Monday, February 25, 2008

Far From Poland

Far From Poland
Directed by Jill Godmilow
Facets Video

Events can radically outstrip a topical documentary. Several of this year’s nominated documentaries for instance, already seem dated. Jill Godmilow’s Far From Poland is a mixed bag of disparate elements, of which many still maintain their resonance years later, even though much of the director’s speculations have since been answered by history.

Godmilow was in Poland, filming a documentary about Polish theater Jerzy Grotowski when Solidarity’s Gdansk strike galvanized the country. Not wanting to bring the wrath of the state down on her host, she resisted the urge to bolt for the shipyard. Instead she finished her film, returned home, and raised money for a documentary on Soldiarity, when low and behold, the Communist Polish government declined to grant her a visa.

Far From Poland is a chronicle of necessity—a documentarian making a film from a distance—hence the title. At its most creative, Far still holds up. The heart and guts of the film are interviews originally printed in Solidarity publications dramatized with actors. Most notable, and downright inspiring, is the sequence with Anna Walentynowicz, the middle-aged crane operator who became the inspiration for the movement when she was unjustly fired by the Communist authorities. (Walentynowicz’s story was also recently dramatized in a bio-drama Strike, and both films essentially agree in their presentation of her life story.)

Godmilow elicits some very effective performances in what is ostensibly a documentary. As Walentynowicz, Ruth Maleczech conveys a sense of the strength and dignity of a woman who endured no end of hardships and exploitation. She creates real drama when recounting an incident when Walentynowicz made a formal complaint against cronyism in the shipyard. Then Maleczech says in the words of Walentynowicz:

“The next day, the foreman took me aside. He said, Anna, there was a phone call. You are asked to report to the office. If you don’t come back, what should be done about your child?”

After rounds of interrogation and imprisonment, Walentynowicz was dismissed from the Lenin Shipyards after thirty years service, to the very day. Yet she would be reinstated. As she says in the interview:

“When the strike broke out, people changed in strange and wonderful ways. People became good instantly on that very first day.”

Just as Walentynowicz was the conscience of the Soldiarity movement, she forms the moral center of Far. Her polar opposite is K-62, a former government censor, who is a little worried about his future employment prospects, given his resume. Godmilow was cocerned actor William Raymond’s hang-dog performance might come across too sympathetic, so in a much debated move, gave his sequences a sitcom-style laugh track. The effect is certainly bizarre.

Godmilow also received the benefit of insight from some Polish friends. Jan Gross gave a particularly lucid explanation of the mediocrity of the Communist government:

“For thirty five years you had a mechanism of selection operating that would promote to higher positions and echelons only people who would unquestionably accept orders from the top and were able to pass them down.”

Whereas, Solidarity attracted the best, because: “All talent was banned from participating in the political system.”

However, Far loses its way when Godmilow inserts her own melodrama into the film. Her much younger boyfriend evidently did not share her fascination with events in Poland. This gets too much screen time. Her fictional dialogues with Castro are also just plain weird.

In some aspects, Far is actually interesting for the ways it is dated. We see Godmilow, an avowed Socialist, watch Michael Harrington try to claim Solidarity for the Socialist movement. Indeed, some of their initial demands would support this contention, but the economic reforms of 1989 undermine those assertions, in retrospect.

Far, again by necessity, ends on something of a downer note in 1984. However, Poland today is a stable democracy, with a relatively free and vital economy. It is important to remember the events that led to such a revolution, and Far is helpful in that respect. At worst, the excesses of the film hold a certain idiosyncratic fascination. At its best, Far gives a voice to the words of Solidarity and provides some clear summaries of the movement’s early history.