Although socialist realism lost its credibility after the death of Stalin, it took another three years before the political Thaw/Odwilż that triggered the restructuring not only of the film industry but also of the whole political regime. Soon, many officials previously placed by the regime at management level in the Documentary Film Studio were removed from their seats.
Despite the fact that all documentary productions were still—and would be until 1989—verified by censors, some creative initiative was handed back to the filmmakers. In November 1956, Jerzy Bossak (1910-1989) became the Studio’s creative director.
Over the next twelve years, he—rather than the new general director, Zygmunt Kniazołucki (1922-2010)—was in charge of the content of most documentary films coming from the Studio. Thanks to him, the creative style of Polish documentary film developed in relative authorial freedom rather than by watching filmmakers’ steps as they fulfilled a centrally devised plan.
The subsequent emergence of the Polish School of Documentary thrived on Bossak’s energy and vision, as well as his skilful negotiations between the officials and the filmmakers whose ideas he tried to honour. Working as a professor at the film school, Bossak brought to Warsaw a whole cohort of the best new documentary talent from Łódź.
Searching for new creativity, not only was Bossak an eminence grise in what became the renaissance of the documentary in Poland, but also a great inspiration for both former Łódź students and graduates from the Moscow Film School.
Danuta Halladin (1930-1987), Maria Kwiatkowska (1926-1999), Irena Kamieńska (1928-2016) Kazimierz Karabasz (born 1930), Włodzimierz Borowik (1915-1996), Władysław Ślesicki (1927-2008), Bohdan Kosiński (1922-2003), Jerzy Dmowski (born 1931), Krystyna Gryczełowska (1931-2009), Helena Amiradżibi (born 1932), Edward Skórzewski (1930-1991), Jerzy Hoffman (born 1932) and Jerzy Ziarnik (1931-1999), all developed their careers under Bossak’s management. Even before Bossak’s promotion, some of them had initiated a new documentary trend.
The Black Series/Czarna Seria from the second half of the 1950s was a turning point in the history of the Studio. Portraying the darker side of the social reality, its directors excelled in making coherent, argument-driven contemporary films. Although their social outlook significantly differed from the prescriptive positivity of socialist realism, sharply reacting against the propaganda of the earlier period, they often used the same formal tactics to pronounce more critical and pessimistic social diagnoses.
Documentary films were still using voice-over narrators, but their directors foregrounded everyday life of social groups, which previously hadn’t existed on screen. Among others, the Black Series depicted hooligans, prostitutes, neglected and abandoned children, alcoholics and impoverished people living in ruins that still stood in the cities, which the government had promised to rebuild. These original, interventional records of everyday social realities initiated what later would be dubbed the Polish School of Documentary.
What further facilitated the birth of the Polish School of Documentary was the fact that from the mid-1950s both the Communist Party and the Studio executives started respecting creativity in documentary films. Seen as an integral part of the intellectual elite, filmmakers in Poland were treated as artists, who deserved respect and at least some degree of independence.
The cultural perception of ‘the artist’ had developed as far back as the 19th century and the Communist authorities embraced it to demonstrate their respect for the Polish tradition. As such, documentary film directors’ started to be valued for their creative input. For this reason, they were allowed much more freedom than their colleagues working on the newsreels and were often able to experiment with their styles and subjects.
Several of the 1950s films laid the foundations for future documentary directions. In some respects, they sparked off the remarkable international successes of the country’s documentarians that reached their zenith between the late 1950s and 1970s.
When the Cracow Film Festival was held for its first time in 1964, it was to provide an outlet and a forum for the documentary talent and to seal the growing reputation of the Polish School of Documentary.
Although the interest in repairing social reality that was originally the driving force of the Black Series had started fading away, its other characteristics became the key traits of the Polish School of Documentary, for which the Studio was the central hub.
Definitions of the Polish School of Documentary often differ, yet there are a few points on which most authors agree. Its filmmakers typically looked at local settings. Their representations of micro-worlds stood for bigger, national, or even universal social phenomena. Even though many of these documentaries were observational, the viewer could always feel an authorial presence behind the camera.
Rather than being objective depictions, these documentaries were always creative treatments of reality, shot from a distinctive point of view and edited to send a message. The unique mosaic of innovative formal strategies formed the most prominent feature of the Polish School of Documentary that survived far longer than Bossak in his post. In 1968, politics again forced him out of his job.