He was a brilliant observer
DVD Polish School of Documentary: Władysław Ślesicki, The National Audiovisual Institute 2010

He was a brilliant observer

BY Mikołaj Jazdon

In December the National Audiovisual Institute is releasing another DVD in the Polish School of Documentary series: Władysław Ślesicki. We publish an interview with Barbara Ślesicka, wife of the film maker

2 minutes reading left

Mikolaj Jazdon: How did you meet Władysław Ślesicki?

Barbara Ślesicka: It was at the beginning of February 1961. My husband, well my future husband, was looking for someone to play the teacher in a short documentary film he was making. He came to the primary school where I was working while I was still a student at the Warsaw University. A meeting between the director and the teachers was set up, and I was asked to come to an audition at the Documentary Film Studio in Chełmska Street. I agreed, though without much enthusiasm. I was a bit disconcerted by the whole situation. Jerzy Gościk, who would later shoot the film, was standing behind the camera. Some time later, I was astonished to hear that I’d been chosen for the role. I appeared in the film together with my first grade pupils. I gave them Polish lessons until 8th grade. I loved that class. I’m still in touch with some of them. The film was titled “Our Teacher”. It had to be made quickly and sent to a showing in Canada. It got lost without a trace. I often asked my husband whether we could try to find it but he claimed that it was impossible. So, the film’s gone. All there is left are a couple of photographs.


Do you remember where the film was made and what scenes it contained?

Unfortunately, I last saw it in 1961. So, I don’t remember much. Some pictures were done outside the school. I remember a scene in which I visit a “difficult” child at home. It was filmed late at night near Towarowa Street in the Praga district. I passed through gates and courtyards. In that scene the young teacher has a talk with the mother of the misbehaving boy. I also remember a scene where I sit over some notebooks and mark homework, as teachers do. They put an old lady next to me who was supposed to be my mother. There’s another scene where I’ve been invited to a birthday party by one of my pupils. It was filmed in a beautiful interior somewhere around Wiejska Street. It must have belonged to one of Władek’s friends [dimunition of Władysław - ed.]. I remember a nine-year-old boy coming up to me, bowing and asking me to dance with him. I have recently found a picture from one of those sets. It shows me standing in the classroom surrounded by children.


You reappeared as a teacher in another Władysław Ślesicki’s film. This time the school was high up in the mountains. “The Mountain” is a film which has survived and features on this album.

Two years later the production manager of “Our Teacher”, Jerzy Dorożyński, phoned and asked me if I’d like to make another film, this time in the mountains. I was just as surprised by his proposition as before, but this time I readily agreed. Władek told me it was going to be about a school “under the clouds”, in other words about a school in a rustic hut high up in the mountains. We went to Zaczerszczyk in the Nowy Sącz district near the Czech border. At the end of the day this is not a film about a school but about a teacher, who negotiates her way through snowdrifts up to a school where her pupils are waiting for her. The scenes where the teacher wades through the snow up the mountain required quite a lot of effort from me. Władek decided that since I was not a professional actress I needed to get really tired to be convincing in front of the camera. So, that was it. I climbed in snow and freezing cold blizzard.


How long did it take to film “The Mountain”?

It took a very long time. We were unlucky. We started filming towards the end of winter 1963, which was later called winter of the century. There was lots of snow. But when we arrived it all started to thaw. We were stuck in Zaczerszczyk in Spartan conditions. Once a week, we went to Nowy Sącz to take a shower in some hotel or in a private flat, depending on what the production manager was able to find. Our cameraman, Bruno Baraniecki, suffered an injury to his leg, and in the end we had to stop filming until next year. But this time Leszek Krzyżański took over the camera. Actually, that was typical of my husband. He was meticulous in making his films and they always took him a long time. In 1963, he was also finishing “Before Leaves Fall”, a year or at least several months after documentation. Since unfinished films were not given advance payments, and the director and the crew did not receive any money until they were completed, my husband did a lot of commissioned work. In 1963, he made a film about a sugar mil in Morocco and a film called “Summer on the Baltic Shore”.  He was often cross with himself for wasting time on commercials, but you had to live somehow. A director’s salary which you received for your so-called “readiness” was about enough to pay for a monthly bus pass.


Władysław Ślesicki went back to Zaczerszczyk to make his final documentary “Sloping Fields”.

The place meant a lot to him, especially the people, who lived there in impoverished conditions. This is very clear if you look at the screenplay of the unfinished film entitled “The Cow” which was based on real events in Zaczerszczyk. A cow was due to calve. My husband assisted at the labour. Sadly, the calve was born dead. That was a terrible blow to those people. However, the film couldn’t be finished.

Which of his documents did Władysław Ślesicki value most?

He really liked the protagonists of “The Rafts Sail On”, the story of a boy growing up being one with nature, and about to enter adulthood. He also really liked “The Family of Man” – a film made in Plaska, where Jan and Agnieszka Ksiazkowski lived. We spent two summers there and my husband came up with an idea for the film while watching the family.  Trust me, they were exactly like in the film. There was not a moment of pretence. That’s just how they were. During the filming they behaved as if the camera didn’t exist. They were completely themselves. The shooting lasted the whole of August and September until October. At least as far as I can remember. The film was shown at the festival in Oberhausen. My husband told me about the presentation. During the scene where a woman scoops up grain with a German helmet a murmur went through the room. But that was common practice. German helmets were often used in everyday life.

The title of the film refers to the famous exhibition called “The Family of Man” by Edward Steinchen…

We got the catalogue from “The Family of Man” as our wedding present from Dick Adams, an American cameraman. Adams was doing his apprenticeship with my husband at the Documentary Film Studio. The film begins with a few photographs from it as well as pictures of the Książkowski family.

Where did your husband get ideas for his films?

The topic had to strike a personal cord with him. He had to be close to the people he filmed. He had to get to know them. He was a brilliant observer. I think he acquired that skill while being a scout. I mean the ability to observe the surrounding reality and see the most minute details. He had great orientation skills. He never got lost in a forest. Scouting was important to him because he had been in the Grey Ranks in 1942. He took part in the Warsaw Uprising. He was a patrol leader aged eleven then.

One of the first films Władysław Ślesicki made having graduated from film school was a reportage from a scouts camp “A Team With Forest Spirit”; and also the first film which initiated the circle of themes which became most important to his work. Thank you for talking with me.