence, and exploitation of the poor and the weak.

8. Try not to exploit your social actors: just being seen in your film is not enough compensation for the use of their bodies, voices and experience.

9. Whatever you do, don't make "history". If you can't help yourself, try to remember that you’re just telling a story -- and at the very least, find a way to acknowledge your authorship.

10. Watch that music: what's it doing? who is it conning?

11. Leave your parents out of this.