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Maciej Drygas

September 5, 2008

Hear My Cry, 1991

hearmycry.gifFilmed during the breakup of the Soviet Union, Hear My Cry captures the essence of Maciej Drygas's articulate and insightful film essays on the rupture between official record and human history, the impossibility of absolute truth, and the malleable nature of collective memory. The theme of revisionist history is prefigured in the film's opening shot, a wordless sequence of uniformed officers taking turns in confiscating documents from a private residence to be destroyed at a makeshift bonfire that had been set in the courtyard. Cutting to an image of a records clerk unlocking a series of doors leading to a remote storage room in order to retrieve what would prove to be woefully incomplete archived reports on the investigation surrounding a middle-aged accountant, Ryszard Siwiec's self-immolation on September 8, 1968 during a harvest festival at Warsaw Stadium - the dossier containing only a related citation for distributing flyers containing "false information" at the public event - the juxtaposition between the labyrinthine odyssey through locked vaults and the retrieval of Siwiec's sanitized files becomes a metaphor for an altered history (implicitly linked by the idea of destruction by fire) that had been suppressed during the Cold War. A subsequent review of church records by a parish priest similarly provides an intentionally ambiguous account of Siwiec's death (albeit for compassionate reasons), listing the cause of death as an accident, perhaps in order to be allowed proper burial in a Catholic cemetery (a sanctification that is also reflected in a priest's description of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation as a spiritual act of self-destruction and creation). In both cases, the incompleteness of information creates secondary - and equally inexact - layers of truth. Protesting against Władysław Gomułka's increasing alignment with the Soviet Union that contributed to the Warsaw Pact's intervention in Czechoslovakia after a series of liberalization reforms, Siwiec had sought to expose the party's betrayal of socialist ideals under Gomułka's leadership and the folly of subjugating a nation.

But beyond a chronicle of Soviet-era whitewashing, Drygas examines the plasticity of memory in the way time deforms and sets - however imperfectly - during moments of crisis and tragedy. This idea is illustrated in the reading of Siwiec's will, as photographs of his wife and children from 1968 are intercut with present-day interviews of the children, now middle-aged, who share memories of their father and comment on the legacy of a heroism that had only been realized in the hindsight of cultural rehabilitation - his death, figuratively suspended in time, even as history has transformed to reframe his protest as an act of patriotic resistance. The refiguration of memory is also reflected in Siwiec's wife, Maria's recollections of their last Easter together, observing a distance and melancholy that may or may not have actually existed (a daughter earlier recalls Siwiec's animation especially when discussing politics with family), and in the accounts of witnesses who remember the incident only within the context of a momentary disruption from the pageantry by a mentally unstable spectator. In this respect, Hear My Cry converges towards Harun Farocki's expositions on the interrelation between cognition and recognition in Images of the World and the Inscription of War, exploring the disjunction between the captured image (seeing) and its registration (memory). Concluding with a slow motion, magnified shot of Siwiec's self-immolation captured by Kronika Filmowa camera operator, Zbigniew Skoczek, the manipulated footage itself becomes a protraction of time and signification of the image - an act of imprinting memory.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 05, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Maciej Drygas

June 5, 2008

State of Weightlessness, 1994

state_weightlessness.gifFilmed after the dismantling of the Soviet Union at a time when the U.S. space station project (then called Freedom) that had been championed by Ronald Reagan was similarly facing its own crisis of survival after a series of deep budget cuts (partly in response to shifting political considerations and administrations), Maciej Drygas's The State of Weightlessness is a clear-eyed, thoughtful, and articulate survey of the human cost of the Cold War-fueled space race, and the moral vacuum left in the wake of geopolitical upheaval. Incisively opening to the recorded audio transmission between an unseen cosmonaut (perhaps aboard the Mir space station) and ground control as he positions the microphone near areas around his heart in an attempt to amplify his heartbeat for the remote listener, the cosmonaut's long distance health checkup also becomes a metaphor for Drygas's examination on the current state of a people's disoriented collective consciousness as Russia dramatically transformed from communist state to federal republic. Framed as a candid discussion on the exhilaration, difficulties, adaptations, and dangers inherent in manned spaceflight (and in particular, the long duration mission tours of duty necessitated by the launching of the Salyut, then Mir space stations) with a diverse cross-section of participants from the Soviet space program - cosmonauts, scientists, physicians, surviving family members, and medical experiment participants - the film also reveals the moral consequences inherent in the politically motivated pursuit of technology.

In one interview, flight engineer Georgi Grechko (the first person to conduct a spacewalk outside an orbiter) reflects on his adventurous spirit colliding with the realization of his own mortality following a near-death experience during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere - an incident that invokes the specter of Soviet hero, Vladimir Komarov, whose death from a failed parachute deployment during landing would come to symbolize the human toll exacted in the noble (and politically mandated) pursuit of space exploration. A similar spectacle is forged in the aftermath of the Soyuz 11 crew's ill-fated homecoming - the elation over the first successful mission to the Salyut space station upended by the discovery of the crew's accidental exposure to the vacuum of space during undocking and separation. In each case, the propaganda value of a hero's welcome would be transfigured into an equally potent rallying cry for perseverance and solidarity with the national space program, capitalizing on a public outpouring of grief and sympathy. In another interview, Mir cosmonaut Aleksandr Laveykin expresses his disagreement with pioneering rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's comment that human destiny lies beyond Earth's gravity, remarking that humanity will always harbor an inviolable emotional connection with the idea of home and will always strive to return, a sentiment that is similarly expressed by veteran cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov (who has logged more than 670 days in space during two Mir missions) who describes his own thoughts during landing as those disconnected from fundamental questions of life and death (and history), and instead, were filled with the idea of savoring the simple gestures of being human - a glass of wine, a cigarette, his wife's embrace.

However, the toll of spaceflight is not only relegated to the memories of increasingly forgotten, conquering heroes, but also in the damaged lives of many anonymous, medical experiment participants like Yevgeni Kiriushin who was subjected to a research study that simulated the effects of long-duration weightlessness. Recounting bouts of depression, alcoholism, broken marriages, and other manifestations of psychological damage that continue to plague fellow research participants long after the end of the clinical studies, and punctuated by a visit to a colleague who sustained irreversible neurological damage, Kiriushin's testimony is a sobering reminder of the murky ethics, institutional cruelty, and callous indifference that underpins the myopic, zealous pursuit of these milestone achievements. Returning to images of a deserted, post-communist Baikonur Cosmodrome as a cosmonaut - unable to return home - listens to his wife's comments on the turbulent changes sweeping the country (and reassurance over his enviable distance from the sociopolitical maelstrom), the stark contrast reflects the moral question posed by all human endeavor - where conscience is a surrogate force of gravity - suspended between heaven and earth, humanity and history.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 05, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Maciej Drygas