Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings

Under Communist rule the Polish government encouraged amateur filmmaking as a leisure activity for workers, though these nonprofessionals were, naturally, viewed with skepticism by their professional brethren, who labored under the watchful eye of the government censor and were hardly eager to share their few privileges. Nonetheless, as London-based artists Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings demonstrated in this exhibition, amateur filmmakers in Communist Poland produced an amazing array of 16 mm films that range from witty, short animations and documentaries to engaging mini-epics—along with some artistic duds. Benefiting from an elaborate if informal (but official) support structure, the amateur clubs in which the films were produced and first screened were a true social microcosm, forming a vital grassroots scene. Paradoxically, while most professional Polish films have aged badly, aside from a few that remain “cult movies” such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (1979), the technically limited efforts of amateurs may be gaining new relevance as Poland embraces democracy and a free-market economy: The films are unique and eccentric but also authentic—artistic expressions from the time when the country was isolated from the West by the Iron Curtain. The post—Berlin Wall reality has, however, been harsh for nonprofessional cinema in Poland—the amateur clubs were all closed, falling victim both to Poland’s rush to rid itself of the remnants of state socialism and to the cost cutting of factory owners.

This exhibition, titled “Entuzjaści” (The Enthusiasts; curated by Lukasz Ronduda), resulted from Lewandowska and Cummings’s two-year search for amateur films produced in Poland from the late ’50s through the ’80s. The material could have been presented as a fascinating film festival, but the artists chose instead to show it in a museum, in which the viewer could see a selection of the films in “authentic” settings related to their original production and screening, but downplaying the singularity of individual expressions. The labyrinthine exhibition was a five-part installation, including a fake studio fitted out with original film equipment, period furniture, and all kinds of memorabilia; three small screening rooms; and an archive. A sign above the entrance to each screening room announced its theme: “Love,” “Longing,” or “Labor.” Themes like the real conditions in Polish factories in the “Labor” section, or gay desire in the “Love” section, were almost totally absent from professional cinema in state socialist Poland. Decoding the messages of these amateur films called for “clandestine” knowledge of the given reality: Metaphorically speaking, one had to mentally cruise in darkness.

The exhibition, which will travel to London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in April, raised questions about boundaries between official and unofficial cultures and the nature of the relationship between labor and leisure—questions that, for sociological rather than ideological reasons, seem to preoccupy Lewandowska and Cummings as much as they once preoccupied Marxist thinkers. As the artists astutely observed, the true paradox of Polish amateur cinema is the fact that the amateurs inverted the logic of labor and leisure: They were most productive when pursuing their passions at the expense of their daytime productivity in factories. Doesn’t this sound like a solution for creating places where everybody finds ways to be an artist? As far as nostalgia for such an Atlantis is concerned, what those films make clear—and mourn—is the fact that present-day Poland has practically lost the ethic of dissent as an expression of hope.

Marek Bartelik