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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » May 20, 2009
The world of movies
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Film Fills in Historical Gaps
May 20, 2009   
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It took some time, but Poles have rediscovered a taste for their own history, as told through film. And the topics portrayed suggest it's a delayed reaction to the oppressive Communist regime, which kept the stories of Polish heroes out of history books.

Earlier this year, Popiełuszko, the story of a Catholic priest killed by Communist security forces in the early 1980s, drew 1.2 million viewers. Now in theaters, Generał Nil-about a commander of Poland's World War II resistance movement-hasn't done as well, but has been met with widespread acclaim, including top honors at the International Festival of Military Films in Warsaw in early May. It's the latest sign that recent Polish history has become a ripe topic for filmmakers.

Many from the generations of Poles who grew up under Communism have a rather hazy view of their country's history from World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Communist version of history had little place for Polish victories. Heroes-General Emil Fieldorf, a.k.a. Generał Nil, and Father Jerzy Popiełuszko among them-were considered enemies of the Communist government. Information about them spread via underground publications, but government oppression meant no one learned about these transformative figures in school, making them particularly attractive topics for 21st century directors and audiences.

"All of Polish history was a lie, falsified from A to Z," Ryszard Bugajski, director of Generał Nil, told The Warsaw Voice. "Finally Poland has matured to examining its identity."

End of censorship
When the Berlin Wall came down, film censorship vanished and archives-often the basis of historical films-became available. But it took almost 20 years-until 2007, when Oscar-winning director Andrzej Wajda made the film Katyn-for recent history to make it to the big screen.

"Twenty years ago, people were tired of the past that had been and had gone away, and they wanted to occupy themselves with the present," said Bugajski, 66, who lives in Warsaw. "But after these 20 years, there comes a certain reflection that we know little, after all, about the topics of the past.

"Perhaps the period of excitement with democracy and freedom is now normal and people are reaching to the past after all. They want to know how it really was."
And while Bugajski stresses that he is not a teacher-"I make historical movies because history is interesting to me"-he is driven to encourage young Poles to learn about their unknown heroes, such as Fieldorf.

"Youth, not only in Poland, need role models. In America there are more of them. There, it's clear who was good, who was brave. In Polish history we don't have these kind of characters, or not as many, or we don't know enough about them," he said.

Bugajski's filmography is itself a testament to the changing fate of Polish film. His best-known film, Przesłuchanie (Interrogation), about an innocent woman arrested with hopes that she'll testify against a friend, was made in the early 1980s but waited eight years to be aired after the Communist government clamped down on dissident voices. Harassed by Communist security forces, Bugajski finally left for Canada, where he worked in the North American film and television industry for ten years. He didn't return to Poland until 1995.

Restored trust
There's another important factor at work that put off the making of historical films immediately when Communism ended, said Artur Majer, head of production and development at the Polish Film Institute.

"In the 1980s, martial law destroyed the relationship between the viewer and the director," he said. Many of Poland's great films were made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But when martial law was imposed in 1981, Polish films suddenly became inaccessible. Instead, cinemas showed recreational and foreign films, Majer said.

"Maybe they were good, but they were not Polish. The viewer lost his sense of being comfortable with Polish film, and no longer felt filmmakers could in an attractive and artistic way describe their reality and be close to the viewer," Majer told The Warsaw Voice.

Life in the 1980s was difficult, with rations, long lines to buy food, and loss of freedoms, and censorship prevented filmmakers from portraying that. When viewers didn't see their own daily reality in film, they became suspicious of the film industry.

"When movies stopped telling this story, viewers stopped being interested and that tie was torn. After 1989 it took time to rebuild it," Majer said.

Polish filmmaking ramped up through the 1990s with several important literature-based films. That gradually repaired the relationship between filmmaker and audience to the point that viewers now trust directors to engage with the most controversial and difficult episodes of Polish history.

The film industry is also flush with more money now than it ever has been. In 1989, few organizations were investing in Polish film. But as Poland prospered after Communism, private companies and public institutes started to fund movies.

It was one of those institutes that brought about the making of Generał Nil. The Film Foundation of the Home Army has guided the making of 20 movies about the Home Army's resistance to German onslaught during World War II.

They're the ones who approached Bugajski, hoping he would make a film about Fieldorf.

The group formed in 1993 to create a movie for the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. But it didn't disband after the film was released.

"It turned out that the social need for such films was large," Tadeusz Filipkowski, chairman of the foundation, told The Warsaw Voice.

They have little money, but managed to put in about 5 percent of the cost of Generał Nil, which was around zl.6 million.

The foundation manages to secure co-productions with local television channels for many of its movies. That comes with budget promises and assurances of audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands or more. It also encourages partnering with local and national government, private and public television and occasionally private companies.

Its latest endeavor, a film about the Polish scout movement key in anti-German resistance during World War II, is being partly funded by the City of Warsaw.

Funds for Polish film
The formation of the Polish Film Institute in 2005 has also led to a boom in Polish film. The institute collects 1.5 percent of all movie-related income-from distributors, television companies and cinema owners-and redistributes it to support the Polish film industry. This year that funding came to zl.35 million.

Given the confluence of funding and interest, Majer expects the current popularity of historic films to continue.

On top of those historical films that have already premiered this year-Generał Nil, Popiełuszko and Generał: Zamach na Gibraltarze, about the mysterious 1943 plane crash that killed Polish general Władysław Sikorski, prime minister of the Polish government in exile and commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces during World War II-there are many in the works. Next year expect films about Jewish children saved during the Holocaust, and the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s.

If Polish people seem obsessed about their history lately, it's precisely because it was inaccessible to them for years, Bugajski said. The current trend to discuss and learn about their history behind the Iron Curtain is something of a backlash. But as Poles come to terms with the story of those lost decades, their fascination with the period will end, Bugajski said.

"I think that once the lies are undone-and it will take time; school books need to be rewritten-only then will we return to treating history like it should be treated. But first society needs to react to the years of falsified history," he said.

Magda Konieczna
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