Hot Docs & Ekran Co-Present “Communion”
Communion (Komunia, 2016, Anna Zamęcka)
Ola leads a busier life than most 14-year-olds. Forced to keep her household afloat in the absence of capable adults, she assumes a daunting range of responsibilities that include caring for an alcoholic father and an autistic 13-year-old brother. The tensions, frustrations and dreams of this real-life Polish family, mundane and yet exceptional, are the subject of Anna Zamęcka’s quietly devastating debut feature Communion, which has garnered its share of international awards and critical raves as well as a Best Documentary prize from the Polish Film Academy.
Zamęcka’s film developed out of a chance encounter with father Marek, which led to her getting to know the two children. She was drawn to the family’s poignant situation, especially that of Ola, and inspired by the trio’s ‘strong faces’ and the cinematic potential of their flat, a space in disarray yet radiant with natural light. Her approach to the film was highly controlled: she insists this was a film ‘scripted’ at the outset. This degree of control, together with Zamęcka’s thorough and deeply empathetic immersion in the family’s lives, makes for a film of great expressiveness and discipline, able to give shape to the flow of real incidents and to concentrate much insight into a single motif or detail.
A good example of this economy is the impending first communion of Ola’s brother Nikodem, which (as the title suggests) gives the film its dramatic and symbolic centre. This event brings Ola’s deepest longings to the surface, for her tireless efforts coaching Nikodem for the communion – which include catechism drills and a run-through for the Eucharist with banana slices – are underpinned by the hope that this ceremony will bring back mother Magda, now living with a new partner and baby.
If Nikodem’s religious communion is the vehicle for a desired family ‘communion’, this ceremony is also one that marks coming of age, and thus it crystallizes the film’s theme of troubled initiation into adulthood. Adulthood brings risks and pitfalls that Ola’s parents have not escaped; in another sense her parents have sadly failed to attain true adulthood, while Ola has attained it prematurely. Zamęcka extends the motif of communion by including a home-movie ‘flashback’ of Ola’s mother getting dressed for her own communion as a child. The video allows us to reflect on how this determined, expectant, open-faced girl became the unhappy adult woman who has evidently exchanged one dysfunctional family for another.
Though Zamęcka and cinematographer Małgorzata Szylak make unshowy use of the camera, observing their protagonists in contemplative, often-still shots, the film adds further telling commentary through subtle visual choices. Careful framing emphasizes the family members’ isolation and apartness from a world that doesn’t try too hard to help or understand them, while the cramped space of the family flat – to which Zamęcka consciously limited as much of the film’s action as she could – encapsulates the restricted state of Ola in particular, her personal leisure and study time crowded out by family duty. Scenes that take place elsewhere, like Ola’s boisterous school disco, are experienced all the more as moments of snatched, fleeting liberation.
Zamęcka resists any temptation to sentimentalize or demonize her subjects. Ola’s everyday heroism emerges with little explicit underlining, often revealed in crucial ‘stray’ details like her discernible tiredness. The depiction of Nikodem is an even greater feat, with Zamęcka skirting possible ethical problems in her representation of autism. Nikodem is certainly the source of much of the film’s welcome humour – as when listing gluttony as one of the three Christian virtues to his communion priest – but Zamęcka avoids any tinge of superior mockery due to the sincere engagement she makes with Nikodem’s rich imaginative world. She has even identified Nikodem as a narrator figure who comments on the action with his cryptic, at times uncannily sophisticated exclamations.
‘Reality becomes fiction’, Nikodem declares in one such remarkable utterance. Here his commentary can be applied with great relevance to the film itself. Zamęcka has crafted a docume ntary that doubtless stays true to the real lives it portrays while also presenting them with the dramatic and emotional qualities of the best fiction.
To read an interview with Anna Zamęcka about the making of Communion, follow the link: http://filmmakermagazine.com/101722-truefalse-anna-zameck-on-her-transcendent-documentary-debut-communion/#.WO7n9lN96b8
Communion is part of the “World Showcase” at Hot Docs and is a Co-presentation between Hot Docs & Ekran.
The film will make it’s Canadian debut at 6:45 PM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And will be screening again on Saturday April 29th at 1:15 PM at the Scotiabank Theatre. For tickets click here.
Reviewed by Jonathan Owen