An Ordinary Country | Zwyczajmy Kraj (2019) **** Krakow Film Festival 2020

June 8th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Tomasza Wolskiego; Documentary, Poland 2019, 53 min.

Polish writer/director Tomasza Wolskiego (Gold Fish) has created a devastating and filmic portrait of the work of the Stalinist Security Services and the Citizen’s Militia in Poland in the 1970s and 80s.

Enriched by found footage from the agencies, it paints a sombre snapshot of everyday life: we are not talking here about people being victimised or wanting to overthrow the system – far from it, the sins are purely those of the flesh brought on by their persecution complex and neurosis.

The footage, shot in black-and-white, bears witness to state operatives busy recording and arresting with a self-importance associated with some massive nationwide conspiracy. This paranoia  is transferred to ordinary people inducing misplaced feelings of guilty, and even shame for crimes not even contemplated. Hunter and hunted often look the same, particularly when the agents try to turn their victims into informers – in 1989 the number of officers in the two services was 24 000, the number of informers 90, 000. In a way, this was like a pandemic, slowly eating up more and more of the population. 

The pathetic nature of it all is best seen in the case of an ordinary house wife whose husband works for Ocean Sailing, and is accused of illegal dealings in foreign currency. Whilst the woman is interrogated, another officer tapes the conversation, his co-worker trying to trip the woman up: he wants to know the exact price she paid for a radio, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and a fridge. Not getting anywhere, he switches his focus the price of meat, the number of loaves of bread, the amount of butter and margarine consumed. He then announces pompously that conversation is being recorded “and will be used as evidence in the case of prosecution.” Switching tack, he asks her how much her husband earns. Did he have a foreign exchange supplement? How much? When the woman pleads ignorance, the interrogator gets indignant: “Come on, you are a house wife, you know the figures”. Finally, he gets to the main question: “How much did you get for the blouses?”. When the woman insists she has no need for blouses because she has everything at home, he gives up for the moment: “You sold nothing and have everything at home. Fine. Thank you”. 

Then there is the case of diplomat caught in flagrant for two-timing his wife. Polaroid photos of crumpled bed sheets are brought out to indicate “intimate purposes”. The officers record their conversation with the diplomat in his flat, the kitchen door is plastered with pornographic images, under the bed old “Playboy” and lesbian magazines. “But we come here to you like friends. If you are with us, we will take care of you. We’ll take care of everything, to keep you safe. From your wife in particular. We should make a deal. We are aware of your contacts in Germany and America. They are looking for links to Solidarnosc. Help for help. We close your case” After promising not to ruin his career but make it flourish, the deal is struck.: “I, the undersigned will help the Polish Special Service. I will keep this fact strictly confidential”. Then: “Put a dot there, and start with a capital letter”. Afterwards he is released with a final warning: “We do punish ignorance.”  

The overall impression is that of great sadness: more or less innocent people are coerced into becoming informers, or face long prison sentences for minor offences. But the real culprits are not the men or women, phoning relatives abroad for haemorrhoid medication because the shelves are empty in Poland, but a State who treats its citizens as criminals, for simply wanting to survive.

This is a paradise for Kafkaesque officers, who spend their days denying others the smallest of pleasure in this grey morass of officialdom. Meanwhile, faceless bureaucrats at the top let loose an army of petty policemen, posing as a ‘service for the people’. Ironically these weasels are as much victims as those they persecute, denying others a soul, having lost their own. AS

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