Monday 7 May 2012

Archive Article: From Horror to Terror: The Documentaries of Maciej Drygas

Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in June 2007

From Horror to Terror: The Documentaries of Maciej Drygas

The sublime series of documentary film collections published by the state-run Polish Audiovisual Publishers (PWA) may to some seem dour because of their preoccupation with the Communist past. Flickering, black and white images of awkwardly dressed people ill at ease in front of the camera may not be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly those who like their celluloid loud, fast and blazing in colour.

Unless you are equipped with the necessary patience and – dare one say it – intellectual sensitivity, it is true that PWA’s previous two documentary offerings, those of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Kazimierz Karabasz, can be very demanding on the attention span. For the most part, the stars in these films are people who have done nothing but live lives which often seem more ordinary than our own. Yet it is here that the directors’ genius lies: apparently grim drudgery becomes universal drama at its most breathtaking through their lenses.

In the latest collection released by PWA director Maciej Drygas largely eschews the day-to-day in favour of events and activities during the Communist period that truly did impact massively on history. Born in 1956 and somewhat younger than Kieslowski and Karabasz, Drygas interrogates the era reflectively rather than as it was actually happening, the forte of his elders. And as all of these films were made after the fall of Communism they are boosted incalculably by a freedom of expression the other directors in the series could never have dreamt of.

The effect of Drygas’ films is to imbue Communism with a powerful and even attractive exoticism, which Kiewslowski and Karabasz can only match by portraying their protagonists as endearingly down-to-earth, showing us that getting on with things rather than constant terror was the essence of their lives.

Yet in the Drygas collection terror, as well as horror, feature largely and pack an emotional punch that will have you reeling, perhaps for as long as you live.

In an sense, the DVD’s two sides can be divided along the motifs of ‘terror’ on the one hand and ‘horror’ on the other, though it does this somewhat in reverse order,  with the most shocking revelations assailing you at the off on side one. The totalitarian maneuver of frightening you senseless by increments, rather than by beating you to a pulp every day, is strangely most salient in the films on side two. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to go against the grain: just as the viewer is gawping in disbelief at what human beings can do to others and even themselves, you then lead them through a narrative which tells them how this all came to pass, instead of trudging through a linear plot which erupts all too predictably at the denouement.

To press the point even further, it is the very first film which is by far the most harrowing to watch. Entitled ‘Hear my Cry’ (1991) it chronicles the days and moments leading up to and the bereft, endless years afterwards of the act of a sixty year-old accountant, Ryszard Siwiec, who set fire to himself in protest at the injustices carried out by the Communist regime. His anger was directed primarily against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with the self-immolation happening in 1968 among a crowd gathered at the Stadion Dziesieciolecia in Warsaw for a harvest festival. Brilliantly blending archive footage with interviews with the man’s family and those who witnessed the protest, Drygas offers us penetrating insight into the state of mind of a person about to destroy himself in such a premeditated manner, yet tragically unaware that his action would have no impact on the political situation of the time. The authorities were easily able to dismiss him publically as a lunatic and knowledge of his sacrifice was repressed for a whole two decades. Its revelation, even now in 2007, is gut wrenching but the final few minutes of the film are truly some of the most skillfully crafted and awe-inspiring ever to hit the screen. The time for talking is over, Drygas seems to be telling us. Let the incomprehensible agony of this man’s protest itself take centre stage.

The horror in the next film – State of Weightlessness (1994) - is a lot less salient but no less startling when it rises from amid a general celebration of man’s pioneering journey into the unknown. The Russian cosmonauts who are the subject of the film speak of how their childhood ambitions to conquer space came true in unimaginable ways, from how in orbit night turns to day and then back again in a matter of minutes to how a terrible, crushing homesickness overcomes those who have launched themselves beyond earth. But despite these reality checks on their boyhood marvels their enthusiasm for their project of exploring the universe remain undimmed, as does their sense of pride that it was the Soviets who were first up there in the starry skies in the space race ahead of the Americans.

The film marks a departure from the rest in the series in that it is the only one in Russian and one which on the whole brims with optimism and a sense of achievement. But then the dark side emerges, footage of which Drygas drags to the surface as if kicking and screaming. It begins gruesomely enough, with Soviet scientists experimenting on dogs and monkeys to see how they cope with demands of simulated space travel. The fear and confusion writ across their faces as they are tethered to boards, then spun around at lightning speed, is a harbinger to the biggest revelation, that the cosmonauts themselves were subject to medical experiments on their return to earth, from which many never recovered, leaving them in a vegetative state. We see one pushing an erstwhile colleague around in a wheelchair but then later telling the camera that, despite all, he has no regrets, because he managed to see what most of us never will.

The entries on side two dwell on phenomena rather than events and the pace of perception slows down. At first Drygas charts the history of Radio Free Europe and the Communists’ attempts to jam its signals, setting off a Cold War of the airwaves. He interviews both the jammers and those that struggled hard to set up transmitters so that they could hear the station. One dissident tells of how he wrote up the whole of George Orwell’s novel 1984 – at the time read aloud by Radio Free Europe – then distributed it among friends and acquaintances. Then regarded as a second class citizen, he is seen as a hero now.

The final film is when Drygas ventures into territory occupied by his mentors, that of the everyday life of Communist existence, only with the benefit of hindsight he does things rather differently. Entitled ‘One Day in the Life of People’s Poland’ the director presents us with endless reels of ordinary Poles going about their normal business, while a voice-over recounts genuine secret police reports, customer complaints and letters to newspapers that reveal the true nasty, bitter, small-minded repression that was at work at the time, as well as people’s growing impatience with it.

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