Jill Godmilow: Close, Closer
Jill Godmilow

Jill Godmilow: Close, Closer

BY Joanna Krakowska

‘Far From Poland’, an experimental film about 1980s Poland by Jill Godmilow enjoyed an artistic, academic and film-festival career for 30 years, but remained unknown in Poland

4 minutes reading left

Discoveries have contexts. Sometimes they are worth discussing, because they cast light on the circumstances in which contemporary debates are carried out, and they create unexpected alliances. These are the tipping points at which engagement ceases to be just a question of an individual path, and starts to be part of a common story, one you want to hear over and over again. So as to worry a little bit less.

Magda Mosiewicz, a documentary director and maker of the film Ciągle wierzę (I Still Believe),  once made a film about deportations and the breakup of families. Actually, the film was being made by an American director, who didn’t have the money to shoot in Poland, so Magda made that part for her. They never even met at the time, but distance was no obstacle. It was enough to send e-mails, and the segments filmed on each side of the Atlantic, to each other. The film was important, it had political consequences, leading to changes in legislation. After that the American came to Poland to the Camerimage festival, met Magda and... but actually that’s not the point. That context was meant to show that American-Polish co-productions can have unexpected consequences. Keep that in mind.

The second context is related to another blessing of the internet. An American friend of Magda Mosiewicz posted an article on Facebook about the Joshua Oppenheimer film The Act of Killing, written by another American film director and published on the internet. An article dictated by outrage; critical, questioning significant political omissions, the position of the viewer and the ethical ambiguity of the film’s point of view, in which big white people show us how small brown people murder each other. This engaged commentary was bound to provoke polemical fury among netizens. The most striking thing, besides the revelation of ageist prejudices, was the ideological chasm between the polemicists and the author, with her leftist convictions and leftist responsibility. Leftism. Keep that in mind, too.

The author bio at the bottom of the article listed the films she had made: Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1974) was nominated for an Oscar; Waiting for the Moon (1987) won the Sundance Film Festival; then came several other intriguing titles, and... Far from Poland (1984) – a film, as it turned out later, that the director herself considered her most important achievement and the biggest breakthrough in her career. “Find this film,” Magda Mosiewicz wrote to me in New York. I found it in the New York Public Library, in the Mid-Manhattan Branch on 40th Street, on the first shelf, right in front of the entrance. But even that didn’t indicate that it was a masterwork. I couldn’t have known that.

Why did none of the Poles – refined, intellectual émigrés, who took part in the film – know that? Why didn’t any of the specialists, or the Polish followers of Jerzy Grotowski, who should know the director’s biography backwards and forwards, because she had made two highly-regarded films about Grotowski, take note of this work? I have no idea. I can only assume that the former, engaged in the mid-1980s documentary experiment that had no chance of being shown in Poland, attached greater importance to its oppositional significance than its artistic merit. The latter, for their part, could not imagine anything more interesting than spending the night in the Laboratory Theater (The Vigil, 1981) or an excursion to a village outside Rzeszów (With Jerzy Grotowski, Nienadówka, 1980). Whatever the reason, Far From Poland, directed by Jill Godmilow in 1984 – an experimental film about 1980s Poland, using a range of innovative artistic strategies, bringing together the various genres of documentary, re-enactment and fiction, creating its own original method and language of film for the purposes of impossible narration and Utopian engagement – enjoyed an artistic, academic and film-festival career for 30 years, but remained unknown in Poland.

Jill Godmilow was in Poland, making a film about Grotowski in 1980, precisely when the August strikes broke out. She wanted to go to the shipyard right away; she had a crew, a camera, everything she needed. Grotowski dissuaded her from the idea, warned her. Well, of course, the situation was uncertain, and the American filmmakers that had come at his invitation, they were supposed to film in Nienadówka; if something had happened, all their material would have been lost.... So Jill Godmilow didn’t go to Gdańsk; she returned to New York, got together twenty thousand dollars, hired a crew, bought five plane tickets to Warsaw. Then she was denied a visa.

So her film about Solidarity ended up being made in New York. But is it a film about Solidarity? Could anyone imagine a film about Solidarity without the Pope, but with Fidel Castro instead? Fidel calls the director up at night and tries to dissuade her from making the movie. He’s importunate, he argues that Anna Walentynowicz doesn’t speak for Polish workers, that it will all end in tears: the Russians will invade Poland, and the U.S. Marines will invade Cuba and Nicaragua, and besides all that, “does good art always have to be anti-government?” he asks. The director says nothing, she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. Because Fidel says that if he were a Pole, he would certainly join Solidarity.

Is it possible to imagine a documentary about 1980s Poland made from the Socialist point of view? And made by a woman, whose partner – supremely immune to leftist emotions and Utopian visions – constantly demands political and worldview declarations? He stands over her, questioning her intentions, pointing out that, as a fighter for “the good, the just, the true,” she feels too good about herself. The filmmaker’s point of view is thus constantly called into question, and her seemingly comfortable position as an outside observer of events taking place “somewhere far away” becomes completely uncomfortable, when it turns out that the film is ruining her personal life. Well, social engagement has its price, and enthusiasm for a 10-million-strong union movement, in the context of one’s own two-person relationship, loses some of its pathos and some of its naiveté, given the constant doubt with which  you’re confronted. Consequently, the director became the protagonist of her own film, so as to struggle with it, making no secret of the distress her struggle caused: ideological (Fidel, warning against an American invasion of Cuba); personal (Mark, who’s had enough of “all these Poles” in his bedroom); political (Reagan’s earnest support for the trade union movement in Poland, constantly evoking fear of a Russian invasion). And above all: artistic distress, since, even though you wanted to construct a great narrative, you can only deconstruct, deconstruct, deconstruct.

Is it even possible to imagine a documentary film made up not so much of documentary footage as of fantasy, commentary, re-enactments, fiction, melodrama? Right at the beginning of the film, we hear the voice of Elżbieta Czyżewska and see a giant suitcase filling up gradually with consumer goods in cans and boxes. Czyżewska’s voice explains patiently: forget about this film, nothing good will come of it, take your money and buy food and send the food to Poland instead, that will be of more use... and so on and so forth. There’s always a voice saying “no.” “You’re using the Poles” – Jill Godmilow hears from her partner – “just like everybody else is, to prove that you are right.” “Because I am right,” Jill responds. Her cause is her conviction of the great importance of the moment when the workers stop saying “we only work here” and take power; when “ten million people sit down to talk with each other.” But if the starting point of this film is the beautiful illusions and convictions of a New York leftist intellectual, then the strategy of investigating and presenting these causes turns out to be far from soc-idealistic simplicity and leftist constructiveness. It turns out that everything we know, we know second-hand, or third- or fourth-; everything we show is subject to mediation, media-ization and mediocracy; everything we present is put into quotation marks as something other, as intermediated, as played for our benefit, as by definition biased, as excessively individual, as fictitious. And practicing causes and points of view leads to chaos.

But Jill Godmilow doesn’t give up, and doesn’t stop seeking access to social experience. The documentary materials filmed in Poland by the Solidarity Film Agency for her film prove disappointing. They are made up of slogans, clichés for the use of the Western media, didactic images: this is a poster, this is a printer, this is a spokesman, this is a factory committee. A few minutes of this material makes it into the film, but the doubts remain: can you really make a film about a social phenomenon in Poland, far from Poland? If it weren’t for Andrzej Tymowski, today the director of international programs in the American Council of Learned Societies and a lecturer in the Liberal Arts Department of the University of Warsaw, Jill Godmilow herself certainly wouldn’t have believed it was. It’s thanks to him, and the material he sought out, translated and adapted that she got the materials that became the framework of the film.

For in the film Jill Godmilow re-enacts three extensive interviews, which in 1981 appeared in the Polish press: with Anna Walentynowicz, with a censor code-named K-62, and with a miner, whose character was compiled from verbatim reports of Silesian miners meetings. In the conversation with Hanna Krall, Anna Walentynowicz is played by Ruth Maleczech, an actress and co-founder of the famous New York experimental theatre Mabou Mines, while Krall is played by Elżbieta Matynia, then a newly arrived émigré in New York, today a professor at the New School and the author of the book Performative Democracy – a name that says a lot. Other actors in the film are also from Mabou Mines: William Raymond and David Warrilow. The re-enacted interview sequences in Far From Poland are pure theatre, but not the theatre of fact – rather a Brechtian didactic art, which reveals all of its seams and ideological intentions, and at the same time exposes its own incapability to convince anyone...

Jill Godmilow also seeks commentary on the situation in Poland from an émigré academic couple: Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Jan Gross, today on the Princeton faculty. This fascinating material was shot at their kitchen table. Gross’s analysis demonstrates that Solidarity is a triumph over the mediocrity that was the raison d’état of the communist governments. Grudzińska-Gross states that Solidarity is free of any ideology, and explaines why it must remain so for the moment. Today one can dream of a revisiting: for over 30 years there have arisen so many affairs, conflicts, meanings, new contexts for their statements.

And the final prophetic fantasy of Jill Godmilow, with an ingenious introduction: Andrzej Wajda providing her with materials for his unfinished film “Dear Mr. Prime Minister.” We see scenes from 1988, in which General Jaruzelski, who until then has remained under house arrest, leaves his place of isolation after five years and returns to society, to take up gardening...

In Far From Poland there are no facts, only opinions, many opinions, opinions from everywhere – the director brings out their uniqueness and self-interestedness, using the whole bag of tricks, and cinematic “quotation marks” –  it’s incredible how many ways cinema has to distance us from itself. And yet, it can achieve the opposite effect, and draw us into a radical political game of extricating ourselves from revolutionary chaos. For the first result of the social revolution is excess, from which it is impossible to construct a coherent narrative, if you want to remain faithful to its essence, namely: “anarchy” – as the time of Solidarity was described in the regime’s media. The anarchy of voices and images in Jill Godmilow’s film is above all an attempt to save the revolution’s innocence, but her strong authorial presence also allows her, however paradoxically, to give anarchy a structure, governed by the dialectic of hope and disappointment.

On the one hand, Far from Poland, thanks to its author’s ideological sincerity, brings out the positivity of Solidarity’s historical experience, and on the other – for the same reasons – all of its bitterness, which today is showing ever-new facets. After 30 years the film has become even more topical, speaking of a social revolution, of dictators, of American politics and its hypocrisy, and also of political illusions, of the possibilities of media manipulation, of conformism and non-conformism. The director’s “helplessness” at the time of filming unexpectedly becomes the perspective of its viewers, who bring to the film their own ideological defeat, political disenchantment, and historical confusion. The dialectic of hope and disappointment leans to one side. Now not only violence and manipulation, but cynicism and lack of faith present obstacles to positive scenarios. The irony written into the formula of the film and forced by the course of events outside the frame infects the content, piles up, increases. It spares no one, but it is not – as often happens with irony – an escape from emotions, but on the contrary, it seems to be pure emotion, a desperate acknowledgment of disaster.

The discovery of the film – for Poland, because it had been shown abroad many times, on various occasions – also has an interesting gender and feminist dimension not just because of the individual perspective of the director, but most of all because of the women’s voices that dominate in her film. From Anna Walentynowicz to the documentary material from various Polish workplaces, where Solidarity was founded and organised by women. It’s symptomatic that this particular documentary material was filmed not by Poles, but by Germans, who at that time were definitely more gender sensitive.

At the beginning of June 2014, thanks to Monika Fabijańska, it was possible to organise a public screening of Far From Poland in New York City, with the participation of Jill Godmilow, Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Andrzej Tymowski. The crowd of viewers, both Poles and Americans, confirmed all the assumptions about the film: its originality, experimental capacity, and its astounding political timeliness – for Americans, related to the experience of Occupy; for Poles, to the reckoning of the past 25 years. The New York bitterness in Barack Obama’s second term is not too far from the experience of Polish bitterness. Far From Poland appears to be close, closer. It’s just that in Poland nobody seems to have seen it.

In 1969, Harun Farocki made the film Nicht löschbares Feuer, about the production of napalm for the war in Vietnam and the individual responsibility of Americans – scientists, chemists, engineers – for its use. The film was not shown in the United States until Jill Godmilow decided to bring it there in a radical and risky political and artistic gesture. She shot a perfect replica of Farocki’s film, but in colour and in English and called it What Farocki Taught (1998). After 30 years, Nicht löschbares Feuer finally reached the people to whom it was primarily and directly addressed, thanks to the solidarity of the American director. Since then the two films, shown together, constantly renew their political context, testifying to the timeliness and authority of the charges formulated by Farocki and strengthened by Jill Godmilow.

Artistic solidarity and creative alliances based on similar thinking about politics: this is a web worth spinning together, to begin a completely new form of opposition movement, seeing as we have no choice but to start an opposition movement. Now, when it’s time to show Far from Poland in Poland, 30 years after its premiere, the thought of repaying and repeating Jill Godmilow’s political gesture towards Farocki seems to be more than obvious. So, a remake of Far from Poland? In Polish, 30 years later?

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