Dragon of Dragons 2022

Jarmo Jääskeläinen –  how to carry freedom within yourself

Jadwiga Hučková

Jarmo Jääskeläinen came to Poland from Finland in 1965 to study at the Film School in Łódź. For many years, he lived in Poland and worked as a Yleisradio correspondent. His films, made together with Polish cinematographers, in particular Michał Bukojemski, reveal both a remarkable degree of understanding of Polish affairs and sensitivity to universal values, combined with a genuinely independent way of thinking. Being a foreigner, he did not experience any limitations imposed by censorship or self-censorship and, as an internally free man, he did not need to fear that he would reveal some less than convenient truth at a wrong time. His excellent command of Polish enabled him to formulate valid questions and decipher the characters’ intentions without sacrificing any message lost in translation.

            In the 1970s Jääskeläinen captured in his films the essence and spirit of many manifestations of the community life. Without a pre-defined thesis, faithful to the facts, he told the story of the key stages of Poland’s contemporary history, social life and culture. He was among the first filmmakers to touch upon certain subjects. For example, in his documentaries Umschlagplatz according to Marek Edelman (1981) and Famine Disease (1983) he analysed the studies over hunger in the Warsaw ghetto carried out by Jewish doctors, who died just like their patients.

The documentary Heroes and Martyrs (1990) tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of the fate of Jews from Nowy Korczyn. The film definitely breaks out of the dominant patterns of the Holocaust depictions focusing on interpersonal relations in the country occupied by Germans. Who survived the war and at what cost? Who whitewashes history and why? One survivor confesses: ‘I can see the tragedy of prejudiced people who, for personal reasons, blame the group for the actions of individuals.’

            In a relatively short period of time, he created other important documentaries, such as Death of a Student (1977), which was the first attempt to discover the truth about Stanisław Pyjas’s death. With remarkable devotion, over the next years, he collected further material to make the next film about the Pyjas case, as he himself declared.  Death of a Student shows, among others, how the information not reported by the national media in the 1970s was transmitted. The statement made by the authorities that ‘Apart from the death of Pyjas, everything else is a hypothesis’ meant that the investigation had been closed, which was a trigger for a mass movement formed by the opposition.

            The director could see the special character of Polish Catholicism but did not evaluate its manifestations. His documentary The Coronation (1979) focuses on the atmosphere of the first pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Poland as seen from the perspective of the Maków Podhalański parish. The eponymous coronation of the picture of Virgin Mary from Maków Podhalański during the mass celebrated by the pope at the Kraków common makes the axis of events. The film author managed to capture the unique atmosphere of the celebrations, the joy caused by the ‘Pilgrim’s arrival’ and ‘non-canonical’ images of the clergy revealing their most human side. In a non-insistent way, the film explains how the history of the Catholic Church in Poland, its persecution and triumphs, is entwined with the history of ordinary people.

            Mass for the Homeland (1985), devoted to the memory of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, explores the hate campaign against the priest perpetrated by the communist press, a testimony of which are articles authored by Jerzy Urban, according to whom the priest was the ‘organiser of political vitriol sessions’. In the context of the kidnaping and murder of this Solidarity chaplain, the court records from the case against his assassins are of particular value. Relatively young, coming from the families of intelligentsia and holding university degrees, they seem to be monstrous products of the system that the Church opposed after the war.

            The film Monument (1981) is part of the context of national traumas. The shipyard workers are methodically analysing incidents from 14-17 December 1970 arguing about the details with great agitation. The temperature of their dispute evidently contrasts with the gravity of the moods surrounding the Gdańsk Monument on the night of its unveiling. One particularly valuable account is that of a worker who in 1970 was serving in the army and participated in the events on the other side of the barricade. The film shows that historical accounts have not been settled yet and ‘they’ (the authorities) ‘keep whitewashing themselves’, which suggests that history may repeat itself.

            This theme re-appears in Prison-Walled Freedom (1986). The documentary is based on Michał Bukojemski’s photographs from an internment camp. It presents various aspects of the detainees’ lives. At some point, it also explores opportunities as well as mistakes of Solidarity. Admitting them is a complex issue as the aggressive communist propaganda has already smeared the movement. One of the interned men says that most activists supported a peaceful transformation. ‘We just wanted democratic local elections. The plan was to organise elections to National Councils, which would give Solidarity a victory on the local level’. If Solidarity had been allowed to participate in the elections in 1982, it is easy to imagine the results. It can be felt that the opposition was unprepared for the takeover of power. This is yet another film revealing the threats related to the unawareness of democratic mechanisms and the lack of experience, which is gained over many years.

            His films revisit the idea of August 1980 when people at the Gdańsk shipyard commented that experts in an enterprise should include those working ‘in construction and in the yard’, i.e. foremen and workers. When a ‘reform was made by professors – it failed’. There is no greater confidence in workers’ self-governance, but any chances for its implementation are slim. An epitaph for this remarkable and once catchy idea is the documentary Heroes and Martyrs, in which the director shows the lives of three heroes of August 1980 who never made it to the front pages of newspapers. They are characterized by genuine modesty, tranquillity and sadness. One of the former strike organisers has lived in Germany since December 1981 as he decided to stay there when the martial law was announced. He is one of 9 million, living alone in his small flat in Bremen. 

            Jääskeläinen’s interest in his characters and themes did not stop once editing was completed. Recurring topics and themes were the expression of his personal involvement. The difficult reality of Poland at the end of the communist era exhibits a remarkable variety of shades in the films of this ‘immigrant with a Polish soul’. Several decades of the Polish ‘history of ordinary people’ have maintained their colour and unique atmosphere.

            The protagonists of the director’s films were presented with their weaknesses, mistakes, vices and idiosyncrasies revealing their most human side, which only adds credibility to the portrayals without diminishing the persons’ achievements. Including a photograph from the name day of father Jerzy Popiełuszko in the film Mass for the Homeland does not deprive him of his martyrdom. To the contrary, the film remains a remarkably powerful declaration of the highest values. Nihil obstat.

            Today, we may again discuss the difficult geopolitical location of Poland and Finland. But it was in the homeland of the author of Prison-Walled Freedom where an independent approach to complex issues, easily reduced to simplified templates in the public discourse, could develop. Jääskeläinen created his pictures with the talent and sensitivity of a genre painter whose attention does not stop on the colourful surface of phenomena. Hardly anyone has depicted them with more diversity, even in their external appearance.

Paradoxically, the artist who has said so much about Poland in his films remains a mystery for the viewer. He is a phenomenon that cannot be explained by the agency of his personal relationships or friendships. People who know him will confirm that he has devoted his professional skills, the sense of time and the ability to associate facts to Poland. He created in the time of a particular ferment of thoughts and the atmosphere of mutual inspiration in the documentary filmmakers’ community. The creative biography of Jarmo Jääskeläinen is still an unwritten script.

The evening of Dragon of Dragons. A meeting dedicated to Jarmo Jääskeläinen
Tuesday, May 31 19:30 – 20:30

This year’s Dragon of Dragons award ceremony will be different from the past events. The winner is no longer with us. Jarmo Jääskeläinen passed away in January, leaving behind his wife and daughter. They are the ones that will accept the statuette from the Programme Council of the Krakow Film Foundation awarded to Jarmo Jääskeläinen for his contribution to the world documentary cinema. The screening of Death of a Student, which will inaugurate the filmmaker’s retrospective, will be followed by a meeting attended by the director’s friends and collaborators, Michał Bukojemski and Piotr Jaxa, accompanied by two members of the Programme Council, Maria Malatyńska and Jadwiga Hučková. The event will be hosted by Krzysztof Gierat, the festival director.

Jarmo Jääskeläinen

Jarmo Jääskeläinen – Finnish journalist, producer and director of documentaries. Jääskeläinen began his studies at the Łódź Film School in 1965, then stayed in Poland for many years, documenting the turbulent events of the 1970s and the 1980s thoroughly and without any censorship. He continued his career in Finland as a director, producer, and teacher. He founded a Documentary Project on YLE TV2. In 1998 he was awarded the honorary title of professor and in 2011 a lifetime achievement award from the Finnish Television Academy.