A Lose-Lose Situation

A fourteen-year-old girl with a grownup’s sense of responsibility and a head full of child’s dreams has to persevere with a father who behaves like an irresponsible kid, an autistic brother with good intentions, and a mother who can be reached mostly by telephone because one day she left her family to start a new one. Anna Zamecka’s Communion is a tough film to watch, even though it can be funny and hopeful at times, but the best part of it is that it leaves the viewer to reflect, or judge, or condemn, or justify, or empathize, on his own terms.

To be honest, I’m terrified of documentary films. Although I am a huge admirer of this form of artistic expression, whether a cinéma vérité, a political essay, a performative doc, a docufiction, or any other. It’s just that they can be so powerful, and emotional, and poignant, and revealing about the world we live in, about the way we look at ourselves, that not only do they leave an indelible impression on you – they can also change you, or even scar you, in more than one way. I mean, the best ones can, in the sense that you finish watching a documentary a different person from the one you were at the beginning. It’s terrifying and yet astoundingly rewarding because you do acquire a better understanding of some of the things that make the world go round, maybe of other people – I am all for educating both individuals, as well as whole societies through documentaries – and become more self-aware. Which is almost always a good thing.

The whole point is, the documentaries should be scary and take you outside of your comfort zone.

Polish posters for "Communion"

Polish posters for “Communion”

My bittersweet relationship with documentaries was recently put to another test by Anna Zamecka’s Communion, a film that initially seems to be a straightforward tale of a dysfunctional Polish family inadvertently crushing the efforts and spirit of its only member with a chance to have a different, better life. Her name is Ola, she is fourteen and has to do everything in her shoddy social housing – from cleaning and doing dishes to looking almost constantly after her younger, autistic brother Nikodem, to organizing different aspects of the defective family’s everyday life, to writing all kinds of formal letters instead of her adult parent – with the exception of earning money. Fortunately, this is provided by her profoundly uninterested father who apparently lives in his own world but still holds some kind of a regular job. He also collects welfare checks.

Which means they are not poor; they have a place to live, they are clothed, they are not hungry, they can afford a TV set, etc. They’re definitely poorer than many but that’s not that much of a problem. The problem is, without Ola everything would fall apart, this responsibility bearing a great burden on her, a child forced to grow up without fully understanding what being grown up should be.

Ola's father, Ola, and Nikodem sitting on a bench

Ola’s family, still from “Communion,” photo: press materials

That is how young Ola’s life goes day by day, week by week, year by year. Yet the girl is handling everything surprisingly well and seems more than capable of earning herself a brighter future, far away from the place of her youth without youth. Admittedly, she’s quite a protagonist – sharp, strong-willed, able to shape at least some parts of the reality that was forced upon her – but we are constantly reminded of the reality of her situation. Especially throughout witnessing Ola’s struggle that provides Communion with some sort of a narrative arc: she wants to make it possible for her brother to receive the Holy Communion (which he was prohibited from years earlier because of his affliction) and simultaneously bring her estranged parents together again. That her plan is not going to work as she envisioned it becomes quite obvious from the beginning, the viewer only needs to observe carefully the attitude of her folks. But the result of Ola’s efforts is nevertheless disheartening, to say the least.

Nothing new under the sun, you might say. There are tens of thousands of such families all over the world – those who suffer and yet remain invisible, not belonging to the poorest and homeless and not becoming a tabloid news potential. Yet this is precisely the true horror of Communion – it’s not indifference, it’s not passive acceptance, it’s the viewer’s ability to imagine what lies beneath. Zamecka and her cinematographer Małgorzata Szyłak use the camera and clever cutting to present the reality in which the family exists to define the world around them for the sake of the viewer, both from and outside of Poland. The Church, the state, the school, they are distant, impersonal systems helping just to the extent they are obliged to help, with few individuals trying to do something more than what is expected of them. The film is above all about Ola’s struggle, but Communion also contains a remarkably detailed account of the world that surrounds her. And it can be a sad, sad place.

Ola sitting on a bed in front of her brother Nikodem

Ola and Nikodem, still from “Communion,” photo: press materials

A place full of people who could not bear the responsibility that was put upon them, of people who cannot reach their potential because nobody tells them about the opportunities that are awaiting just around the corner, of people who simply do not care enough to care for real. There’s no judging in that, none in Zamecka’s documentary, none on my part, only an overwhelming sense of sadness that this seems to be how it must be done. That while some people spend millions on things they do not need, others have to persevere for a fraction of that money only to have life throwing more obstacles at them. Well, there is some judging on my part after all, though only because I do empathize with Ola and her brother. Only because my spirit was rising every time I was seeing Ola’s inner beauty and strong will shining through, how she was fighting her way through life’s hardships, but it also crashed every time it became obvious she may be trapped in such conditions for too long to achieve the dreamed change.

The horror is in the eye of beholder, though, as many reviewers focused on Ola’s perseverance and peculiar kind of joie de vivre that enables her to do all that she does without having a meltdown. Perceiving it this way only is certainly very tempting but nevertheless seems a way of making her – and those in similar situation – story a matter of feature film narrative. The reality is, however, neither that clear, nor that simple. The girl will have to fight, and fight, and fight some more, and even if she wins – which I hope she will – it will not be a cinematic win. While Zamecka’s documentary is open to various kinds of interpretations, as it should be, and makes room for speculation, I can’t watch this film as something even remotely positive. I just can’t…

Ola sitting alone in school, witing for her brother

Ola sitting alone, still from “Communion,” photo: press materials

If you like your documentaries multilayered and emotionally complex, I suggest you watch Communion when the opportunity arises. You may fall in love with the portrayal of a young, ambitious girl’s struggle for a normal teenager’s life, painted with a non-invasive camera moves and an emphatic director’s choices. You may use all the tissues in your home while following the tense narrative wrapped around the process of Ola’s brother getting the Holy Communion, and her plan to have both parents back together. You may feel lots of things before and after watching this incredible documentary. But you will not be the same person again. Just like it should be.