To capture soundbites from ordinary people going about their lives, news crews and documentary filmmakers usually take to city squares and transport hubs. Pawel Lozinski, a Polish director, takes a different approach. Instead of seeking out his subjects, they come to him. From the balcony of his first-floor apartment in Warsaw, he chats with passers-by while his camera rolls. (He reports having nearly 2,000 conversations over two and a half years). He asks simple questions: where are you going, what do you have with you? Each is an invitation to its interlocutors to share their stories. The result is “The Balcony Movie” (pictured above), a series of penetrating glimpses into the lives of ordinary Poles, told in their own words.
Some rush to work. Others move at a slower pace and linger long enough to reveal their secrets. A middle-aged woman quietly admits that she is happier since her husband passed away. A man mourns the loss of his partner and the end of a once secret relationship. The film is a study in human context, which translates across cultures. After screening at international film festivals in 2021 and 2022, the documentary became available for streaming on Mubi and HBO Max. The Museum of the Moving Image in New York recently organized a retrospective of Mr. Lozinski’s work around the film.
“The Balcony Movie” follows a style of documentary reportage celebrated in Poland. “We believe in the world in a drop of water,” explains Mr. Lozinski. The idea often attributed to Kazimierz Karabasz – the godfather of Polish documentary – is that a film can be deceptively simple yet full of meaning. Krzysztof Kieslowski, the acclaimed director of the “Three Colors” trilogy, adopted a similar approach in “Talking Heads,” his 1980 short film. He asked 79 Poles of all ages about their lives; a laid-back format that yielded rich responses. “The Balcony Movie” draws on this concept. It rejects the notion that major documentaries must be linked to famous personalities or overtly political causes.
Lozinski’s interviewees are a microcosm of Warsaw and, to some extent, Polish society as a whole. A brilliant young woman explains why she carefully crafts her image on social media; an ex-convict drops by a few times – he seems to enjoy the company. Gay men and women are among the dozens who pause under Mr. Lozinski’s perch. Their presence on screen is relevant. Poland’s conservative-nationalist government has eroded the rights of LGBT people, a group it sees as a threat to traditional values. Sir. Lozinski (pictured below) ensured that he was free to portray whoever he liked in his film by partnering with a private production company.
His documentary also draws on Polish resilience. The country struggled under a communist regime for more than four decades after World War II. A woman in a wheelchair who looks old enough to have lived through the war humbly maintains that nothing special happened in her life. The indefatigable Mrs. Zosia, who cleans the grounds outside the apartment, suggests the daily routines that keep people going in times of instability.
The fallout from the end of communism in 1989 kick-started Mr. Lozinski’s career. His debut film, “Birthplace” (1992), follows Henryk Grynberg, a Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, who returns to a Polish village to search for his father’s body. He confronts the neighbors who he believes knew about his father’s murder, which took place during the war. Such complicity was not a subject Mr. Lozinski could have raised earlier. The communists did not recognize cases of Poles committing atrocities against their Jewish countrymen. In their narrative, only the Germans were to blame, explains Mr. Lozinski. (This is a policy that the current government has continued to pursue: it is an offense to refer to Polish collaboration with Nazi crimes). Coming to terms with his country’s past was also a way of understanding his own. “I’m a Polish Jew, so that was my story,” he says.
Since then, he has not shied away from portraying the most difficult parts of people’s lives. “Chemo” (2009) tells about patients in an oncology unit; “You Have No Idea How Much I Love You” (2016) examines the rocky relationship between a woman and her daughter through the lens of psychotherapy. “Father and Son” (2013) is a self-portrait shot during a road trip that explores Mr. Lozinski’s relationship with his father, Marcel, who is also an influential documentary filmmaker. “The Balcony Movie” is full of bittersweet moments, but it’s also uplifting. As Mr Lozinski points out, the aim was to make “a tribute to life”. ■