Filmmaker and Archaeologist

Filmmaker and Archaeologist

Talk with Maciej Drygas

Communist Poland’s Security Service analysed millions of our most intimate letters every year

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PIOTR CZERKAWSKI: Are you satisfied with how Polish society has changed since the fall of communism?

MACIEJ DRYGAS: I try to avoid making sweeping judgments of that sort. But from a purely personal perspective, I can say that what my generation experienced is completely extraordinary. Censorship and closed borders were two symbols of the system that oppressed us. Even the greatest critics of the systemic transformation will admit that we’ve at least gotten rid of all that. Many people believe that capitalism is all about colourful neon lights and stocked supermarket shelves, but for me, the feeling that I have finally become a free man is what counts most.

You were 33 years old when the People’s Republic of Poland ceased to exist. As a filmmaker in democratic Poland, you’ve been given an opportunity to take a completely different look at the world you once knew. How have all those hours you spent combing through archives changed your perception of that system?

Working in the archives has shown me how unimaginably elaborate the SB’s (Security Service) surveillance apparatus was. For instance, according to one report I found while doing research for my film One Day in People’s Poland, Security Service agents tasked with citizen surveillance drove a total of 5.5 million kilometers in 1962 alone! And that was just an average year. When I was working on my latest film, Other People’s Letters, I was shocked by the sheer number of letters examined by the censors: anywhere from a dozen to tens of millions of letters a year. They worked every day in shifts, an enormous staff of people involved in opening and resealing our envelopes, reading our private letters, and preparing analytical reports. The entire process took place in complete secrecy, as citizens were guaranteed secrecy of correspondence by the constitution.

Maciej Drygas

One of Poland’s most renowned documentary filmmakers. Drygas graduated in film directing at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow (1979). His celebrated debut, Hear My Cry, tells the story of Ryszard Siwiec, who committed suicide by self-immolation in 1968 at a harvest celebration held at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw. Drygas is famous for spending long hours in archives in preparation for his infrequently released films. This strategy has proved effective, as each new Drygas documentary is an important event in the film world.

I have to admit that the negative energy stored up in those communist archives is so immense that I would go home every day in a daze after all those hours of poring over documents. I would just be speechless.

Archives, SB files… You’re walking on thin ice. It’s no secret that evidence from the past can be used as a blunt object in ruthless political struggles.

I’ve never had any interest in editorials or political struggles. I treat my films as a way to tell the truth about the people who lived under that system, to tell our story at the most fundamental, human level. I go back to that world not to achieve some goal, but to try to understand something. I believe that history will one day judge those who manipulate the truth about the past. Despite the controversy around the issue, I stand by my belief that examining those communist files serves an important purpose. We cannot build a better world without understanding the past, without reflecting on how people would try to find a shred of freedom in a captive system. The dominant opinion in some post-communist countries is that the past no longer matters and that you just need to keep going forward. That frame of mind is completely foreign to me.

Even though your films are so deeply entwined in Polish history, they are becoming increasingly popular abroad. What is it about your movies that interests foreign viewers?

I remember doing a retrospective in Tehran a few years ago. I asked the audience about their reception of the world portrayed in my films. I was surprised to hear that they had no trouble understanding it. The movies had a very emotional impact on them, because — as they explained — their everyday lives were split into a similar dichotomy of what was official and permitted, and their private thoughts. This is probably the same reason why my films are distributed through underground channels in Burma and Cuba. I recently read an excellent book titled Cuba libre, a very personal diary by Yoani Sánchez, who lives in Havana. I had the impression that the mechanisms of captivity may differ in terms of technology, and the government can be more or less totalitarian, but at the personal level, there is a very clear common denominator that spans the cultural divide.

Your perspective on communism goes beyond the borders of the People’s Republic of Poland. I suspect your view of the system was shaped to a great extent by your years at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow.

Studying in the USSR gave me an inside perspective on communism. I was stripped of any illusions about the human face of the system or that it could be reformed. I was faced with a very serious decision at the age of 19. I knew that I could either keep my independence or fall into the traps of concessions and compromise.

We called ourselves the “salon of the rejected”. We were all students from the Eastern Bloc who had been rejected by schools in our home countries and decided to try our luck in Moscow. There were also quite a few students who had been drawn to the USSR by their authentic belief in the system. I had a friend from Brazil who had been sentenced to death for his communist activities. He took an enormous risk and expended great efforts to get to Moscow. He was shocked when he finally saw what the system was really like. He never snapped out of it. Unable to find a place in life, he spiraled into alcoholism and died of a heart attack shortly after graduation.

Your years in Russia gave you a better sense of the country and an understanding of the mentality of its inhabitants. Given what you know, what do you make of the fact that twenty years after the fall of communism, Poland and Russia have yet to establish normal relations with each other?

I would be wary of the belief that our countries have reached a watershed moment, despite what many have naïvely claimed over the past year. I watched a shocking talk-show about Polish-Russian relations literally just a few days ago on Russian TV. There’s no point in even arguing with some of the claims voiced in the programme. What can you say when a poker-faced Russian correspondent talks about the supposed “fascistisation” of public life in Poland, reporting that fascist uniforms are being sold on the streets? Even Krzysztof Zanussi, a perfect diplomat, was visibly upset. The only reasonable comment was voiced by a historian who mentioned the work of the Polish-Russian Joint Commission on Difficult Issues, which continues to work peacefully on the most sensitive aspects of our common history. Sadly, as soon as the lady touched upon a topic that was considered inconvenient, the host immediately interrupted her and cut to commercial. Having lived there for many years, I’ve seen things like this happen time and again.

The more I observe contemporary Russia, the more disconnected I feel. Instead of undergoing a systemic transformation, the country has settled into a regime that is inspired as much by the Byzantium as it is by communism. Moscow strikes you with its staggering wealth, often the product of suspect privatisation and unimaginable corruption. The art world is not immune to all of this. This is a world that gives birth to ways of thinking that we find difficult to comprehend. Take Chechnya, for example. When I talk about the Chechen issue with my friends, even the more democratically-minded among them, I get the impression that I’m approaching a border that simply cannot be crossed.



The pain is likely all the stronger given that the political animosity is absent in personal relationships.

Sure, you can sit down with someone, have a shot of vodka, and come to an agreement on even the most difficult of issues. I remember talking to a young architect from Sverdlovsk in the 1980s. I told him about the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the Katyń Massacre. At one point, he just broke down crying. But it’s not always like that. A friend of mine, a historian, attended an international conference where a colleague said to him, “You Poles don’t respect us.” When asked why, the man responded, “Because you’re not afraid of us.” As long as this frame of mind is present at the institutional level, even the best personal intentions won’t change a thing. Obviously, this realisation doesn’t excuse the primitive antipathy towards Russia and Russians that certain groups have been promoting here in Poland. Both sides need to understand that we can all have a civilised conversation as long as we have an equal desire to base the relationship on truth.

In One Day in People’s Poland, the terror of communism is neutralised by its crippling absurdity. Why is there so little humour in your latest film, Other People’s Letters?

I started the film thinking that it was going to be bitter-sweet, but in the end, the gravity of the material I uncovered overwhelmed me. Obviously, some of the letters were more lyrical, but they were difficult to use alongside letters such as one where a woman reveals that the government has been denying her a passport for years, preventing her from visiting her sick mother in Germany. She writes to a friend, asking her to send a bogus telegram about her mothers death, in hope that she would be permitted to leave for the funeral. When I asked Professor Jerzy Eisler for a historical consultation, he said Other People’s Letters isn’t a film, it’s a form of penance.

Given all the different forms of systemic oppression that exist, why did you choose to tell a story about the surveillance of private correspondence?

Reading the private letters of others is something I consider to be a brutal invasion of human privacy. That isn’t to say that it should never occur, just that in a democratic society, such surveillance should be authorised by the attorney general and should only be used in serious cases, such as suspicion of espionage. But communist Poland’s Security Service analysed millions of our most intimate letters every year: they knew whose mother was sick, they knew who we loved and who we missed. I wonder what the censors felt when they went home after a few hours of that kind of work.

Weren’t you ever tempted to just ask them?

Sure I was! I tried to contact former employees of the “W” Bureau, but that turned out to be a very difficult task. No wonder. If worked in a place like that, I would be pretty wary of talking about it publicly.

I gain people’s trust by being honest with them. I never chose to manipulate anyone. For example, I’ve never used a hidden camera. I was upfront about my expectations with my interviewees, and they would decide whether or not they wanted to help me. I hardly faced any obstacles of this kind during the making of Voice of Hope, which features people who had been tasked with jamming Radio Free Europe. I later organised a screening of the film for former RFE staff members. After the movie was over, I read a letter written to RFE head Jan Nowak-Jeziorański by one of my interviewees, a former employee of the jamming station. Nowak-Jeziorański was deeply moved by the letter. He asked me for the author’s phone number. A few days later, I received a phone call from the man. Holding back the tears, his voice cracking with emotion, he told me that he picked up the phone that morning and heard the voice of the man whom he had silenced all those years. Jan Nowak-Jeziorański forgave him. I think the film was worth making, if at least for that one moment.

You often claim to consider yourself more an archaeologist than a documentary filmmaker. What do you mean by that?

I don’t really consider myself a filmmaker. I spend most of my time documenting history, and rarely make films. I never would have imagined that I would spend so much time telling the story of the People’s Republic of Poland. The job does in fact resemble the work of an archaeologist, to some extent. I reach under the surface, uncovering layer after layer, to find some bit of truth about the world I’m describing.

Ever since Hear My Cry, your films have focused on specific individuals and the moving stories of their lives in the People’s Republic of Poland. How did you come up with that creative strategy?

For a long time, I didn’t think I would become this involved in documentary filmmaking. I graduated film school with a major in feature film. What has always fascinated me in the creative process is the path that leads from fact to art. All of my scripts were very extensively documented and were based on true stories. My first two projects were, unfortunately, rejected by the censors. But then communism fell just as I was growing discouraged and was about to give up on making films. Shortly after, I stumbled upon the story of Ryszard Siwiec, a man who committed suicide by self-immolation at a harvest celebration at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw on 8 September, 1968. His act of protest remained silenced for many years. I felt that if I made the film, his death would not be in vain, and that I would tell our story. I tried to structure the film, in the emotional sense, so as to draw the viewers into the stadium and make them more than just observers. That moment of emotional rapport between the characters and the audience is always very important to me.


What strikes me as most interesting in State of Weightlessness is the juxtaposition of the lofty stories about the conquest of outer space with the mundane aspects of the characters’ everyday lives.

From the very beginning, I had a feeling that in State of Weightlessness, outer space was only going to be a pretext. I was more interested in what the cosmonauts felt than in making a popular science movie. I made a conscious effort to combine the high with the low, as I believe that every person is made up of both the sacred and the profane. They talk about the metaphysical experiences of the spacewalk and purely physiological aspects such as headaches and upset stomachs, both of which show us some truth about the characters.

This duality is present throughout the film. The characters had been chosen to go into outer space, they returned as heroes, and yet their achievements were quickly forgotten.

I remember telling Gherman Titov, the Soviet Union’s second cosmonaut after Yuri Gagarin, that the Russian space shuttle Buran ended up in Gorky Park and was turned into a bar. His eyes welled up with tears. Despite the turbulence of history, these people had had extraordinary experiences. Their encounter with the endlessness of space left an indelible mark on their entire lives. As Georgy Grechko told me, one day in space is like a hundred days on Earth. There is something about it that changes people forever.

You said at the pre-premiere screening of Other People’s Letters at Muranów Theatre in Warsaw that the movie marks the end of a chapter in your life devoted to documenting communism. Why did you decide that now was the time to move on?

My exact words were that Other People’s Letters would be my last movie about the People’s Republic of Poland, my farewell. My impression is that it forms a cohesive, deliberate, and complete whole together with my previous films. I’m in a different place now: in a small village in the middle of the desert of north Sudan, where I’ve been observing the community of Abu Haraz for the past few years. I’ve never been in a more extraordinary place in my life.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that the pious attitude you expressed towards art early on in your career contrasted with the views held by Krzysztof Zanussi, who regarded filmmaking as just another job. In retrospect, would you agree with him?

I really wanted to work as an assistant for Krzysztof Zanussi. I was fascinated with his films, and I admired his formal boldness and his willingness to improvise. I certainly looked up to him. I worked on two of his films: The Constant Factor and From a far country: Pope John Paul II. I came home from Russia convinced that life and art should be one. Zanussi was obviously teasing me. He consciously assumed a cynical stance, like one of the characters in Camouflage, in an attempt to prove me wrong. He wanted me to gain some perspective on my job as an assistant, but I wouldn’t let myself be provoked. And even though many years have passed, not much has changed inside me. I still believe that every new project is like opening up a new book. And if I’m going to spend all these years on my work, I’d better give it everything I’ve got.

Footage: Maciej Drygas – Polish School of Documentary Movies, published by the National Audiovisual Institute

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.