Film Focus: Brothers

The Poles have one of the longest and most distinguished of all documentary histories. During the Communist era the more adventurous filmmakers would effectively conduct a dialogue with audiences that were inclined to trust them more than they did official statements. Post-1989, it’s a tradition that’s generally been maintained, albeit with unavoidably different funding and distribution models. There’s also been a greater tendency towards feature-length films (a tactic partly designed to avoid relegating them to television) and the documentation of non-Polish subjects. Maciej Drygas, who made his reputation on the back of virtuoso reworkings of Polish archive footage, has recently spent much time in Sudan documenting a vanishing way of life in Hear Us All (2008) and Abu Haraz (2013), while his younger compatriot Wojciech Staroń made a considerable festival splash in 2011 with the much-garlanded Argentinian Lesson (2011), documenting the friendship between Staroń’s own son Janek and his Argentinian friend Marcia as the Starońs gradually acclimatise themselves to a very different environment from their native Poland. 

Staroń originally trained as a cinematographer, and shot some of the more visually impressive Polish features of recent years: he’s the man behind the gorgeous monochrome imagery of Papusza (2013) by Joanna Kos-Krauze and the late Krzysztof Krauze. But he’s also been making documentaries for nearly two decades, starting with Siberian Lesson (1998), in which he filmed his then girlfriend (now wife) Małgosia as she taught Polish to the descendants of exiled Poles in an attempt to bring them closer to their ancestral homeland. 

Brothers, which had its world premiere at Locarno in the summer of 2015, returns to the same general territory, but this time from the perspective of the exiles themselves. When still children, Mieczysław (b. 1924) and Alfons (b. 1927) Kułakowski were deported during WW2 to a Siberian gulag with the rest of their family (or those that survived: four uncles were murdered), from which they eventually escaped in 1944, forging careers in the USSR (mainly Kazakhstan). Staroń first met them in 1994, a few years before they returned to their ancestral homeland and settled in a small Polish village, and stayed in touch with them ever since. 

The film was assembled from material that Staroń shot over this entire period, gradually acclimatising them to the camera’s presence. They’re usually seen together, often in silence, their memories illustrated at least as often by Mieczysław’s home movies (he was a former army cameraman) as by their own verbal reminiscences. The brothers look similar – gaunt, balding, grey-bearded – but are in many ways quite different. Mieczysław is the cartographer, a man who thrives on objective observation, while Alfons is the painter, with a much more overtly imaginative inner life; at one point, the film visits Brussels for an exhibition of his work. Yet it’s clear from the start that their lifelong mutual support comes in many physical and psychological forms. Even for the privileged window that Staroń opens for us, only the brothers themselves truly understand each other and what they’ve lived through.

by Michael Brooke

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