Fact and fiction

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2006, 12:00am

When a young woman murdered her mother one night in 1980, and stuffed her remains into a locker in Warsaw's main railway terminal, she altered the course of Poland's film industry, if not that of Europe, as well.

Her act ultimately led Krzysztof Kieslowski to abandon documentaries and channel his energy into fictional films: works such as Dekalog and the Three Colours trilogy.

Kieslowski was filming at the terminal for his documentary Railway Station - a veiled critique of state surveillance in communist Poland - around the time the murderer was there. Aware of Kieslowski's project, the police commandeered his footage as evidence.

'We didn't film the girl. But if we had, by chance? We could have filmed her,' he said a decade later during interviews with Danusia Stok for her book Kieslowski on Kieslowski. 'If we'd turned the camera left instead of right, perhaps we'd have caught her. And what would have happened? I'd have become a police collaborator. And that was the moment I realised I didn't want to make documentaries any more.'

Kieslowski had already had a series of run-ins with the authorities. Workers 71: Nothing about Us Without Us, made after strikes in December 1970 that led to the removal from power of Wladyslaw Gomulka, involved workers voicing their hopes and frustrations; the film was heavily censored. I Don't Know - featuring a Silesian factory manager who complained to his corrupt superiors about his embezzling colleagues - never made it into the cinemas.

Kieslowski made 20 documentaries between 1966 (while a student at the Lodz Film School) and 1980 (when he also made Talking Heads), and his fascination with the form stemmed from a belief that reality was - as he wrote in a thesis, Reality and the Documentary Film - stranger and more dramatic than fiction.

His documentaries amplified Poland's economic problems after years of communist misrule and an unsympathetic bureaucracy. But the films never resorted to tub-thumping. 'They raise questions, but do not profess to offer answers,' says Gary Mak Sing-hei, an associate director of Broadway Cinematheque, which has acquired the screening rights to all bar two of the late director's documentaries for its Remembering Kieslowski retrospective. 'He made it really clear that he's just observing proceedings.'

The approach fed his later work. Whether Kieslowski was tackling the Ten Commandments with Dekalog or liberty, equality and fraternity in the Three Colours trilogy, he was examining why these rules and values still matter.

It's been 16 years since Lech Walesa replaced military dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski as president and seven since Poland joined Nato, but Kieslowski's documentaries offer more than a look into a bygone social system. They also reveal the hopes and fears of individuals struggling against exploitation and bureaucracy - things that, however much philosophers such as Francis Fukuyama would like us to believe, have persisted in the newly capitalist eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Kieslowski's humane touch evokes empathy rather than mirth. In his 1971 documentary Before the Rally, when two motor mechanics struggle to compete in the Monte Carlo Rally with their battered Polska Fiat 124, their heartbreak is shared by distant observers. Real life, to paraphrase Kieslowski, can always be as heart-rending as fabricated melodrama.