Tomasz Wolski’s immersion into the Secret Service archives of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance packs a considerable political punch, and delivers on an aesthetic level too. The director explains all to BDE.
The genesis of Tomasz Wolski’s An Ordinary Country, culled from the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance, wasn’t so much the ready availability of so many hours of covert Secret Service footage shot over decades, he says.
Rather the film was made in response to idle claims by people with whom he spoke, and who hadn’t lived through those times, that they would never be cowed by an oppressive political system nor its instruments of surveillance/subjugation. (These conversations were conducted around 2016 when new claims against Lech Walesa were made as to his alleged collusion with the Secret Services in the early 1970s).
“I was so surprised that people who don’t understand those times,” says Wolski, “that they were so easily talking like this, that they would ‘do something’ or they ‘wouldn’t do something’. So I thought ok, maybe I have to bring back part of this Communist era.”
Wolski’s 53-minute film offers neither commentary nor explanation. All we see is archive footage and its accompanying audio. There are no prominent politicians nor union leaders, just ordinary, anonymous people who, for some reason, were the object of the Security Service’s interest and subsequent scrutiny. And for that very reason, it is both terrifying and gripping.
“I was never interested in the behind-the-scenes stories of what was happening. I will stick with the images, I thought. I don’t care who these guys are, what the case is about. I want to collect this footage and see how I can tell the story.”
The project also had an aesthetic raison d’etre, to use the footage “in a creative way to make some kind of piece of art, and I thought ‘ok, maybe I will treat these Secret Service officers as if they were documentary makers of that previous Communist time, and show what kind of image of my country they shot.”
People in the film are observed sitting in restaurants, or walking down the road with a friend. Because it is a film about surveillance, you begin to suspect that the packages they carry must have some significance – but they are probably just books or a loaf of bread. We hear a long telephone conversation about the price of a puppy, which within the context of this covert recording must be a conversation conducted in code. But it’s as likely they were discussing the purchase of a new dog.
One shocking exchange (if only because it is so banal) shows an officer interrogating a housewife about household expenditure over a period of years, quizzing her as to how she was able to afford a certain standard of living. All the time he is sowing the seeds of fear, and trying, one suspects, to detect an exploitable weakness or inconsistency so as to recruit her as a future informer.
Any indiscretion, any aberration could and would, Wolski argues, be seized upon, magnified and exploited. “There is this scene in the searching of a house where there are erotic magazines, also gay material. At that time that was not [tolerated], that was your secret, that you are gay, so that was the point of the Secret Service, they can use this to manipulate you. And it was the same situation with this other guy who is filmed with some kind of mistress, and he has a wife. It was so easy to say, ‘come on, you have to work with us, and we will help you’.”
Foreigners and those who meet with them are also scrutinised. “They were all under suspicion and a subject of the Secret Services. It was like some kind of obsession, about the West, about abroad, that something can come to our Poland and destroy us, that freedom can come and destroy us, and they were afraid of this,” says Wolski.
There is also brutality. The film doesn’t explain why, but late night revellers (mainly men) are targeted and arrested, the bright lights of the cameras illuminating a need or desire not to show their faces (or maybe they are temporarily blinded), and some are treated very roughly. A dead man lies on a street surrounded by, what we assume to be, security operatives. Footage of a subsequent funeral is filmed covertly, of course, from both low and high vantage points.
“The story does not end with this funeral,” Wolski adds. “The real ending is in the conversation, that some day all this footage and all that you do can one day come out [in the open], and some of the people were afraid. And of course that happened because these materials, all this footage, are available now.”
All of which feeds into the 21st Century’s ubiquitous use of, and reliance upon, surveillance. “I never was thinking about this project as a historical film. I was always thinking about what is going on now, in terms of the whole Big Brother and all the cameras that you have around you, and how this film can be some kind of warning for us, for citizens,” he underlines.
“If we allow politics to step so far into our private lives it might end like this, [especially when] the technology is much, much better. You have a camera in your mobile or in your laptop, so they don’t have to follow you. They can just hack into your computer, and that’s it.”