Saturday, December 14, 2013

Wojciech/Malgosia Staroń's double documentary TWO LESSONS makes its Maysles Cinema debut

A most interesting example of documentary film-making that spans 13 years and offers, not just two different cultures and climates-- Siberia and Argentina  --but a view of major growth for both the filmmaker (Wojciech Staroń, below) and his subject (initially his girlfriend and now wife, Malgosia) from one doc to the next. The lessons in TWO LESSONS concern life, culture, family, and most importantly I think, the film-making process itself and what age and experience can teach us.

One of the surprises of the two-part, two-hour documentary is how much better in every way Part Two (Argentinian Lesson) is than Part One (Siberian Lesson). Not that you won't find some good stuff in that first part. But it is awfully scattered and unfocused -- rather like Malgosia herself seems through most of the film.

The time is 1996, and this young woman, shown below today, has left her native Poland to teach the Polish language to descendants of Poles exiled during and after WWII and the Communist takeover of much of eastern Europe, and who have lost much of their Polish roots. Her boyfriend, Wojciech, will tag among to film the experience. Which he does.

Though the Soviet Union has by now collapsed, and Capitalism -- in its new Russian model of a kind of powerful, near-Czarist state -- has taken over, the citizens are still reeling from this change, which has taken them from having so much provided (albeit in small amounts) to having, from what we see here, next to nothing. We view a bit of protest and hear some harsh words, but it's all quite scattered and catch-as-catch-can, as though neither Wojciech nor Malgosia had much of an idea what to do with all this. Well, they were both a lot younger then. And it shows. Plus there was that language barrier, so we couldn't, I guess, expect talking-head interviews of any depth. Malgosia tells us that she's falling more deeply in love with her cameraman and chronicler, but we don't really see or experience this, either. There's a friendly priest, some potato farming, and finally a wedding (hers and his). The hour seems often dreamlike and spacey, probably reflecting what this young woman was experiencing by finding herself away from home at some length for the first time.

Thirteen years later, with Argentinian Lesson, the pair is in Argentina, in the north of that country, in an area that looks somewhat like the Argentine "outback," with their two children in tow, a girl who looks about four and a boy -- Janek (above and below, left) -- who's maybe nine or ten. While mom again teaches Polish to the descendants of exiled Poles, Janek bonds with a young neighborhood girl of Polish ancestry (above and below, right) from a poor family whose father labors far away, whose mother appears to have some mental problems, and whose older brother is barely there and doesn't seem to much care.

This young girl is the heart of the documentary, and though we see, hear and learn about her glancingly, the Starońs see to it that we know enough to care and feel rather strongly about her and her situation. We learn what poverty means in time and dollars (you earn about seven Euros for making 1,000 bricks!) and Wojciech takes care to place his camera where it does the most good. By the time the Starońs must pull up stakes, we can feel young Janek's pain at being forced to leave this girl for whom he and we have grown to care.

Clearly Wojciech and Malgosia have learned quite a bit during the intervening years, and while Argentinian Lesson is by far the better of the two hours, seeing Siberian Lesson is worthwhile, too, from the aspect of being able to observe it as a kind of touchstone for growth.

The program under the title of Two Lessons, from Nonfiction Cinema Releasing, makes its worlwide theatrical premiere this coming Monday, December 12, through Sunday, December 22, at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, as part of the Documentary in Bloom series -- with screenings nightly at 7:30pm. You can find more information about the program and tickets by clicking the appropriate link.

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