Reviewed by: Susanna Krawczyk

I don’t claim to be an expert on Poland and its political situation, but I know a little, and so this short documentary/art piece by Artur Zmijewski really piqued my interest. Made for Documenta 12, it follows a group of people both young and old as they explore the use and meaning of symbols in connection with political ideologies.

No explanation or exposition is provided for the viewer, but as far as I can tell the set-up is this: four groups representing diverse groups from Polish society were each invited to paint a symbol that meant something to them on a large piece of white cardboard. A group of elderly Polish ladies painted an elaborate Catholic church; some members of the All Polish Youth a vivid representation of the Szczerbiec Sword (a symbol of Polish monarchy); a group of young Jewish Poles used a Hebrew word (that sounded like “Poland”) meaning “rest” inside an outline of the country; and what appeared to be a group of liberal, left-wing people decided upon the Polish word for “Freedom” inside a shield. So far so understandable. What came next, however, provided the real interest: each group was allowed to do whatever it wanted to the other groups’ pictures – not excluding setting them on fire.

The process and outcome of such an experiment may be predictable, but it is no less interesting for that. Just because we know that the religious Catholic women will be offended by a rainbow flag across a symbol of Polish nationalism doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating and a little bit scary to hear their justifications and reasoning.

A film like this is, of course, interesting in a generalised way - as a look at how people in general have symbols that are important to them and how it can be very easy to become attached to them to the point of clinginess. As a picture of Polish society specifically, however, it becomes even more interesting. For example, given relatively recent history, I’m sure many viewers will feel as I did: extremely uncomfortable in the face of the constant trumpeting of “Great Catholic Poland” and the fact that the All Polish Youth come almost to the point of adding the phrase “Poland for the Poles” to the Jewish group’s artwork. Of course, other viewers will feel completely differently. Such is the nature of a piece like this.

A short discussion appended the screening I attended, in which an artist, a gallery owner and an academic discussed whether a piece like this has real social value. No real consensus was reached, but points brought up included the element of “Big Brother” style exploitation apparent in an experiment of this type. Was it just an exercise in pitting people against each other to watch them fight? Would any of them go away with a better understanding of the “other side” in the political debate? Or was the value solely to be taken in the viewing, to remind us how easy it is to make people we don’t agree with into “Them”, aided by the use of symbols and dogma? Certainly I feel there was value gained in the discussion, if nothing else.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2008
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A documentary exploring the use and meaning of political symbols.

Director: Artur Zmijewski

Writer: Artur Zmijewski

Year: 2007

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Poland


Glasgow 2008

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