Almost twenty years later, she said that she’d always envisioned herself as a documentary film director, but chose the screenwriting course because she was too self-conscious to participate in acting classes, which were mandatory for students of film directing.
Much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, Gryczełowska joined the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw, where with her writing skills she earned her first film credits.
An excellent storyteller, Gryczełowska proved that her words could boost any film on any subject. In 1954, she wrote a voice-over commentary for a re-enacted joyful account of one boy’s summer holiday at the seaside in Bogusław Rybczyński’s A Letter from A Summer Camp/List z kolonii.
Two years later, she helped her fellow student from Moscow, Jerzy Ziarnik, with his documentary film on provincial Poland that was neglected by the Communist regime. In the spirit of the mid-1950s’ Black Series, Small Town/Miasteczko shows a local community that deteriorates along with its disappearing family-owned businesses. Gryczełowska’s narration fleshes out Ziarnik’s observations and reinforces his uncompromisingly dark message, for which the film remained on the shelf.
Even if in the following years, Gryczełowska still contributed her writing to other filmmakers’ work, after her debut with a children story, The Trip to Devil’s Island/Wyprawa na Czarcią Wyspę (1955), she knew that she’d rather channel her energy into directing than writing. Her first film marked the beginning of one of the most productive female careers in Polish documentary film.
Over the next decade, Gryczełowska started manifesting her interest in interventional documentary films. Her principal subjects of choice included working women, peasants and the elderly. As she confirmed in numerous interviews, her camera always exposed either those who needed help or people who, against all the odds, managed to keep going from day to day.
The director’s admiration for common people’s coping strategies were best represented in her films about women, including such titles as The 24 Hours of Jadwiga L./24 godziny Jadwigi L. (1967), Our Friends from Łódź/Nasze znajome z Łodzi (1971) and To Fully Live One Life/Przeżyć dobrze jedno życie (1973).
When looking at older people, Gryczełowska highlighted their different ways of looking at the bright side of life. For example, in Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays/ Wtorki, Czwartki, Soboty (1965) she gathered observations of happy seniors participating in a pensioners’ club. Their positive outlook quickly attracted attention. The film won one of the top trophies at the Cracow Film Festival.
Gryczełowska’s following portrayals of older people evidenced her respect and empathy. This was especially true in Krzeszowice: Autumn/ Krzeszowice jesień (1972) when she offered them almost the entire screen time to narrate their biographies for the viewer. In her final film, The Well/Studnia (1986), for one last time, her camera again registered how poor, lonely older men and women manage their day-to-day chores.
Although she didn’t limit herself to just one subject area, Gryczełowska is best remembered as a specialist in depicting peasants and small villages. She travelled to the countryside to make such films as Siedliszcze (1960), Wola Rafałowska (1966), 90 Days a Year/Dziewięćdziesiąt dni w roku (1968) and The Bread Always Rises/Zawsze rodzi się chleb (1970), to mention just a few.
Her most critically acclaimed documentaries were also set away from the capital city. The first of them, the winner of the Grand Prix in Cracow, His Name is Błażej Rejdak/Nazywa się Błażej Rejdak (1968) followed an optimistic peasant who managed between two jobs to provide for his family.
Another of her other most discussed documentaries, …In February 1971/W lutym 1971 (1971) was just a short observation of a Communist delegate’s visit to a village. It has been praised for its unique registration of oppositional political discourse among the Polish peasants. Rather than trying to interpret the registered scenes for the viewers, Gryczełowska just allowed images and sounds unfold as the film progressed.
From today’s perspective, her edits of social observations deliver plenty of historical evidence from various micro-realities in Poland under Communism. With only a few happy stories, they often display uncomfortable social conditions in which her filmed subjects are trapped.
Despite an occasional feeling of frustration, all her on-screen characters develop certain mechanisms of survival, be it through patience, perseverance, or optimism.
Driven by the belief that her work could improve social circumstances of the filmed people, not only was Gryczełowska calling for solutions to problems when behind her camera, but also through her political activity at the Documentary Film Studio. At the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s, she campaigned for creative freedom, self-governance and political independence of her home institution.
Commenting on the plight of documentary production during Solidarity, she concluded in an interview from 1981: ‘We can only hope that common sense will triumph’. This hope was the guiding star for all her professional endeavours.
To pursue her mission required so much energy that finally the job proved too demanding for her to continue. Gryczełowska retired from it at the age of 55.
What she left behind not only forms an abundant evidence of the smaller scale social problems that would otherwise never come to the attention of the Polish public but also of her talent to represent everyday human histories with sugar and spice, from her socially sensitive perspective.