From psychotherapy to old age, from loneliness to nationalism, from illnesses of the soul to chasing one’s dreams: Culture.pl presents the best documentaries of 2016 in the form of documentary comedies, poetic essays, and psychological dramas, and more.

Nowadays, documentary filmmakers are at the heart of Polish cinematography. Just in 2016, Polish documentary filmmakers have been nominated for the European Film Award, made it to the Academy Award shortlist, and awarded at the Locarno Festival, the Dutch IDFA, and the prestigious festival in Liepzig, as well as at the most important Polish festivals in Warsaw and Kraków. Most of all, they describe our reality and its transformation.

21 x New York by Piotr Stasik

21 x New York directed by Piotr Stasik, photo: Kraków Film Festival
21 x New York directed by Piotr Stasik, photo: Kraków Film Festival

Piotr Stasik’s documentary films baffle viewers. The director of The Last Day of Summer likes to mix contradictory atmospheres and to balance between different genres. 21 x New York is no different – it’s a tale about the city that never sleeps, but also about people, their loneliness, the need for closeness, and disappointed hopes.
Stasik filmed 21 people he met on the New York subway. He was curious about their feelings, the little dreams that push their everyday life forward, and the failures which constitute their mundane reality. 21 x New Yorkdoes not have sociological ambitions; it is a documentary story about troubled souls and their insatiable craving for intimacy. Tadeusz Sobolewski from Gazeta Wyborcza wrote about Stasik’s film:

This multiplicity of voices at first glance recalls Walt Whitman’s poems, where the protagonist identifies with everyone (‘I see the cities of the earth, and make myself at random a part of them…’). It’s also difficult not to mention the famous 20th-century photography exhibition The Family of Man that toured the whole world.

21 x New York is hypnotic and poetic, trance-like and melancholic at once, like a mix of the films of Jim Jarmusch and Gaspar Noe. In 2016 Stasik’s documentary was one of six films nominated for the European Film Award for Best Documentary.

The End of the World by Monika Pawluczuk

Everybody understands it differently but it means something special to each of us. Krzysztof, who calls the radio every night, wants the end of the world to be silent so as not to scare his dogs. For a taxi-driver, his wife’s recent death was the end of the world, and for a young woman telling her story on the radio – the end of the world was when she decided to abort her pregnancy to start chemotherapy.

Monika Pawluczuk’s film is a tale about the night between 21st and 22nd December 2012 when – according to Mayan prophecy – the end of the world would come. The young director describes this night using the world of her protagonists, presenting the stories of their problems. The film is composed of recordings from the emergency services, taxi conversations, and recorded radio programmes. These elements combine to build a portrait of all Poles.

Pawluczuk observes her protagonists with sensitivity. Instead of emotionalism, there is empathy. However, Pawluczuk’s film isn’t just a series of intimate stories, it is also an example of well-thought-out documentary technique. TheEnd of the World is a film with strong dramaturgy and a thoughtful form. The tale deepens with the passing of the night and the rhythm of the story is given by the ensuing turning points.

Even though TheEnd of the World was in cinemas at the beginning of 2015, its greatest festival successes came in 2016. Monika Pawluczuk’s film was one of five Polish films to contend for the Academy Award nomination. It didn’t get it, but that doesn’t change the fact that the film is an example of beautiful and wise cinema.

Brothers by Wojciech Staroń

Still from the film Brothers by Wojciech Staroń, 2015, on the photo: Alfons and Mieczysław Kułakowski, photo: Wojciech Staroń
Still from the film Brothers by Wojciech Staroń, 2015, on the photo: Alfons and Mieczysław Kułakowski, photo: Wojciech Staroń

Despite his young age, Wojciech Staroń is already one of the masters of Polish documentary. His Siberian Lesson and Argentinian Lesson, two very personal films, are canonic films of contemporary documentary. A few months ago, the canon was complemented by Brothers, Staroń’s most recent picture.

Shot over the course of seven years, Brothers is a moving story about brotherly love and growing old. On a trip to Kazakhstan in 90s, Staroń met the film’s protagonists, brothers Alfons and Mieczysław Kułakowski, Polish emigrants who were taken by the winds of history first to Siberia and then to Kazakhstan. Ten years after their meeting with Staroń, the Kułakowski brothers returned to Poland. They repatriate to a small village in the north of Poland to start their lives again.

The director observes his protagonists in intimate everyday situations. Staroń is not interested in grand history nor in sentimental journeys into the past. He is interested in the ‘here and now’, in small, everyday rituals. He describes two men, so close to each other and at the same time so different. One is a little melancholic, the other has a positive attitude to the world. One is romantic, while the second – a pragmatist. They have spent their entire lives together and now, together, face death. Piotr Czerkawski wrote in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna:

Staroń’s documentary is also fascinating as a tale about old age presented with dignity, but also without false beauty. The director indicates that the passing time stigmatises the protagonists physically and mentally.

Brothers, awarded at 68th Locarno Film Festival, is a sensitive documentary. We look into the intimate world of the protagonists, but thanks to the director’s empathy, we are not intruders, but guests. Brothers is one of the warmest and most moving films from the past year.

Close Ties by Zofia Kowalewska

Still from the film Close Ties by Zofia Kowalewska, photo: Kraków Film Festival
Still from the film Close Ties by Zofia Kowalewska, photo: Kraków Film Festival

She is 21 years old, has only one film under her belt, and stands a strong chance of winning an Academy Award. Zofia Kowalewska, student at the Directing Department of the National Film School in Łódź, made her debut in great style. Her Close Ties was awarded at the most important film festivals in Liepzig, Amsterdam and Kraków…

…And rightly so. Kowalewska’s documentary is a wonderful mixture of comedy and drama, personal but at the same time very universal. The protagonists are the director’s grandparents.Close Ties is a story about a marriage with a 45-year-long history and a turbulent past. A few years before filming, Zdzisław left his wife Barbara and moved out to start a new life with his lover. After falling ill, he returns to their once shared apartment. Barbara and Zdzisław try again to answer the question of who they are to each other. The approaching anniversary of their marriage is an opportunity to understand their new relationship.

In her film debut, Kowalewska turned towards her family. She observes their relationship, shows their loneliness and emotional complications. Her Close Ties is moving in its realism and at the same time, very humorous. This is why in 2016 it was placed on the Oscar shortlist for Best Short Documentary. The director deserves attention and congratulations, even if her film ends up without the award, as Close Ties is a harbinger of a great film talent.

Icon by Wojciech Kasperski

Still from the film Icon by Wojciech Kasperski, photo: Kraków Film Festival
Still from the film Icon by  Wojciech Kasperski, photo: Kraków Film Festival

Wojciech Kasperski, creator of the famous The Seeds, returns to Russia in his latest documentary. Iconis about a psychiatric hospital located somewhere in distant Siberia. Once again, Kasperski shows that he is a master of laconic storytelling.

Awarded at the 56th Kraków Film Festival, Icon is an outstanding film, rooted in uncertainty and curiosity, posing questions but not hinting at easy answers.

Initially, it was meant to be the story of doctors working with terminally ill patients. Together with his crew, he travelled four thousand kilometres across Russia, documenting. That’s how they found an old mental hospital, where for 1,500 patients there are five doctors. As well as those who are seriously ill, there are people who are not needed any more by anyone. In an interview for the Polish Filmmakers Association, Kasperski said that:

It is a dump where society discards those whom it doesn’t know what to do with.

Icon tempts you to close your eyes, not to see it, not to touch it. What are we looking at? Kasperski managed to make a humanistic film in an inhuman place. About what is beyond the horizon of the imagination, consciousness, knowledge, and will. You have to go through that with your eyes wide open.

You Have No Idea How Much I Love You by Paweł Łoziński

You Have No Idea How Much I Love You by Paweł Łoziński, photo: promo materials
You Have No Idea How Much I Love You by Paweł Łoziński, photo: promo materials

This brave and wise documentary by Paweł Łoziński is a story about psychotherapy as the art of disarming words. Łoziński observes the story of a mother and daughter’s psychotherapy treatments, who try to understand where the misunderstandings between them come from. Their journey to mutual acceptance is full of painful words and hidden emotions and resentments.

For Łoziński, You Have No Idea How Much I Love You was a continuation of his previous film. In Father and Son, one of the best Polish documentaries of the past decade, Łoziński filmed himself and his father. The film was supposed to serve as a means to purify their relationship. But artistic fulfilment does not not always go hand in hand with therapeutic success. They decided to create two separate works. Janusz Wróblewski wrote in Polityka:

To feel and fully understand the original concept of this experiment you have to carefully read the final credits. It gives the film meaning and encourages the viewer to rethink the entire story.

You Have No Idea How Much I Love You can be placed in the therapeutic trend in contemporary documentaries. It isn’t autobiographical, like the excellent Forget Me Not by David Sieveking or the films of Polish director Marcin Koszałka which deal with his family matters. Nevertheless, Łoziński’s work has an intimate tone and viewers can feel that by talking about other people, the director is also saying something important about himself, his emotions, and his comprehension of them.

Communion by Anna Zamecka

Communion by Anna Zamecka, photo: promo materials
Communion by Anna Zamecka, photo: promo materials

Anna Zamecka’s debut documentary is a sensation at international festivals, winning at Locarno, Amsterdam, and Liepzig. This painful, beautiful film is one of the most awarded documentaries of the past few years. Communion tells the story of Ola, a 14-year-old head of a family. Her father does not know how to take care of them, and their mother has left them for another man and is to have a baby with him. Ola takes care of the family and believes that her mother will soon return home. Nikodem, her younger brother, is to receive his first communion soon. For Ola, the celebration is a chance to reunite her parents.

Depicting the teenage girl’s life, Zamecka doesn’t simplify or accuse anyone. It is not the story of Ola’s fight with an evil world, but about the characters themselves – her emotions, regrets, desire for innocence and rest; her painful longing for her mother, love, and a return to the role of a child. Communion is a story about growing up and abandoning illusions.

Lesson of Patriotism by Filip Jacobson

Still from the film Lesson of Patriotism by Filip Jacobson, photo: Kraków Film Festival
Still from the film Lesson of Patriotism by Filip Jacobson, photo: Kraków Film Festival

Filmed in black and white, Jacobson’s film is evocative of the early works by Forman – there is a bit of folklore, irony, and humour, but the Lesson of Patriotism incites more terror than laughter. Lesson of Patriotism is a film created with the same absurd nature as we can find in The Firemen’s Ball or Loves of a Blonde. But Jacobson’s film isn’t a comedy and the presented world isn’t imagined – it’s part of contemporary Poland.

The young director observed a patriotic song contest conducted at a primary school somewhere in Poland. Small children sing in front of a jury comprised of local authority figures. They sing about insurgents, heroic deaths, and the harsh fate of guerilla fighters. It’s obvious that the small performers don’t understand any of the lyrics they sing. The children will be judged for their pronunciation and musicality, and of course, their patriotism.

This short film hides something terrifying inside. In a casual, light way it shows how nationalism and martyrdom become the only accepted version of patriotism, leaving no room for other sorts.

This Polish-German production was awarded at the 59th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, one of the most important documentary film festivals in Europe.

First Pole on Mars by Agnieszka Elbanowska

During the past few years Agnieszka Elbanowska has become one of the main Polish creators of comedic documentary in the style of Marek Piwowski. In 2013 she fascinated with her The Love Equation of Henry Fast, the story of a retired mathematics professor, who after years spent in USA returns to Poland to find his love – a beautiful young woman.

In First Pole on Mars, Elbanowska tells the story of a peculiar man. Kazimierz is over sixty years old and he dreams of going to Mars. He’s already volunteered to compete in the fight to participate in the historic Mars One project. Its participants are supposed to be sent to Mars to colonise the planet. Kazimierz wants to take part in this journey without return to become the first Pole to set foot on the Red Planet.

In her 40-minute-long film, Elbanowska creates a portrayal of Kazimierz which is both amusing and touching. When the opportunity arises she also takes a look at provincial Poland – to a world of wall partitions and old-fashioned suits, where the local priest and the village head share power over the people. But also a place where people know their neighbours and help and listen to one another. The picture of provincial Poland created by Elbanowska has no patronisation or mockery – it is full of sympathy, even when the presented world turns out to be nonsensical and humorous.

Collage of our 2016 picks, photo:  Wajda School, Kraków Film Festival, Munk Studio, producer’s press materials