Today best known as one of the very few Polish filmmakers who left the country after problems with censorship, from an early age Ewa Kruk was determined to become a film director. Throughout her career, she proved to be a brave and ambitious professional force, who wasn’t easily discouraged by any of her misfortunes, not even by a failed attempt to get to the Łódź Film School, which she finally joined in 1963 after retaking her entry exam.
Kruk had a bumpy career as she herself admitted, she always enjoyed a challenge. When at the film school she moved from a course in cinematography to one in directing. She was one of only two women among her year cohort, but never perceived this as a disadvantage. Later in her career, she approached all of her film work with the same strength of character.
A few years after her graduation from Łódź she became an award-winning documentary director and then moved to work in narrative film. When her feature film, Palace Hotel (1977) was shelved, Kruk relocated to France with her new-born baby girl to join her husband Paul Granger, a specialist in film sound. There in 1982, she returned to her original genre of documentary film to continue the career that started seventeen years earlier.
Kruk’s debut film at the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw, From the Other Side/Z tamtej strony (1970) demonstrated her ability to narrate challenging subjects. The film’s story of a middle-aged blind interpreter, Marian, who recounts his difficulties in normalising interactions with the community around him.
Using a portrait of just one person, Kruk uncovered social perceptions of disability in Poland to show subtle hints of insensitive attitudes. Relatively early in her professional development, she manifested her passion for sharp criticism of social realities in the country.
Although appearing rather distant regarding their subject matter, Kruk’s following documentaries further proved she was an unapologetic social chronicler. In Season/Sezon (1971), one of her most critically acclaimed Polish documentaries, she ventured into the tourist industry in the seaside resort of Świnoujście. Rather than painting an idealistic picture of this popular holiday destination, she showed it crowded and overwhelming for both tourists and the employees of local cafés, restaurants and clubs.
As the story in Season narrows down to depict the experience of women taking up summer jobs in waitressing to prop up their budgets, the film becomes a story of corruption and compromised moral values. Again, what on the surface appears to be a local story becomes a metaphor for issues of wider cultural significance.
During the day, people on Kruk’s screen disappear, blending with the chaotic crowds on the beach; at night, the waitresses have no choice but to play the tricky game of their sexist employees. The paradise holidays hinge on the degraded morality of those who provide services for the tourists.
In The Construction Site/Hydrobudowa (1971), One of Theirs/Ktoś of nich (1972) and Limanowa ‘74 (1974), Kruk depicted local settings to spotlight the ironies of everyday life under Communism. All three titles revealed how the official discourse tried to conceal absurdities, hardships and corruption that ordinary people experienced.
With her sharp eye and empathy for her subjects, Kruk built a reputation as a sensitive yet uncompromising documentarian, one who bravely foregrounded social criticism, while still demonstrating respect for ordinary individuals.
When in 1971 Kruk received an award from the Warsaw Club of Film Critics and Season became one of the most discussed screenings at Cracow, she was often compared to her fellow documentary filmmaker, Marek Piwowski (born 1935).
In contrast to his often cynical and sarcastic films, her outlook was characterised by much careful attention paid to complexities of social situations and their underlying human factors. This is best visible in another of her titles The Settlers/Osadnicy (1971), where she probes into the experiences of former city dwellers moving to remote locations in the mountains.
However, it was Kruk’s documentary film humour that made her stand out among her peers. Her edit of archive photos accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek account of one old man’s politicised biography, The Great Grandpa Sól/Pradziadek Sól (1973) turned out to be her only film to win one of the main trophies at the Cracow Film Festival. Just like before, in it Kruk unveiled the absurdities of grand political narratives from a fixed point of view.
Her productive career at Documentary Film Studio didn’t satisfy Kruk, who opted to make her dream of directing narrative films come true. In 1974, working for the Polish television, she produced The End of Summer/Koniec babiego lata to then begin her most well-known, but also the last film in Poland.
Based on a script by a prolific novelist, Stanisław Dygat, Palace Hotel (1977) told a story of one suitcase that served as a link between wartime and post-war biographies of the film’s characters living in Poland and Western Europe. However, the film wasn’t well received by the officials. After a stormy discussion at kolaudacja (peer-review screening), it was eventually shelved as offensive to national values.
Discouraged and at the same time ready to take up her new role as a mother, Kruk left the country, but not her profession. Between 1982 and 1999, she went back to work as a documentarian, this time for television.
Her French output consisted of nine different films. She explored such subjects as teenage psychology, music, art and immigration. However, none of Kruk’s French productions matched the qualities of her Polish documentaries.
Although her film career in Poland abruptly stopped because of the Communist censorship, in retrospect, it seems fair to argue that the same regime that eventually drove Kruk out of her homeland, also inspired her best documentary explorations.