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The Documentary Film Studio/Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych was the biggest state-owned company dedicated to the production of factual films...

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the beginnings: documentary films and newsreels

In post-war Poland, documentary films originated from newsreels...

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socialist realism

The official opening of the Documentary Film Studio in 1949 coincided with the very moment when documentary films started to be seen by the Party as a tool for political propaganda...

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bossak’s era

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...

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new times new films

At the end of the 1960s, it became apparent that no matter how much the filmmakers from the Documentary Film Studio focused on everyday life, they couldn’t escape politics...

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If the Documentary Film Studio was the most productive unit specialising in factual films, it wasn’t the only institution in Poland that was dedicated to making documentaries...

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During the first post-war decade, documentaries were thoroughly censored by the ruling Communist elite, particularly because the managers of early film industry institutions were closely affiliated with the government...

Read More


The Documentary Film Studio/Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych was the biggest state-owned company dedicated to the production of factual films. The government established it on Chełmska Street in Warsaw at the end of the 1940s.

Under Communism, the employees of the Studio made both documentary films and newsreels, but they didn’t confine themselves to just covering contemporary everyday life in the country. They also produced archive and compilation films, political reportages, travel documentaries, commissioned commercials and social adverts, as well as documentaries shot abroad. However, documentary films that presented aspects of everyday life in post-war Poland made up at least a third of the Studio’s film output before 1989.

Shortly before the end of the Communist rule, on 27 June 1988, the Studio’s name officially changed to the Documentary and Feature Film Studio/Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych, under which title it remains operating up to this day.

the beginnings: documentary films and newsreels

In post-war Poland, documentary films originated from newsreels. The first newsreel production unit, the Polish Film Chronicle/Polska Kronika Filmowa was officially established on 1 December 1944 in Lublin. Designated as a part of the Polish Army Film Command called Czołówka, during the war the Chronicle team had travelled with the Polish Division of the Red Army to record the country’s liberation. In 1945, the Polish Film Chronicle’s crew settled in Łódź, where they stayed for the next four years. At the time, documentary filmmakers had no such home.

As the political situation in the country stabilised, newsreels were regularly screened in cinemas before narrative films. Often the only source of moving image information on current events for the Polish public, each newsreel edition consisted of a series of short film reports that together took no longer than 10-11 minutes of the screen time. In the 1940s, the newsreels and the documentary films were often made by the same people. They were also more or less the same length and used similar film methods to tell their factual stories.

Looking back at the 1940s, any formal distinction between the editions of the Polish Film Chronicle and documentary films proves difficult. It is sometimes only the logo in the credits of the Chronicle, accompanied by the original jingle composed by Władysław Szpliman—the same one whose biography later inspired Roland Harwood’s screenplay for Roman Polański’s The Pianist (2002)—that make such a discrimination possible. With time Polish audiences started seeing newsreels as separate from the documentary genre and instinctively recognised the newsreels authoritative narration, from which many documentaries later departed.

On 29 December 1949, the State Commission for Economic Planning/Państwowa Komisja Planowania Gospodarczego, the Ministry of Treasury/Ministerstwo Skarbu and the Minister of Culture and Arts/Minister Kultury i Sztuki issued Directive 122, with specific guidelines regarding the formulation of the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw. With this formal endorsement, factual film production became one of the industries that were to contribute to the development of the government’s six-year plan. Drafted to bring Polish economy in line with that of the Stalinist empire, the plan adopted the Soviet example.

The Directive gave the Studio the status of a legally separate institution. It was, however, only the written confirmation of what for several months an average passer-by could see on Chełmska Street in Warsaw. The ruins of the former hospital for insurgents fighting in the Warsaw Uprising/Powstanie Warszawskie had been slowly transforming into a building site.

For about half a year there had been an open documentary film office on Chełmska. Keen to make his dream of setting up a solid documentary production facility come true, a documentary filmmaker by the name of Jerzy Bossak (1910-1989) acted as its first manager. Following temporary arrangements and pending an official confirmation, he was the leader of this rugged and demanding project from the very start. By October 1949, he reported that his yearly documentary production plan was right on schedule with 11 out of 12 films completed.

Bossak’s nomination to head the documentary production, of which there is no written record, should not be considered purely political. As an award winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1947, he appeared an obvious match for the job, someone who had contributed not only to the growing international reputation of Polish documentaries but also to the restoration and modernisation of the film industry in the country. If the Polish Film Chronicle was the mother of documentary film in post-war Poland, Bossak certainly earned the right to be called its father.

When the Communist Party approved the new structure of the Studio, the separation between newsreels and documentary films found its validation. In 1949, the company on Chełmska was divided into two departments: the Film Editorial Office/Redakcja Filmów and the Polish Film Chronicle Editorial Office/Redakcja Polskiej Kroniki Filmowej.

Subjected to political pressures, the managers of the former changed quite a few times over the next six years. The latter, however, had one boss, Helena Lemańska who stayed in the post from 1949 until 1967. It was under her management that the team at the Chronicle formally divorced from the documentary makers. Lemańska had her assigned writers, cinematographers and readers who provided narration.

If later the newsreels always played in unison with the government, documentary films allowed for much more subjective perspective. In practice, the line between the two was often rather flexible. Among other things that brought the two together, documentary filmmakers frequently recycled footage shot by the newsreels’ cinematographers.

socialist realism

The official opening of the Documentary Film Studio in 1949 coincided with the very moment when documentary films started to be seen by the Party as a tool for political propaganda. Despite his dedication to the role, the first director of the Studio, Jerzy Bossak, lost his job before the formal opening of the facilities on Chełmska Street.

In autumn that year, politics started taking their toll. When the infamous Congress of Filmmakers/Zjazd Filmowców in Wisła met in November 1949, it ratified socialist realism as the leading artistic style of all films in the country. The Communist government paid for all equipment, facilities, costs of production, the salaries of all employees in production, distribution and exhibition units. As such, it claimed its right to control what appeared on the screens across the country. Both narrative cinema and documentaries were from then on to function as a complimentary duo, propagating the regime.

After the Central Committee’s official approval of the socialist realist doctrine, the entire film industry was to feed into the Stalinist model of planned economy. The new six-year plan for the Documentary Film Studio prioritised the following three themes: workplace competition, modernisation of rural Poland and social mobility amongst workers and peasants. The Studio was also to promote world peace or ‘the socialist struggle for peace’, as it was dubbed, by making anti-war films.

Steered by the Department of Culture of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, between 1949 and 1953 Polish documentary film underwent a period of severe control and central planning, which relaxed only after the death of Comrade Joseph Stalin.

At the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, almost all experienced documentarians and young debutants completed at least some socialist realist films. Despite political limitations, quite a few of them progressively enriched and refined their documentary methods by working in the politically restrictive environment. Some of the socialist realist documentary films exhibit originality and unconventional approaches to storytelling, in spite of the pressure placed on the filmmakers by the political process.

bossak’s era

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.

new times new films

At the end of the 1960s, it became apparent that no matter how much the filmmakers from the Documentary Film Studio focused on everyday life, they couldn’t escape politics. In line with the directives from Moscow, in the second half of the 1960s Władyslaw Gomułka (1905-1982), the First Secretary of the Communist Party officially pronounced the Jews as enemies of Poland.

The subsequent political unrest resulted in the social exclusion of many Poles with Jewish ancestry. Many of them lost their jobs while others decided to emigrate. The Documentary Film Studio wasn’t exempt from this wave of political repression. Despite their unquestionable contribution to the development of factual film, both Jerzy Bossak (1910-1989), the head of the Film Editorial Office and Helena Lemańska, the manager of the newsreels were dismissed from the Studio they had worked so hard to develop.

Politics weren’t the only driving force behind the changes at the  Studio. The already impressive reputation of Polish documentary films at the end of the 1960s didn’t stop filmmakers from searching for new subjects and documentary making methods. Up until 1989 both newcomers to the film industry and veteran filmmakers periodically tried to subvert past practices by publically announcing moments of crises of documentary aesthetics, film subjects and politics.

The most notable changes in the Polish documentary landscape started to occur in the 1970s.  Television, which was open to technical and formal innovation, tempted several documentary debutants, including Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996), Grzegorz Królikiewicz (born 1939), Wojciech Wiszniewski (1946-1981), Marcel Łoziński (born 1940) and Paweł Kȩdzierski (born 1946). Many of them later worked for the Studio, as well as for television.

From that point onwards, documentarians became more open to experimentation, as well as critical of social realities. Where some chose not to stray away from politics, others fabricated stories to convey social messages or explored new visuals to challenge the previously established observational norms of the Polish School of Documentary.

Because the new generation of documentarians began looking for new projects in collaboration with other institutions, the Studio had to adapt to an evolving market. To attract the new talent, in spring 1979, the new Debuts Studio opened at Chełmska Street. Headed by Jerzy Bossak (1910-1989) and Tadeusz Makarczyński (1918-1987), it was a mentoring program for young, ambitious filmmakers.

Documentary filmmakers, who already settled at the Studio, also started showing more active political interests. For example, in the 1970s Bohdan Kosiński (1922-2003), Krzysztof Kieślowski and Tomasz Zygadło (1947-2011) publicly claimed that documentary films must demonstrate their makers’ political views.

Over the following decade, politically involved films gained more and more prominence. This trend culminated with the shelved documentary Robotnicy ‘80/Workers ’80 by Andrzej Chodakowski and Andrzej Zajączkowski that was shot during the August 1980 strikes in Gdańsk.

After the Martial Law of 1981, the Studio’s employees often turned their cameras to protests and strikes. Although many still dedicated their time to registering human experience and everyday life, the most critically acclaimed documentaries were those that either captured political resistance or the dark side of social realities under Communism.

The disappointment with the ruling elite that juxtaposed with social expressions of apathy best materialised on the screen in the ironically titled Hope/Nadzieja (1987)—Tadeusz Pałka’s (born 1942) compilation of observational shots that presented people on the streets of Warsaw, as they tried to make ends meet in the face of economic crisis.

Although Hope emanates with an overwhelming, immobilising stagnation, the Studio’s management didn’t stand still. They started getting ready for the upcoming shift to free market economy, perhaps most noticeably by officially expanding their offer to include narrative film production in 1988, just one year before the collapse of the Communist regime.


If the Documentary Film Studio was the most productive unit specialising in factual films, it wasn’t the only institution in Poland that was dedicated to making documentaries. Over the forty-five years of Communist rule, a number of other government-owned companies complemented its output.

In the same Directive 122 from 29 December 1949 that validated the operations of the Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw, the Ministry of Culture decreed that the Educational Film Studio/Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych should be built in Łódź.

From then on, its employees produced documentaries that were often seen as competitors at domestic and international film festivals. However, the Studio in Łódź was officially confined to making films for schools and companies, as well as shorts that popularised science and humanities.

Students from the Łódź Film School also regularly made short documentary films of various quality and form. Nicknamed ‘filmówka’ by its staff and students, the School operated as a higher education institution from 1948, when two of its departments, directing and cinematography first opened.

Over the decades, the School educated many chief Polish documentarians whose work later came to the forefront of what has been labelled the Polish School of Documentary. For many of these young documentarians, particularly before the 1970s, a job at the Documentary Film Studio seemed to be a natural career path.

There also existed two other producers of documentary films, who at different times had a substantial share of the market, even if neither of them was first founded as a dedicated documentary production company.

The first was the Film Studio Czołówka/Wytwórnia Filmowa Czołówka in Warsaw, which was formally established in 1958 to specialise in military and propaganda films. It was created under the auspices of the Ministry of National Defence/Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej but later expanded its offerings to include both documentaries and commissioned shorts.

In the late 1960s into the early 1970s, a new player entered the Polish documentary scene. It was Telewizja Polska, the state-owned national television.

From its early days, television often commissioned the Documentary Film Studio to participate in a variety of projects ranging from narrative productions to documentary materials. Often the Documentary Film Studio served as a subcontractor for television, which sometimes even outsourced entire projects to the Studio or acted as its co-producer.

Television eventually came to the forefront of factual film production, thanks to its dual nature as both the producer and the exhibitor. The reputation of Telewizja Polska as one of the leaders in documentary film production grew over the next few decades, inspiring other developing private TV channels such as TVN (before 1997 TV Wisła), Polsat and others to invest in factual programming. Although television appeared to be the chief competitor to the Documentary Film Studio, the two often worked hand in hand. Many films made at the Studio were shown on television.

The televisual exhibition format, as well as technical innovations that gradually started to be available to Polish documentarians allowed for extending the typical length of documentaries. They no longer had to fit the 10- to 15-minute cinema segments before the main screenings, as was previously the requirement. This impacted not only the length of Polish documentary films in general but also their storytelling strategies.

Although there were still many shorts produced, from the 1970s there was a rise in more detailed and longer documentary productions. While these films provided more information and allowed for more depth in representing social realities, their stories and arguments sometimes lacked the punch of earlier short films from the Studio.


During the first post-war decade, documentaries were thoroughly censored by the ruling Communist elite, particularly because the managers of early film industry institutions were closely affiliated with the government.

Film Polski, the monopolist from the 1940s, oversaw all moving image in the country. It was established in November 1945 as successor to the government’s short-lived Department of Film Propaganda. Not only did it manage film production, but also distribution and exhibition.

In collaboration with the Main Office for Control of the Press Publications and Public Performances, Film Polski was directly responsible for sanitising the content of all factual and narrative shorts and features.

In the late 1940s, the Department of Culture of the Central Committee also participated in the process of approving domestic productions for an exhibition. It later retained this role when in 1951, Film Polski was restructured and renamed as the Central Office of Cinema/Centralny Urząd Kinematografii CUK.

By that time the organisation of film production had changed. Although documentaries were still heavily regulated by the officials from the Central Committee, now they were made and supervised independently from narrative films.

Following Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of his predecessor’s abuse of power, the political climate in Poland noticeably relaxed from the mid-1950s during the so-called Thaw/Odwilż.

To shake off any remnants of the Stalinist icecap, the Communist Party then decided to decentralise their control of the film industry, and the Central Committee delegated more powers to the members of the film community.

In the first instance, documentaries fell under the supervision of those who managed their leading production institutions: The Documentary Film Studio in Warsaw, the Educational Film Studio in Łódź and the new 1958 addition, the Film Studio Czołówka/Wytwórnia Filmowa Czołówka, which at the beginning specialised in military film projects. In the 1950s, documentaries also started to be regularly shown in cinemas as additions/dodatki to feature narrative screenings.

At the Documentary Film Studio in November 1956, Jerzy Bossak became its creative director. Bossak could often single-handedly approve projects for production. Completed films were, however, still verified by professional censors from the Main Office. If they were not happy with the content, or if changes could not be introduced, either the film industry managers at the ministerial level or the Party officials had to determine whether a particular title should be shown to the public or shelved.

Before domestic releases and international festival submissions, documentary films were often first viewed by selected filmmakers, their managers from the Studio, critics and Party delegates and then assessed by the head of the Chief Board of Cinema/Naczelny Zarząd Kinematografii NZK. The latter was yet another successor of Film Polski, which replaced the Central Office of Cinema in 1956.

Political and ideological censorship was only a small part of those pre-release viewings, which were regarded as peer review critiques and quality checks. With only slight modifications, similar multi-levelled control procedures stayed in place until the end of the 1980s.

Many documentarians, who for decades worked on Chełmska Street, don’t recall censorship to have been entirely restrictive or especially harsh on them. As far as distribution and exhibition, documentaries were always losing to the Chronicle. With only a few exceptions, no documentary director could compete for audiences with the newsreels, the Party’s golden child of film propaganda.

Acutely aware of this, many documentary directors prioritised their creativity and visions over popularity. The most important thing for them was to keep working on subjects that they considered of value, even if their final films could eventually end up on the shelf.

It took a lot of stamina, strength of character and endurance to invest all that creative energy into films that were either only occasionally shown in cinemas and at festivals, or sometimes simply shelved.

The decision makers behind shelving documentaries were as mysterious as those who took the Chronicle in hand and there are no specific or full official records available on how many documentaries were banned by censorship. However, many filmmakers who worked at the Documentary Film Studio estimate that in the 1970s and 1980s, these numbers were high.

It was one of the many paradoxes of Communist-ruled Poland. Polish documentarians in the 1970s and 1980s were producing an ample amount of films, but if they weren’t shown on television, very few of their works were ever seen by the wider public.

© Images from Polish documentary films made between 1945-1989