aka Helena Stawińska-Amiradżibi
A director of both documentary and feature films, as well as an author of autobiographical books, Helena Amiradżibi was born in Tbilisi in Georgia but developed her filmmaking career in Warsaw. She moved to Poland in the 1950s together with her Polish husband, Jerzy Ziarnik (1931-1999) who later also became a successful documentary film director. They met at the State Film Academy (WGIK) in Moscow, where they both attended a directing course.
The move from totalitarian Russia to Poland was a shocking experience, but it equipped Amiradżibi with an ability to spot social and cultural phenomena that were often invisible to native citizens of her adopted country. It is clear that this unique transnational perspective enabled her to see the experience of the Polish female as something worth exploration. Films that focussed on women are among her best work. However, it took Amiradżibi a while before she realised her potential as a specialist in this subject.
Having been exposed to strictly controlled film production in the Soviet Russia, when she arrived at the Documentary Film Studio, she was ready to make films in support of the Communist regime. She later remembered that, to her surprise, the emphasis on the filmmaker’s initiative and their original choice of the subject matter in Poland contrasted with the limited role of the director in the Soviet Union, where she’d participated in many film projects during her student years.
Jerzy Bossak (1910-1989)—the 1950s and 1960s head of the Film Office at the Studio—firmly believed in creative freedom rather than in centrally devised agendas. When in the 1950s, Amiradżibi stepped into his office, she heard him saying:
‘I know where you’ve come from and what sort of paths your thoughts might be taking. I’ve also spent quite a time there. But now you need to change your thinking: you are to shoot films that are fun for you. Find something that would be of interest to the people and not to the Party leaders. Off you go. Give it a thought’.
Despite such an encouragement, Amiradżibi made a number of films with rather mundane, general interest stories. Her first film for the Studio, Georgia/Gruzja (1959) reported on a visit of Georgian artists in Poland. The same year, she completed The Pilots/Oblatywacze (1959), an air escapade that was shot in collaboration with the army and later screened at festivals, rather as an achievement in cinematography than directing.
Somewhat similar to The Pilots, the impersonal Railway Trails/Żelazny szlak (1961) again evidenced Amiradżibi’s filming skills. But with its schematic story, it couldn’t make any significant impression on either critics or audiences.
It wasn’t until 1962 when Amiradżibi finally found her staple documentary subject. With reluctance at first, she travelled to a remote town to record the lives of women working in a spinning mill. Her interaction with them turned out to be an eye-opening experience. As she integrated her encounter with the female workers into the story of a small town in Zambrów (1962), she finally knew she wanted to make more films about women.
Although Amiradżibi only made three other such films, with her sensitive and sharp gaze, she managed to capture small social realities of the female that rarely appeared in other Polish documentaries from the time.
In Who Wants a Dress/Komu sukienkę (1963), she allows her audience go behind the scenes of fashion design and see the meticulous effort that goes into preparing seasonal collections but also reveals the operations of professional hierarchies among its predominantly female employees.Another observational account of the fashion industry, The Career/Kariera (1964), exposes the disparity between the dreams of young women to become models and the uncompromising, often brutal requirements of their trade.
When both Who Wants a Dress and The Career offer glimpses at women trying to achieve in competitive professional environments, the director raises questions about female power and gender solidarity.
However, it was the last documentary Amiradżibi ever made that typified her interest and critical perspective on the lives of women in the 1960s Poland. With its sarcastic title, The Weak Woman/Kobieta to słaba istota (1964) compiles examples of strength, hard work and the perseverance of individual women who deal with the double burden of work, neglect, lack of support and even abuse from their male relatives. With Amiradżibi’s original edit of short female profiles, this film now stands out among other Polish documentaries from the 1960s as a unique feminist voice.
Despite her rapidly developing career at the Studio in Warsaw, after The Weak Woman, Amiradżibi stopped making factual films. She later recalled, ‘I had a good life at the Studio… But I met Mr Stefan Jerzy Stawiński and everything changed’.
And it was Stawiński (1921-2010)—an acclaimed scriptwriter, whom Amiradżibi soon married—who encouraged her to step into feature film directing. Together they completed two narrative titles, An Evening before Christmas/Wieczór przedświąteczny (1966) and Who Believes in Storks?/Kto wierzy w bociany? (1970).
Amiradżibi made one more film on her own. Shot in 1972, Fortune/Fortuna concluded her film career. The director stayed married to Stawiński until his death in 2010, after which she returned to Georgia, the home of her childhood that was now a free country.
Although Amiradżibi’s experiences as a young girl in the Soviet Union undoubtedly shaped her personal interests and her social outlook, she rarely gazed backed to her youth when making films in Poland. However, after her retirement from filmmaking, she became keen to share her biography and penned three books on the story of her life.
In 1996 she published her childhood memoir, The Sweet Life of a Princess/Słodkie życie księżniczki, where she gave a fascinating account of her early schooldays under Stalin. It was then followed by two other volumes, The Anti-Cooking Book/Ksiązka anytkucharska (2007) and My Film Moscow/Moja filmowa Moskwa (2011). All three books proved that Amiradżibi’s writing talent matched her filmmaking skills.
As she took her readers on short journeys through everyday life in the Soviet Union and Poland under the Communist rule, in her books, just like in her documentary films, she filtered social portrayals or descriptions of events through her perspective of a transnational woman, an insider and outsider at the same time.