Last year, the Russian documentary filmmaker Dimitri Kabakov filmed for Polish Television's Channel Two and European Cultural Channel ARTE a documentary called 'Warsaw – a view from the East'. When he showed the first version of this film to a Moscow composer, the latter could not hide his puzzlement. He had thought, that the six young Russians depicted in the film, who had chosen Warsaw as the destination of their first ever trip abroad – were all actors. Since he knew most young Russian actors, he was intrigued where the director was able to find so many new faces.
The boundary between truth, creation and manipulation is not a clear one in a documentary. Just as in case of feature films, watching a documentary can inspire, or more often – replace – dreams. It allows the viewer to cross many borders, find himself in a reality completely different to that surrounding him and confront his own emotions. The movie theatre becomes a magical space, which the viewer does not want to exit. The more acute the outside reality, the more willing the viewer is to immerse himself for two hours in the world depicted on screen.
The question about the social, political and cultural context of the art of documentaries, as well as the purpose of this art's existence should be asked time and again. Media around the world are increasingly focused on mass-audience programming, the purpose of their existence being to provide cheap thrills, comprehensible also to those viewers, who are strangers to any intellectual effort. Documentary film makers are also submitting to this tendency, as are the buyers of documentary films, oftentimes choosing from available subjects only those which provide a thrill. There is a saying among Polish documentary makers, that the best protagonist of a such a programme for those with such preferences would be 'a man with three penises' (the actual word used is less elegant). Such a view consists of a double complaint: one against the reality, in which it is difficult to find the desired protagonist and the other against buyers – because they are not interested in the truth about reality.
In all fairness, the sole purpose of television and film is to satisfy the tastes of viewers. Perhaps it should only be stressed that public television should cater to the tastes of all viewers, also the intellectual elite. How then, is it possible to compromise between the demands of many Poles who only like the simplest stories, with the expectations of the million interested in artistic documentaries. 'Lack of documentaries in normal social circulation remains a grave shortage of our film community – claims Maria Malatynska – Of course, the situation shall not change, until televisions change their attitude towards documentary films. Perhaps the emergence of long-anticipated thematic channels could be a solution. One should also work on changing viewers' habits'. Another possibility is to create an institutional arrangement, which would facilitate the return of documentaries, short features and animated films to cinemas.
Working on viewers' tastes and viewership styles is a long-term task, requiring commitment and patriotic thinking. According to surveys, Poles believe that our primary contribution to Europe will be a cheap labour force. This is a rational finding, in contrast to the theory about our national megalomania… For European intellectual elites Poland could be interesting, due to it strange culture and astounding historical heritage. What is particularly noteworthy, is the process of rebuilding what Communism sought to destroy: transcending borders, emergence of new affluence, appearance of new social classes, revolutionary changes in mentality. An artistic document offers a great opportunity to inform about these spheres. However, it needs to be a story written in a film language comprehensible to Europe, using symbols, which belong to an area common to many cultures and formally attractive. If one thinks of a documentary as a television programme which is created without a prior, well-thought out concept, in a very short period of time, filmed with an amateur camera, its script states that a man is shown against a wall and with a budget five times lower than that of a similar piece produced for a Western European television station, in many cases poorer than TVP S.A. (Polish State Television), then this is not only an act against one's own identity. It plays into the hands of all those forces, which prefer for Poland to be treated as a place which is backward, politicised, uncomplicated, which praise a reality of scary intellectual emptiness, and are satisfied with a life in something akin to an impoverished village comprised of wooden huts, sometimes visited by the nobles from another world.
What suggestions can we thus offer to the management of TVP S.A., which has pledged changes, which would make Public Television's mission more noticeable? Higher spending on film production and development of new projects. Openness to ideas of the film community (as well as numerous TVP S.A. employees, who not only have achievements to show, but who are loyal to the company and who know what should be done in order to make things better). Introduction of clear principles of decision making in the area of programming and finance, as well as personal liability for these decisions (or their lack or delaying). Closer cooperation with other (few) institutions financing documentary production in Poland (for example the Film Production Agency). Lobbying for increased subsidies for film production from the state budget. Supporting European projects, ensuring much greater and more diverse viewership, while spreading costs among co-producers. This would also require a change in attitude towards natural originators of these projects: independent producers, whom TVP S.A. has consistently been bringing down to the role of pariahs in recent years. It has not only sought to deprive them of all rights (including the right to submit a film to a festival, own it in hard copy and… publish scenes from the film on their own websites), but also enforced, particularly in case of documentary films, hybridic and conflict-inducing rules of cooperation, such as using TVP S.A. equipment and staff managed by the television's employee on one hand fulfilling the wishes of an independent producer and on the other supposed to control him. It is worth stressing here, that European funds, which support film production, demand from producers the legal confirmation that the rights to the film shall be returned to the producer after 10 years at the latest (while TVP S.A. had demanded selling all rights forever). This is meant to guarantee, that the producer's film will return to the market, rather than archive shelves. So far only two documentary producers in Poland have managed to obtain European guarantees – let us treat this as an optimistic fact, a sign of anticipated changes coming. International cooperation also has other advantages: it forces producers to look for the film universum and makes them independent from politics (it is hard to imagine, that a Polish politician would call a foreign television station, suggesting what it should be broadcasting).
One should also seriously reconsider old proposals of launching thematic channels associated with culture. The previous management of TVP S.A. has undertaken such attempts, but political obstacles stood in the way. The new management has announced that two thematic channels would be created soon, including a cultural channel in 2006. An example of an interesting and extremely useful channel 'Kino Polska' shows, that such a venture does not necessarily have to entail very high costs. The case of TV24, which has turned profitable very quickly, also merits attention, proving that Polish advertisers are increasingly interested in thematic channels with a clear profile, meaning that our market is developing in line with global tendencies – television of the future shall be a personal television, addressed to a specific viewer, whose tastes will be precisely identified. A television channel specializing in broadcasting documentaries and cultural programmes – custom-produced and archived – could, after a while, produce versions in other languages, especially in the languages of neighbouring countries and also broadcast films obtained through barter or as contribution to a common venture.
One should not be afraid of broadcasting artistic documentaries during prime viewing time. If TVP S.A. begins to use its own promotional potential skilfully, viewership rates could prove to be surprisingly high. Not to mention the positive effects from the viewpoint of TVP S.A.'s mission, which can also be considered in the context of a so-called two-step model of information flow, assuming that even if a viewer who is less interested in 'mission' content, switches the TV to his favourite soap opera, the opinion which is the credo of the documentary message may reach him nevertheless, via a so-called opinion leader – a local or community authority. Simultaneous broadcasts of documentary films in several countries are particularly noteworthy – as will be the case on the evening of May 14 in case of the aforementioned film by Dimitri Kabakov and a documentary 'My Warsaw' by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, which shall be shown almost simultaneously on TVP S.A. Channel 2 and on European Cultural Television ARTE, namely in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. The first airing of the film 'My Warsaw' on Polish Television's Channel 2, on January 16 at 7 p.m., had attracted 1.7 million viewers.
On May 10 a meeting was held in Warsaw between Poland's Minister of Culture, the President of ARTE and the President of TVP S.A. One can hope that this meeting will result in an increase in the budget of Polish artistic document production and will contribute to greater cooperation in production of numerous films, which we can offer to Europe. On May 28, during the opening of the Krakow Film Festival, the Dragon of Dragons Award will be presented to Albert Maysles, one of the greatest documentary filmmakers in the history of cinema, one of the pioneers of the American version of direct cinema, the purpose of which is to attain the truth in films by depicting people in natural situations. A retrospect of his work could become an important point of reference for Poland's young documentary makers and help them to become more open to the world surrounding them.
Chilean documentary maker Patricio Guzman once said: 'A country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album'. The question is what sort of an album this will be – it should not be an album filled with amateur and tacky photos, tourist postcards, quasi-reports from christening ceremonies, birthday parties, weddings, funerals. The picture of a family in such an album will be superficial and untrue, but nobody from outside of this family will be aware of this and after many years, the truth will come to be defined only by what had been registered.
Polish documentary films are well-known and valued in Europe. The more we contribute to sustaining this tradition, the better for our own image. Of course the idea is not to use documentary films as a public relations tool for promoting Poland. Such attempts could immediately be exposed and even ridiculed. The objectives are more profound: we should strive to provide our own visualisation of universal values and to build a portrait which shall be stored in Europe's memory – and which will be forever accessible, something which is obvious considering modern archiving technologies. The expansion of the European Union constitutes a unique opportunity in this regard.
Another scenario is also possible, however. We could neglect the process of documenting and recognising the reality. We could fall victim to amateurism and pandering to the tastes of the mass audience. Young filmmakers will begin to look for their last hope beyond our open borders. Both because they will find there better conditions to work, as well as because they will not be able to stand staying in their home country. The elite public (viewership) in Poland shall cease to exist, so there will be no one to miss them.
The author is an Assistant Professor at Warsaw University and a film producer, a member of the European Documentary Network and President of the International Association 'Future of the Media'.