Culture

Their street, our street. About Marcin Latałło’s „My street”.

Jacek Dobrowolski · 18 May 2014
The story told by Marcin Latałło’s documentary „My street” („Moja ulica”) is so simple and trivial, that even emblematic. It can be understood as a pars pro toto of the Polish modern history, its little, marginal part which summarizes the whole

It is a story about intergenerational working-class family – their experiences of degradation and degeneration, of which the cause is the fall of communism and the arrival of neoliberal turbo-capitalism. This change entered the life of the protagonists, destroyed it and left them alone in a state of vegetative life after death in the ruins of the old world. Usually, such stories, even if they do not adapt a paternalistic perspective of their protagonists, they want to cheer up us, spectators, with an optimistic thought that in the end the political transformation is something that brings more good and all the people willing to adapt to the new reality will have no remorse and will finally understand, that it was better for them. Latałło does not seem to present it this way – which way is he following then?

latallo-moja-ulica-1-550x309

The annihilation of Furmańczyk family home

The Furmańczyk family – three-generation-family, associated with Poznański’s manufacturing plant and the textile industry in the city of Łódź for five generations, they are living in one of the tenement-houses surrounding the factory since the 19th century – ever since they were build by the founder of the plant and from the moment when their  factory died, the family is dying with it, before our very eyes. In anthropological terms, this film shows a gloomy truth about how independent from the individual efforts, abilities, potentials are the fates of people who only live off their own wages and how much their personal lives depend on political and economic processes. Latałło presents the protagonists as completely unaware of this fact and helpless. They are stuck in the state of despair and fatalistic abnegation, which seems very human and is even understandable. Who wouldn’t feel apathetic if overnight someone would destroy their reason of life, leaving them at the mercy of the forces the labour market supply and demand? This is the question raised by “My street”. In the climax, on the site of the closed manufacturing plant industrial complex the grand opening of the new shopping centre “Manufaktura” takes place. It is considered a manifesto of the rebirth of the city and the development of post-industrial Łódź. At the opening, cheered with the atmosphere of a capitalist celebration, the main characters are present, with their sarcastic and (auto)ironic comment (“I would take a seat if I could afford it”). This event was a final confirmation of uselessness of their lives – their catastrophe. The story breaks the typical narrative convention – “Overwhelmed, but undefeated little brave man overcame the difficulties and managed to emerge from the bottom and adjust to the dynamically changing socio-economic environment with success”. Furthermore, this shows how the change of the main character – representative of the middle generation in the family, how his move to the services industry (after long years he got a job of a security guard at “Manufaktura” shopping centre) does not provide substantial situation improvement and it only delays the moment of the final, tragic end. It appears that a man and his job are not only a service delivered as part of an agreement, but also something more – a foundation, a place on Earth, a raison d’être (reason for existence).

The notions of catastrophe and annihilation, which are dominant in the picture, are not countered even by the story of single parenting by the youngest girl in the family – her pregnancy, giving birth, dealing with a difficult son, whom we see in one of the very last scenes. We can hear Przemek quoting repeatedly a phrase overheard from parents, what is a significant metaphor of the “family determinism” suggesting that the youngest generations are not the heralds of a better future in any way.

A “humanistic” film?

Even though the topic is slightly exploited, this film is emotionally moving with one watches it with interest. It may be caused by the fact that Latałło shows the kind of people about whom we rarely think with understanding, if we think about them at all. If we do, then most probably we pity them. This documentary clearly shows the difference between a look of pity from an empathetic look and it is the understanding, seeing from their perspective, which we desperately want to explore, and this is what saves us from the vulgar ugliness of pity and makes a real difference. Latałło follows his protagonists without a moralizing approach and neither is he showing a distance, nor superiority. He allows them to be themselves, not to represent or symbolize anything more general. Latałło gives them the right to speak for themselves freely, to the point where we are not put off by their social fall, but on contrary, their tragedy is emotionally moving, like catharsis.

latallo-moja-ulica-2-550x366

Latałło can be accused of not being political enough, not sociological enough as he shapes the story, preferring it from the strategy of unmasking and compromising the socio-economic context of Furmańczyk family degeneration (at least the male family members: Mark the alcoholic and his daughter’s fiancée, who is put behind bars after taking part in a street fight). The story of this process is presented in a spirit of existentialism rather than in sociological spirit. It does not mean, that the latter is not present, but the former is clearly dominant. Clearly, Latałło wants to show the very authentic side of the protagonists. I am sceptical of purely humanist interpretations of the Polish cinematography, what is in line with Jakub Majmurek’s recent article. Authors truly want to show human it his intimate, personal singularity, putting aside all the social, class and economic contexts. This desire oftentimes creates grotesque metaphysical parodies and does not reveal the real mechanisms behind shaping individualism. It even supports the fictitious “free will” and “being the architect of one’s own destiny”.

Latałło’s “humanistic” picture does not avoid the broader context of how the working-class family from Łódź is functioning, but he does not present it a particularly detailed way either. It is shown in rather abstract way, underlining its ambiguity instead of showing the, maybe not too important, detailed characteristics of those mechanisms. The world surrounding Furmańczyks is besetting them. The environment they live in is closing them down, like disastrous forces of nature, like a cataclysm or a judgement of fate. Hence it is irrelevant, for instance, what was the reason or mechanism of factory’s bankruptcy or which social or economic processes determined the plan of restoring the factory into a shopping centre or who was represented by the mysterious man who came to talk about the “friendly neighbourhood project”. We look at all of the aforementioned events through Furmańczyks’ eyes and perceive them as if they were caused by an unnamed omnipotent force. They are absolutely helpless, weak, unimmunised and left for the brutal forces of capitalism to tear them. Though it is not right to say that this depiction of the world surrounding Furmańczyks bears fingerprints of a naïve artist. It is their own naïveté, and a filter made of this naïveté is audible in the narration of “My street”. It all exposes not only how natural the victims of turbo-capitalism feel about their poor position in the society, but also reveals how much we participate in their helplessness, even though we are much better prepared and our developed in terms of self-empowerment and knowledge about the society is much more advanced. We can identify with them through this unity of helplessness, experiences of individuals (no matter from which social class) who stand eye in eye with the world. The world which does not answer any question about its legitimacy. The world which despises you and constantly denies you the access to knowledge about its mechanisms. It takes away from you the last chance to participate in any decision-making and choosing conditions of your existence. We are not protected by the civil empowerment of the middle class any more against this world. By confronting Marek we can see how thin is the protective layer of our citizenship (citizenhood) and how similar we are to Marek and how much more similar we are to him than to the arrogant guy who gives Marek security guard job. Latałło succeeds with his attempt to give a particular experience its particularity, so showing the perspective of the subject also taking into account subject’s situation and at the same time objectifying subject to the point, where we cannot remain neutral towards him.

Little man’s truth

The most interesting thing in the film is how the character of the “drunk” (and I mean only the descriptive function of this word) can become a symbol of common experiences across all social classes. Marek is struggling with his alcohol addiction, he is a person who, most probably, would be called a “bum” by the society. Even Karl Marks found a degrading name for such people – “lumpenproletariat”. However, Latałło uses such tricks wittingly, using his protagonist he makes him a literary figure in some sense. He does that without imposing anything on the character and does it in a very subtle way. Latałło does not intervene and he has confidence in truthfulness of Marek’s behaviour and he doesn’t artificially arrange situations, even when Latałło himself also appears in front of the camera. It creates a character which alludes to well known Polish traditions of “drunken reflections” theme, which was mastered by the Polish actor Jan Himilsbach. Even with his helplessness and degeneration, Marek does not stop being authentic and innocent. He is a victim, not a perpetrator. We feel a bond with him when he shouts “Oh, fucking hell!” at the opening ceremony of the shopping centre and also when he searches a litter bin and mumbles: “everything changes, that’s how life is”. Those banal phrases, when spoken by him, gain the burden of truthfulness and their catastrophic meaning.

latallo-moja-ulica-3-550x306

This bond might be strongest, when we begin to understand that things which for us – representatives of the middle-class, denote progress and development (till recently, people believed that moving from manufacturing to services economy is a clear indicator of development) for others are just burden, from which there is no escape. There is no progress without its victims. The moment in which Marek’s helplessness becomes also our helplessness and his weakness becomes our weakness, we finally understand that Marek’s street is also our street. This might be the most interesting experience and feeling this film evokes and it shows how vague and conventional are the lines drawn between social classes.

It is all possible thanks to skilful director, who introduces Marek is a subtle way, without any antipathy or showing superiority or feeling pleased by pitying him because of his, by the way pitiful, position. Quite the opposite, Marek is presented in an empathetic and respectful way and also without the unnecessary pathos. Latałło manages to humanize the experiences of his character so that we cannot separate from him easily and we actually have to share his experiences with him. However, it does not imply that the “fatalistic” aspect of protagonists’ outlooks defines the whole film. The narration, which does go beyond the Furmańczyks’ perspective, does not counter their point of view and follows it including even the inaccuracies and distortions. They believe that their fate was inevitable, the film asks if it is true, if it had to be the way and if they are doing the right things. This issue was left open and it was answered neither in accordance with the conservative “es muss sein” (it must be) nor with the radical approach (“there must be an alternative”) and the protagonists are judged less harsh than they judge themselves. This introduces an interesting multidimensionality.

Latałło’s picture does not give definite answers or political judgments and it even excuses the characters. This film is an appeal to the conscience of the middle class rather than to its political awareness, because the latter is rather less developed. It opens a way of communicating with hearts of people of good will how have no political involvement, they are more likely to feel the cross-class solidarity than to criticize existing institutions. The critical aspect of the film is not obvious. Even a most conservative rightist writer could not call this picture a “lefty” one. Nonetheless, this film conveys a message of egalitarianism and solidarity. Doubts and questions, in reference to the story and how it is told, about capitalism and the free market, stripped from its propaganda and lies, appear naturally. These questions are about, for example, the reasons why people like Furmańczyks were left alone without any support. They ask about “responsibility for one’s own fate” or, broadly, about individualism, especially the neoconservative interpretation of individualism and for these issues this film is a philosophical commentary worth recommending.

latallo-moja-ulica-4-550x308

Film:

„My street” („Moja ulica”), directed by Marcin Latałło, Poland 2012.