K for Karabasz, K for Koszalka By Tadeusz Szczepanski
The traditional ‘specialite de la maison’ of the Krakow Film Festival is documentary film, and this year was no exception. The dominance of the documentary form in Krakow was symbolised this year by the awarding of the Dragon of Dragons award for lifetime achievement. The award this year went to Kazimierz Karabasz, pre-eminent Polish documentary filmmaker, professor at the Polish National Film School in Lodz and mentor to myriad directors such as Krzystof Kieslowski and Marcel Lozinski. In some sense he can be said to have single-handedly created the Polish documentary school, and to have served as the legislator of its ethics and aesthetics. The Karabasz “school” has been characterised by its seriousness of intent, empathy, respect for its subjects, and by a careful and penetrating observation of its subjects as set against the backdrop of their social environment.
Today the kind of documentary that Karabasz practised and championed – i.e., The Musicians (Muzykanci, 1960) – has been adversely affected by television, a medium that has had no patience for the laconic form and compositional rigor of Karabasz’s films. Television has now effectively replaced the Karabasz model with considerably more vulgar substitutes: films that are talky where Karabasz was reserved and visually crude where he was subtle and disciplined.
What’s more, there are now documentaries being made whose makers seem to revel in the misfortune of their subjects – a fact that opens them up to charges of unethical filmmaking. Marcin Koszalka can be counted among this new breed of documentary filmmaker. Koszalka achieved a kind of fame verging on infamy in Poland for the films he made about his family and their toxic relationships I Gave Birth to Such a Beautiful Son (Takiego piêknego syna urodziam) and Somehow It’ll Happen (Jakoœ to bêdzie). Both films were made with hidden cameras without the knowledge of his filmed subjects – a technique that produced an effect of unusual authenticity, but also seemed, more than anything, to be an exercise in family psychotherapy.
This year Koszalka presented his newest film Together All Day Long (Cay dzieñ razem) a film about his attempt to make a documentary film about a Japanese woman. We do not know why she should be the subject of a documentary film; we know only that she has absolutely no desire to be one, and does everything she can to avoid the film crew that has taken up residence in her apartment. All efforts to establish contact with her result in comic misunderstanding, because both subject and director speak an amusingly primitive form of English. Similar to earlier Koszalka films, Together All Day Long deals with miscommunication – no longer merely among family members, but between nationalities, cultures and civilisations. It also deals with the process of filmmaking itself – which finds itself accidentally opposed to the film’s intended theme – and with the director himself, who with a great deal of self-irony finds himself becoming the protagonist of his own film.
Marcin Koszalka makes films that seek to be amusing and seemingly nonchalant, and goes to great lengths to avoid a serious tone. But let’s not be deceived by appearances; his films also focus on fundamentally human dramas – even if they are far from the documentary model championed by Kazimierz Karabasz.