a monthly film series featuring invited speakers, hosted by the Polish Club in San Francisco

Friday, May 6, 2011

May 18: The Promised Land

Join us for Movie Nite at the Polish Club!

Ziemia Obiecana / The Promised Land
138 minutes, color

8pm Wednesday (doors 7:30)
May 18, 2010

Polish Club of San Francisco
3040 22nd Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

Polish Movie Nite is happy to present Andrzej Wajda's The Promised Land (1975), to be introduced by curator Chris Fitzpatrick and art historian Julian Myers. Based on Władysław Reymont’s 1899 novel of the same name, the film tells of a Pole, a German, and a Jew struggling to build a factory together within the raw capitalism of 19th-century Łódź. One of them humorously declares, "I have nothing, you have nothing, and he has nothing; that means together we have enough to start a factory."

By the turn of the century, Łódź had grown into a multi-cultural city, and the main textile production center of the vast Russian Empire. Wajda presents a vivid picture of the city, depicting its filthy and dangerous factories, the cruel effects of rapid industrialization on millions of workers, and the ostentatious and tasteless wealth of the rich. The story culminates in a production-paralyzing strike—presumably the 1892 socialist strike that preceded the Łódź insurrection (in which Tsarist police would kill more than 300 workers) and the Russian Revolution of 1905.


Chris Fitzpatrick has organized exhibitions and events internationally for venues including the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy; the Paul D. Fleck Library & Archives at the Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada; the Oakland Museum of California, Oakland; and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. His writing and interviews have been published in Pazmaker, Mousse Magazine, The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt, and elsewhere. He is on the curatorial board for the Present Future section of Artissima 18, Turin.

Fitzpatrick received his MA in Curatorial Practice at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, and his BA from San Francisco State University. More information about his projects is available at www.chrisfitzpatrick.net.

Julian Myers is an art historian whose writing has appeared in Documents, October, Afterall, Frieze, and elsewhere. His research is concentrated on sculpture and spatial politics of the 20th century, the social and political dynamics of consumer society, and the historical frameworks for contemporary art and exhibition. Myers is the author of numerous monographic essays on the practices of artists Tariq Alvi, Trisha Donnelly, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Eric Wesley, and the Independent Group, among others. Most recently, these include "Total Relaxation," published in Sudden White: After London (Dexter Sinister, 2009), "Totality: A Guided Tour," on Harald Szeemann's 1983 exhibition "The Tendency to a Synthesis of the Arts" (Afterall, 2009), "Form and Proto-politics," on the 1969 exhibition "Other Ideas" (The Exhibitionist, 2010), and "Riot Show: Some Notes on the Archive" (Fillip, 2010). He is on the editorial board of The Exhibitionist.

Myers holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA from Cornell University. He has taught courses in art history and theory at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where he is currently full-time faculty.


Polish Movie Nite is a mini-series of free public events organized by Joanna Szupinska from August 2010 to May 2011. This is the final event. Many thanks to our speakers, audiences, and blog followers for your enthusiastic participation!

Thanks to the speakers, Chris and Julian, as well as Melissa Kozera and Arden Sherman for their assistance in the preparation of this event.

This screening is sponsored by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland.

Polish Movie Nite is generously hosted by the Polish Club of San Francisco. More information about the Polish Club is available at www.polishclubsf.org.

Special appreciation goes to Maureen Mroczek Morris and to Krol Vodka for their ongoing support.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Erica Levin introduces Camera Buff

Erica Levin introduced Camera Buff at the Polish Club on April 27.
photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris

Introduction to Camera Buff
by Erica Levin

Camera Buff (Amator) is a film about filmmaking in Poland. It introduces us to a bureaucratic film culture where documentaries made by factory-sponsored cine-clubs are discussed with the utmost seriousness and may even earn film festival prizes. Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski in 1979, Camera Buff means to gently mock the pieties of this Communist cine-culture, but the bite of its satire is sometimes overwhelmed by the film’s erratic emotional tone, which is funny in one moment, and surprisingly overwrought or even tender in the next. Filmmaking is an activity, even a kind of labor, that Kieślowski has difficulty comfortably lampooning. I would even say that the relationship of cinema to work is central for Kieślowski: What kind of work is it? What does one do when making a film? What happens when it is transformed from an activity animated by love into a job? And what of this love? What does it promise, and at what price? Remember, of course, that Kieślowski poses these questions in the context of a cinema culture for which “the worker” occupies a historically privileged role.

Kieślowski is associated with what critics have called “the Cinema of Moral Anxiety,” a movement that flourished in Poland between 1974 and 1980. Filmmakers of this post-war generation were educated at State-run film academies, subject to all manner of bureaucratic pressures and the threat of censorship, but also given a relatively substantial amount of autonomy. This was a moment when socialist realism was on the verge of giving way to something more like social realism. Upon graduating, Kieślowski directed documentaries for more than a decade before shifting his focus to feature filmmaking. In interviews he talks about his desire to show life, not as it was imagined by the State, but as it really was. Tonight’s feature is preceded by one of his earliest documentary efforts from 1967 entitled The Office. Here Kieślowski’s camera captures nothing so much as the absurdities of bureaucracy, the way it comically hampers getting anything done, but also how it weighs heavily on the spirit of anyone entering its sphere. If the image of the heroic worker epitomizes the socialist realist cinema of the late 1940s and early '50s, then Kieślowski’s cinema evolves out of an impulse to show the other side of life and labor in Communist Poland. While films like the 1951 Destination: Nowa Huta! are full of youthful, bare-chested Polish construction workers setting out to build a new workers' paradise, Kieślowski’s characters are decidedly more human, fallible, funny, but also flawed. He pictures the endless contortions of body and soul that everyday life in Poland seemed to require. Another of his early documentary films focuses on Łódź, a city whose many limbless inhabitants, victims of industrial and traffic accidents in the dangerous urban environs, were a source of perverse fascination for the filmmaker. In Camera Buff, Kieślowski again trains his camera on an exceptional body one that stands out against the norm. The film’s main character, Filip, makes a film called Worker, about a dwarf, or perhaps better, a man of short stature, who has been at the factory since it opened. Though Kieślowski talks of having wanted to make a film featuring a similar protagonist, one wonders how his film might have differed from Filip’s, which is too sentimental to be truly great. It’s as though in order to realize this film, Kieślowski had to frame it in terms of the unhappy story of our amateur filmmaker.

So how do you become a troubled camera buff in Communist Poland? If you are Filip Mosz (played by the delightfully comic Jerzy Stuhr – who co-wrote much of the film’s dialogue) you buy an 8mm camera to film your newborn daughter, knowing full well that it will cost you the equivalent of two months' salary. We are made to understand what a rare novelty such a camera might have been in small-town Poland at this time when Filip’s purchase provokes the interest of his boss. He surprises Filip by asking him to make a short film commemorating the factory’s 25th anniversary. Soon, filmmaking comes to eclipse all of Filip’s other responsibilities, both at work and at home. We watch him discover how peering through a camera mediates the world differently, endowing the smallest details with new significance, but at the same time distancing him from what he sees. The film tempts us to share in Filip’s all-consuming obsession, his desire “for something else” he can’t name but knows to be bound up with filmmaking. And it isn’t difficult to endorse this impulse no matter how doomed it might be, or how much it may cause others to suffer, particularly his young wife. As Filip heads off to the amateur film festival with his first film proudly in hand, she shouts out, “Don’t win!” He ends up bringing home a prize, but by the end of the film we aren’t sure exactly what he has won. That said, Camera Buff isn’t a straightforward story of defeat; it would better to see it as one that traffics in the blunt and unmistakable pain of reinvention.

After his death, Kieślowski was remembered as a filmmaker who brought “a new form of melancholy” to the screen, one that offered “a kind of intellectual and spiritual cleansing for viewers accustomed to seeing the world through images approved by the government.”[1] Some of that melancholy was already evident in the documentary films he made before turning to fiction, which traded in stories of the ethical dilemmas faced by real people in their struggle with Party politics, corruption, and bureaucracy. Some of these films were subject to censorship, but more often they were marred by Kieślowski’s anxiety that they might hurt those he pictured, or that they would be misappropriated by the authorities. Camera Buff was one of Kieślowski’s first feature fiction films. It was well received by audiences in Poland and abroad. (Like Filip, Kieślowski also brought home an award, in this case the top prize at the Moscow International Film Festival.) Kieślowski’s shift to fiction filmmaking was its own kind of reinvention, not an immediate turn away from everyday political struggles, but a way to give form to his increasingly shaken confidence in the ethics of showing life “as it is.” Later, his fiction films would become much more focused on dramas of the private sphere, but at this moment, Kieślowski was still very much drawn to the uncomfortable zone between personal and public life.

Although much separates our own political and economic context from that of Camera Buff, there is something about Filip that feels familiar. Perhaps it is his near-blind commitment to an unnamed possibility he glimpses in his work, the hope that it will bring meaning to his existence, and the reckoning he must make when he runs up against the real constraints of his situation. These aspects of his story are still strikingly resonant. Watching Camera Buff today, we might find ourselves thinking anew about our own conditions of life and work, and our investment of work with desires that, though they may be irrational, nonetheless feel impossible to abandon.

[1] Józef Tischner, quoted in Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, page 32.