free zone / dock's docs

Gdańsk: Freedom TV

Institute of Reportage

“Everyone has a camera nowadays. You can get one at any store. But equipment like that cost one hundred thousand dollars back then, in 1981, while workers earned about twenty dollars a month at the time. That kind of money was beyond our comprehension,” recalls Waldemar Płocharski, the vice-president of Video Studio Gdańsk, in the article by Magdalena Szkarłat (Polish School of Reportage).

It is 1981 in the People’s Republic of Poland. Both life and free speech are subject to rationing. Products such as meat, butter and other fats, flour, rice, baby formula, laundry detergent, soap, chocolate, cigarettes, and alcohol must be purchased with rationing stamps. There are only two channels on TV. The first is on the air from 2 pm till midnight, the second — from 10 am to 10 pm.

The First National Congress of Delegates of the Solidarity Trade Union begins on August 20 at Hala Olivia in Gdańsk. Participants are welcomed with the words “TVP lies” written in giant letters on the asphalt. TVP, the Polish national television broadcaster, was not allowed into the congress hall.

The day’s events opened with an appearance by Lech Wałęsa, who said: “Alone, each of us is insignificant. Together, we matter as much as the power of the millions who make up Solidarity.”

FREE RAILWAY MEDIA

“We launched SAR, the Student Radio Agency, in August, during those sixteen months of the Solidarity carnival,” recalls Waldemar Płocharski, now the vice-president of Video Studio Gdańsk. “It was a special place. We had professional equipment and a lot of brave, young people, most of whom were students at the Gdańsk University of Technology. They weren’t encumbered by the same issues as the regime journalists from the official media. They were subject to censorship. All we had was self-censorship. Everyone set their own boundaries.”

Płocharski was the editor-in-chief of SAR in 1980.

“Marian Terlecki came to me and suggested that we start a newsroom devoted to the Solidarity movement. At the time, Marian was a full-time employee of Gdańsk Television, but he was the one responsible for launching RAS, the Solidarity Radio Agency. You could say that it wasn’t much of a change — after all, SAR is simply RAS spelled backwards. We didn’t have our own frequency, so during the first Solidarity Congress, we would record the day’s events and then transfer everything to audio tape in the evening, after the sessions were over. These tapes were then sent out all over the country. Local stations, Radio Free Europe, and broadcasters all over the world would wait for our recording. People wanted to know the truth about what was going on during the Congress. The information was distributed with lightning speed. Solidarity members on the railroads were very efficient.”

“Although we didn’t know it at the time, this carnival of freedom was going to end in three months. But we had dreams of free speech.”

The boombox radio station soon transformed into a professional television crew. The second round of the Solidarity Congress in September 1981 was a groundbreaking moment. The International Trade Union Confederation donated professional television equipment to Solidarity. This included a U-matic High Band camera, one hundred blank video tapes, an editing station, a microphone, and a monitor. Only the world’s most professional television stations owned such equipment, among them CNN, which was only a year old at the time. The group of young enthusiast from Gdańsk got their hands on dozens of kilograms worth of gadgets that enabled them to create fully professional documentary films.

The late OTV Gdańsk documentary filmmaker Krzysztof Kalukin was the first to use the camera: he shot footage of a sparrow shivering in a puddle. The group’s first camera is now a museum exhibit. At the time, even the young crew at SAR was skeptical about whether the magnetic format was anything more than a fad, and whether it was better than traditional, light-sensitive material.

“Anyway, we had everything we needed in order to run an independent, electronic media outlet in Poland; one independent from the regime, the party, and its censors.”

“Everyone has a camera nowadays. You can get one at any store. But equipment like that cost one hundred thousand dollars back then, while workers earned about twenty dollars a month at the time. That kind of money was beyond our comprehension,” explains Płocharski.

Knowing that only true professionals knew what to do with Sony equipment of that kind, Marian Terlecki recruited a team from the company where he worked, the local Gdańsk television station. The crew consisted of the men he considered the bravest of the bunch: Krzysztof Kalukin, Marek Gąsecki, and Ryszard Troczyński. Some of them would later lose their jobs when subjected to vetting under martial law.

But at the time, everyone was excited about the new equipment and independent media. Terlecki himself became the head of the TV and radio departments of the RAS.

“Our first independent production was a ten minute film titled The Candidate. It was a recording of the campaign rivalry between Lech Wałęsa and Andrzej Gwiazda,” recalls Płocharski. “We documented all the hearings of the union’s National Commission. These would sometimes run long, because no one wanted to interrupt anyone or cut them off, such was the attention we paid to reliable information. To them, we were an ‘inside’ camera crew — the delegates let us film whatever we wanted.”

And then, on the night of December 12/13, 1981, martial law was declared. Solidarity’s leading activists were arrested.

“Our camera was supposed to be at the Polish Culture Congress in Warsaw,” Płocharski says. “The crew was supposed to leave on the morning of the 13th. They never left, of course, and Marian managed to hide the camera. He even sealed it off behind a brick wall in a Gdańsk basement. It remained hidden until 1984. We took our film work ‘underground.’”

UNDERGROUND

The crowd is chanting “Down with ZOMO!” People are running around, seeking refuge from the white batons in St. Mary’s Church. They lock the heavy, Gothic doors behind them, sharing laughs and handshakes. A shot of the dark interior of the church. Cut.

During the “underground” years, the camera recorded street protests from the windows of apartment buildings outside the shipyard, riots in front of the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, and filmed the meetings of the Temporary Coordinating Commission. To keep their cover from being blown and to avoid arrest, Bogdan Borusewicz, Bogdan Lis, Zbigniew Bujak, and other members of the banned Solidarity movement appeared in disguise, wearing wigs, beards, and mustaches. The appeals of a country locked in by martial law reached foreign press correspondents, Western film crews, and Radio Free Europe.

“Besides working on our own productions, we also copied and distributed censored films. You would describe it as piracy from today’s point of view, but it was just an underground press,” Płocharski laughs. “We started with the Theatre of the Eighth Day and its play Flight, based on the poetry of Osip Mandelstam. That was 1984. We recorded the production in Poznań, in some filthy boiler station.”

“Everything was held in such complete secrecy that one of the cameramen couldn’t take it anymore. He went outside for a cigarette before midnight and didn’t come back to shoot the play. People were simply scared. It was a time of oppression, arrests, and beatings.”

The Church took them in. They took refuge in a Pallotine ministry, started by the late Fr. Eugeniusz Dutkiewicz, who was also the creator of the hospice movement in Poland.

“There weren’t very many of us,” says Płocharski. “There was the cameraman Włodzimierz Resiak, Marian Terlecki was the director and scriptwriter (with help from his wife Hanna Goliszewska). Krzysztof Iglikowski and Andrzej Goliszewski did the editing, while I was responsible for the sound, and Jerzy Rozmus drove the car and took care of the lights.”

On December 10, 1983, the Provincial Council of Pallotines approved the formation of the Video Ministry Center.

“At the time, the Church was a space of freedom in Poland,” says Płocharski. “Up until the Round Table talks. We would go to church to watch all the movies that had been banned by the censors.”

“We even had a saying: “A VCR in every parish.’”

In 1985, Marian Terlecki and his film crew were on their way to a praise festival in Ołtarzewo when they were arrested on charges of “grand larceny.” They had not surrendered the film equipment that belonged to Solidarity, after the trade union was banned under martial law. The camera was thus “arrested” for sixteen months.
“Marian’s wife Hanna came to us and said, ‘If you don’t suspend your activities, they’re not going to let him go.’ So we took a break in our work. For a year and a half.”

THE BISHOP’S TV CREW

Marian Terlecki wasn’t released until 1986. The crew went back to work immediately. In two cramped rooms in the loft of the rectory at St. Mary’s, at 5 Podkramarska Street, the group put together an “underground” TV station. The rooms were blessed by Archbishop Tadeusz Gocłowski.

The group formed what became a diocese film crew: Marian Terlecki, art and program director; Ryszard Grabowski, editor; Marek Łochwicki, organization; Waldemar Płocharski, production; Katarzyna Wojciechowska, secretary.

“We smuggled in new film and editing equipment from Hamburg and Paris, under the guise of donations for the church. Film production began in earnest. During the pope’s third visit to Poland in 1987, we shot a triptych titled About Us and for Us. As ‘the bishop’s personal TV crew,’ we were allowed to accompany the pope wherever he went. Lech Wałęsa, along with his wife Danuta and their eight children, were given a private audience with the pontiff at the Bishops’ Palace in Oliwa. We were the only ones there with them. It was then that we really felt we could do anything, that we were independent, free, and brave. At the Dominicans, we made a program called Taking Wałęsa to Task , where Lech had to explain to students why he didn’t head the demonstrations. Any topic that the regime’s television didn’t want to take up was good for us.”

WE DISMANTLED COMMUNISM

Strikes broke out in May 1988. The Gdańsk Shipyard was surrounded by the ZOMO riot police and the phones were cut off.

“Jerzy Urban announced that any journalist or news crew that got anywhere near the shipyard would immediately be deported,” Płocharski recalls. “Director Piotr Bikont was supposed to shoot a film about roadside chapels with us at the time, but having heard news of the strike, he went to the shipyard instead. He shot two films, The Ballad of a Strike and A Different August. But before he even got started, the whole crew was arrested. Archbishop Gocłowski intervened with General Andrzejewski, then the head of the Regional Office of Internal Affairs. The archbishop explained that the filmmakers had been working on an environmental film about the Baltic sea. Piotr Bikont, Leszek Dziumowicz, Wojciech Ostrowski, Ewa Oleczek, Jarosław Rybicki, Janusz Pawłowski, Ryszard Grabowski, and Piotr Semka had all been at the shipyard. Today, Bikont has found his little spot of freedom in Badowa, where he runs a theater. Semka is a political commentator, Ryszard died, and as for Ewa, she became my wife.”

“Footage from the shipyard was sent to the studio on Podkramarska Street. There was a line of journalists from CNN, ABC, and other foreign stations waiting. This helped launch Poland, Gdańsk, and the shipyard onto the evening news. We showed them the truth.”

Then 1989 and the Round Table Agreement came along. The government decided to talk things through with the nation.

“Our crew and the regime TV crew covered the Round Table on equal footing. Independent media were finally given the same recognition as the official media. Of course, we didn’t have access to the airwaves, but we could produce news footage just the same. And we had the chance to keep an eye on them and film their interviews, giving us evidence in case they tried to misrepresent the events later on.”

“We even came up with a method of telling ‘our’ delegates apart on camera: Solidarity members would hold a folder with a big letter S in front of them.”

Two important films were shot during the talks. Mariusz Kobzdej created a chronicle of the sessions, while Piotr Bikont shot Tales of the Round Table.

The name VIDEO STUDIO GDAŃSK first appeared in the summer of 1989. The new logo, which prominently displayed the word VIDEO, was proof of the company’s transformation into a professional film production studio.

“After the Round Table Agreement, Marian became head of the Gdańsk television center,” Płocharski says. “He wanted to take some of the people with him and dissolve the VSG. He didn’t see any purpose in its further existence. Marian thought it would be best to just take the tapes to the TV channel, which was ours by then, and we could do whatever we wanted. Marek Łochwicki and I had no illusions that everything was going to be simple from that point on. There are quite a few white spots in Polish history that need to be revealed. That was our goal.”

AN OPTIMISTIC ENDING

Mirosław Bork took over the position of artistic director at VSG in 1990. Bork brought in some lighter, artistic topics that didn’t involve politics.

“He changed our way of thinking about TV production,” Płocharski recalls. “It turned out that there were other important issues besides the heavy, social, Solidarity-focused topics we had been working on.”

On November 19, 1992, Video Studio Gdańsk moved into its new offices at 20 Grodzka Street in Gdańsk, where it has remained to this day.

There are thousands of tapes in the studio’s editing room and archives, waiting to be archived on modern media. The “Road to Independence” Film Archive Foundation was created in 2004 with this task in mind.

The walls of VSG are adorned with letters, diplomas, and thank-yous — proof of three decades of independent media in Poland.

Andrzej Wajda writes: “Dear friends. The great transformation that we have witnessed in our country was made possible by many human efforts, of which one of the most important is the work of Video Studio Gdańsk.”

Wiesław Walendziak writes: “What VSG has done almost makes me believe in time warps.”

Jan Nowak-Jeziorański: “VSG is a part of my memories of the great adventure of the eighties.”

Maciej Płażyński: “… thanks to your hard and thoughtful work, we can now look back on the chapters of history that we wrote together.”

“We recently made a film that turned out to be quite challenging for us,” Płocharski says. “The film, Carry Each Other’s Burdens (dir. Mieczysław B. Vogt, 2008), discusses the papacy of John Paul II and Solidarity. Everything had been going well — Solidarity was a force for change, the pope kept visiting the country, giving us strength, leading us to victory.

Then there was the Round Table Agreement, Wałęsa was elected president, the Russians left, we had more and more freedom, and we finally joined NATO and the European Union. But then it turned out that there was no happy ending to the story.

The pope passed away and left us in this world. Solidarity transformed into the fighting arm of one party. It was very hard to come up with an end to the film. An optimistic end. So we decided to take a minimalist route, showing how the teachings of John Paul II could be interpreted and spread, and how Solidarity could fight for workers’ rights instead of political influence. And that’s how we finished the film.”

Magdalena Szkarłat
Translated by Arthur Barys

This article (together with the questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.