Kwiatkowska’s static and understated portrait of an anonymous female grade crossing attendant is divided into two parts. For the first nine minutes of the film, the camera just observes the grade crossing, coming and stopping cars, pedestrians, cyclists, trains and empty tracks. The slow observations cut to the woman doing her job, checking the tracks, answering the telephone, making tea or standing outside her booth observing the signals, the barriers and the road.
Shortly after a minor accident with a lorry breaking the barrier comes a breakthrough moment in the film: for the first time, we hear the woman speaking to the police. And it will be her voice that will take us through the second, shorter part of the documentary.
The second half of the film consists of a single shot of the attendant speaking to the camera, where each articulated point or idea ends with a dissolve and a return to the very same shot. The woman sits at her desk, a dark background behind her. This shot—like the rest of Kwiatkowska’s minimal documentary—matches the bleak reality of the woman’s profession.
When, in that final interview, the attendant discusses her responsibilities and her job-related stresses, nothing much is happening. Just like in the first half of the film, the viewer remains a detached observer. It all changes when after saying what is prohibited at her job, the attendant states: ‘But the author [of the regulations] forgot about thinking. You can entertain yourself with your thoughts, and this is what I do’.
The woman becomes an average Polish citizen, who restricted by the tedium of Communist reality, finds freedom in her thoughts. Her resistance manifests only on the mental level; her liberation is individual rather than collective.
A few minutes later, she comments on her family. Instead of providing the viewers with personal details, wittingly or not, she summarises the traditional Polish belief: ‘The mother ties the whole family together: the father, the children and herself. She sacrifices everything’.
The internalised role of the Polish mother makes the modest woman happy. Perhaps because of that and her idea of finding freedom in her thoughts, she comes across as a fulfilled individual. Despite her dull and solitary job, she appears calm and confident in her place in the world.
Guarded Grade Crossing is available at Ninateka (Polish version only).