[16 December 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I felt strange in front of the blackboard. I was talking and everybody was looking at me and listening to me.” A new teacher, Malgosia Staroń looks young and poised, her jacket boxy and her hair pulled back. The camera in Two Lessons cuts between Malgosia writing words on the blackboard and close-ups of her students’ faces. That these faces might be read variously—intent or bored, engaged or distracted—illustrates, subtly, what she describes. From the front of the room, your students can seem daunting. All you know is that you are the focus of their attention, that your performance will make a difference, and that this difference that might be tremendous.
As she will throughout the film, Malgosia here is careful to note her own position, of the potential and other perspective she represents. Filmed by Wojciech Staroń, her husband to be in 1996, she has come to a village in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia to teach Polish to Poles. The Soviet Union has just collapsed and the Polish government hopes to “assist” descendants of Polish exiles by reacquainting them with their language. The children she teaches know little of their history, imagine what might lie beyond the potato fields and lakes. “Most of my students,” she observes, “were very romantic dreamers, searching for something while discovering a different culture. They wanted to find something interesting, different, something they cannot experience in their life here in this part of the world.” She might also be describing herself, as she seeks and becomes part of her own lesson.
The film reflects this complex intertwining of fates, however brief and however memorable, Malgosia’s developing appreciation for her new community, one she perceives as both impermanent, as she’s assigned to work here for just a year, and eternal, as she absorbs a culture both foreign and familiar, a culture tied to place more than national identity, shaped by disappointments as much as expectations, harsh climate and scant resources. Moreover, as the film is now assembled with Wojciech’s second documentary, Argentyńska Lekcja (Argentinian Lesson), it reflects and becomes an ongoing experience. The second film, winner of 2012’s Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement, follows the couple and their children, specifically their son Janek, as Malgosia works in Azara, a village in northern Argentina, again teaching Polish to Polish emigrants.
Screening this week as part of Maysles Cinema’s Documentary in Bloom, Two Lessons opens with Wojciech’s voiceover as his camera observes Malgosia looking out an ice-glazed window, wrapped in a blanket, on the train to Siberia (“I turned my camera on her for the first time when she decided to work as a teacher”), then slips into her voiceover: “He wanted to make movies.” Thus introduced as their shared experience, the film goes on to pose the sorts of questions that structure all documentaries, even when they’re not articulated as such: how do observers affect their objects? How are these lessons mutual and perpetual? And how might we—individuals and communities, teachers and students—come to understand the past, present, and possibilities stretching before us?
In Siberia, for Malgosia, these possibilities seem limited at first. Arriving with Wojciech (who appears briefly with his camera in a mirror reflection), she describes her sense of isolation, traditional activities in Usolye, ice fishing, pig gutting, singing in church. “There were several schools, a chemical plant, a tramway line,” she says, as you see a soldier’s bust on a pedestal, tractors and motorcycles with sidecars and crowded streetcars. Malgosia comes to know the locals, a generous priest, a coroner (who brings them inside the morgue to observe as he works), an artist (who once “made a living painting posters, now his energy only comes from what nourishes his soul”), and her students’ families. During a visit to “a hospital for the mentally ill,” Wojciech’s camera shows figures still and frail, their faces contorted, the walls gray, as Malgosia murmurs, “I’ll never forgot what I saw there.”
The film encourages you to remember too, both this sense of loss and also the sense of hope made vivid in Malgosia’s face on her wedding day (“It’s inner peace, no interruptions,” she says as she rides in a car to the town hall, her groom beside her with his camera). Such anticipation is reflected again in eight-year-old Janek’s wide eyes when he arrives in Araza in Argentinian Lesson. Here you see immediately that Wojciech’s own art has transformed, the images more refined but no less acute. This transformation extends beyond the move from 16-millimeter to digital video, into shape and color and light. The second documentary offers no voiceover, but instead an array of stunningly beautiful images, evocative and delicately telling, close-ups of children’s smiles and smudged cheeks or hardworking adults’ wrinkled brows, long, lovely shots of classroom lessons and soccer games.
But beyond these lyrical compositions, Argentinian Lesson also offers an added layer of structure, in that this time, at least one observer’s reactions are part of the visual fabric. Janek watches and learns from a classmate, 11-year-old Marcia, again and again, gazing on her through a window or a chain link fence, as she soothes her mother, giddy as she runs or plays with him. The kids take photos and sort through them on a laptop, eat popcorn off a plate, the camera hovering over their hands on the kernels, and then decide to sell fruits, make a sign and determine where to place it on the road for maximum exposure. At other moments, the camera views Marcia as if on her own—though you know the camera operator, at least, is nearby—as she speaks with her father, who can’t quite explain why he keeps another family in another town: “This is our problem,” he begins, then trails off, the camera on her perplexed and ever patient face.
Sensible and sad, childish and fantastically responsible, Marcia does her best to make sense of her family and the poverty governing their lives. She makes money to support her mother and brother by making bricks, plays soccer with Janek and the other boys. As she moves, the camera seems barely able to keep up, while also palpably in love with her her grace and wisdom. Like Siberian Lesson, this next film has as much to do with learning how to love and give as it does with learning how to see anew.