“The truth of life is the truth of the screen,” Polish documentary filmmaker Bogdan Dziworski said Wednesday night at the debut of the Neither/Nor film series.
“Life is surreal. And so surrealism comes from our imagination, and we should always be mixing life with our imagination,” he added.
Dziworski, who is known for his artistic and ambiguous take on cinematography, perfectly enunciated the tradition of Neither/Nor. Naturally, as a part of the True/False film festival, the series showcases renowned documentaries from exemplary filmmakers.
What sets it apart is its exclusive subject matter, aptly described as “chimeric cinema.”
“Chimeric cinema borders between fiction and nonfiction,” True/False press liaison Jessica Anania says.
The program, which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, delved into the Polish film pool for its third year. It focused on documentaries and shorts made in the 1970s through the 1990s in communist Poland.
Due to heavy censorship, creative freedom was limited. Most Polish cinema was sensationalized, abundant with “talking heads” and propaganda, particularly in the 1950s, according to film programmer Ela Bittencourt. She says this kind of hurdle pushed documentary filmmakers to be creative — especially in relaying their activism against the communist regime.
Cinematography, then, relied heavily on allegory and metaphors, blurring the line between reality and fiction. The Neither/Nor crew found this the perfect assemblage of motion pictures for its program.
Their interest was sparked by the film “At the Edge of Russia,” by Michał Marczak, whose tone and cinematography walked this same line.
Keeping in line with this more obvious display of chimerism is one of Neither/Nor’s more notable presentations, “How to Live,” a study of life in a communist summer camp done by Marcel Łoziński.
The camp was an intersession of sorts that taught couples in Poland how to be better socialist citizens. Łoziński planted two of his friends in the camp, telling them to act as a couple. He instructed one of them to cozy up to the communist community and behave compliantly, while telling the other to be distant and disinterested.
The result was a well-played representation of the conflict of attitudes in Poland toward the government. It is arguable, however, the means that Łoziński used to obtain that portrait. If the filmmaker crafts or pushes plotlines into the story then steps back and observes the result, does that make the “documentary” fact or fiction?
Bittencourt says that, even though the resulting tension was nudged along by Łoziński, the reactions of the individuals are pure. “It’s actually playing out a scenario,” Bittencourt says.
Wednesday night’s showings were not as apparent in their controversy.
Dziworski’s “Arena of Life,” a montage of shorts, subtly introduced the contrast between fiction and nonfiction.
The first short, also named “Arena of Life,” is a nearly-soundless observation of circus performers as they go about their work, inside and outside of the big top. The black-and-white frames focus intensely on each performer as they produce their tricks. One shot filmed a man as he held a rope that supported an acrobat. His nervous tension was highlighted — something that is not normally seen when one thinks of the circus. The focus is nearly always on the performances themselves, from the audience’s perspective.
Another performer is shown in the climax of his comedy skit. In the next shot, he’s shown backstage dusting himself off and relaxing after his performance. He is suddenly more serious and calm, a complete foil for the man who was performing only moments before.
Dziworski’s personalization of the performers contributes a metaphoric analysis of life as a theatrical performance. In the midst of an audience, the performers wear masks and exude bravado. In private, they become real.
Another of Dziworski’s shorts plays with anonymity versus identity. In “A Few Stories About a Man,” an unnamed, armless man is filmed in his daily life. Dziworski focuses not on who the man is or how he identifies himself (the audience never learns his name, occupation or place of residence) but instead on what this lack of identity produces.
Without prior information about who this man is, the audience is free to interpret him as he is represented on the screen. Dziworski follows as he swims in a pool, jumps (and falls) as he skis and as he interacts with others.
The personal account of this unidentified man produces an almost deliberate characterization of him. Dziworski says that, while the way he chooses to portray the people in his films does incite a certain perspective, he tries not to think too much about creating a story out of his shots.
“I want the image to do the storytelling,” Dziworski says.