One of the Łódź Film School graduates from 1967, Irena Kamieńska valued those documentary films where the director’s vision underpinned the representation of registered events. She tended to start her projects by identifying a social problem and then looked for people and places to illustrate it.
At school, her personalised approach to factual filmmaking came to the attention of her mentor Jerzy Bossak (1910-1989), at the time the head of the Film Office at the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw. Kamieńska started working for him even before receiving her diploma from Łódź.
In 1967, after her first success at Cracow Film Festival with Good Morning, Children/Dzień dobry dzieci (1966), it was clear that Kamieńska opted for keeping a low profile. Her personality matched the character of her staple film genre. Orientated to serve others, by directing documentary films she fulfilled her self-ascribed mission to be a harbinger of truth.
Her career in film was one of the longest and most prosperous among Polish female documentarians. In the 1970s, she also made narrative films, but her adventure with screen fiction proved to be short-lived. Having completed The Sign/Znak (1973) and Klara and Angelika/Klara i Angelika (1976) for Polish television, she returned to documentary films and never left them again.
Kamieńska won the Cracow Film Festival Grand Prix on three separate occasions, as well as several other international film trophies. When asked why she made documentaries, she replied: ‘I want to tell the story of my country and the times I live in, to present the people and problems of contemporary life’.
She maintained her dedication to the truth and the dignity of her filmed subjects, even if her films were sometimes shut off for political reasons, as was the case with Three Collections (1974). This television documentary showed the circumstances of a heavy industry engineer, whose patents were never implemented in Poland because they were too cost-effective.
Kamieńska’s idealistic approach to the documentary was best evident in her choice of film subjects. Almost all of her on-screen stories evolved around those who occupied the periphery of social hierarchies because of their personal attributes, circumstances or convictions that were in conflict with the surrounding collective.
In Good Morning, Children, she sketched a portrait of a young teacher who faced resistance from peasants, as she struggled to improve primary education in a small village.
Kamieńska’s later films, such as So Much to Do/Tak dużo do zrobienia (1977) and On Open Heart/Na otwartym sercu (1986) also featured individuals who faced failures and opposition, but tenaciously pursued their professional goals.
Elsewhere her camera granted visibility to those who were otherwise unjustly stripped of their dignity by local and national Communist elites. Not only did her films reveal injustice, but also the paradoxes of the system, where some were ‘more equal than others’.
For example, The Dam/Zapora (1976) focused on members of a small community fighting against displacement when plans for building a barrage, which was to transform their village into an artificial lake, were revealed by local authorities.
Later, in A Beautiful Freezing Polish Winter/ Piękna mroźna polska zima (1978), Kamieńska commented on the degradation of multigenerational families, depicting abandonment and abuse suffered by senior citizens left with no help from local or national authorities.
Regardless whether she portrayed the benevolent or the marginalised, Kamieńska raised awareness in her viewers, calling for honouring basic human dignity, with no intention to externally manage or immediately change any of the filmed realities.
Kamieńska never offered solutions. She rather pointed to problems, encouraging her audience to ponder over human cruelty, emotional coldness, indifference, or lack of compassion. This strategy became most obvious in Workwomen/Robotnice (1981), which disclosed the inhumane working conditions of female employees at a peripheral textile factory.
Workwomen won Kamieńska another Grand Prix in Cracow, as well an award from the Ministry of Culture. The film was also successful in Oberhausen.
Her other documentaries about women further explored the disparity between personal desires and the social reality of the Polish female. In The Women’s Island/Wyspa kobiet (1968), she visited a community of factory workers, whose personal and emotional goals were crushed in a town where men were in a shortage.
Her last film before the collapse of Communism, Day After Day/Dzień za dniem (1988) again won numerous festival trophies, including those at Cracow, Paris, Tampere and Oberhausen. It was a collection of observational shots narrated off-screen by one of two sisters who for almost 30 years had worked on a building site in Katowice. Kamieńska’s empathetic depiction of the two disillusioned and exhausted older women became a metaphor for the impact the regime had on the country’s population.
Even if overall Kamieńska’s career looks like an unbroken chain of successes, it is worth noting that not all of her films won critical acclaim. For example, The Champion Returns/Powrót mistrza (1970) that documents alienation of the weightlifting prizewinner after he returns to his hometown, was hardly mentioned by the press. Similarly, The Motif/Motyw (1975) that forms a visual meditation on a young couple who migrated from the city to the country rarely attracted any attention.
Nevertheless, Kamieńska’s chronicles of human persistence and determination in resisting social and cultural suppression made her into a chief auteur among the Polish documentary filmmakers, someone who uncovered not only the hardships but also the human face of her society under the Communist rule.
Perhaps it was her appreciation for individual perseverance and resolution that allowed her to see more successes and trophies after the end of the regime, where she continued working for more than a decade.
In the 1990s, Kamieńska started exploring new subjects, such as religious faith. Again she focused on human sacrifice and determination, this time among Catholic nuns in Missionaries of Charity/Misjonarki Miłości (1991).
She also looked into the effects of Communism on individual biographies in films such as Fog/Mgła (1993), where observational shots crosscut with talking heads and in her final documentary, Calling/Powołanie (2002), which told the tragic story of a Polish priest living in the Soviet Union.