State sponsorship of cinema was a precondition for the functioning of the Polish animation market before 1989. Between 1947 and 1989, Polish animation studios thrived on a steady flow of commissions and state-backed financial guarantees securing their productions. Taking into account the fact that no animation was made outside the studio system, can we speak of independent animation in Poland during the communist era?
Although the filmmakers worked in studios that formally had annual production schedules and operated according to guidelines, and all the films went through numerous formal stages that determined the realization of the production idea and its final distribution, we can distinguish several factors that affect independence. I define “independence” here as the activity within the structures of the studio, broadening the boundaries of one’s own agency (i.e., seeking ways of self-expression and creation under the conditions one has set). These modalities will be when and where the film was made, the gender of the creators, and the cultural capital of the filmmakers. The combination of these three modalities formed the framework in which it was possible to create independent animations in communist Poland. I would like to discuss the above-proposed modalities through the exemplar case of the Se-Ma-For Small Film Forms Studio in Łódź, which was one of the largest animation studios in Poland and the leading one in terms of stop-motion puppet animation.
Modality n. 1: Time and place. During the 52 years of the studio’s existence (Se-Ma-For Small Film Forms Studio operated continuously from 1947 to 1999), its structure was modified several times. The dependence of the studio on the central units changed, its composition increased or decreased, its premises and equipment resources changed, and, especially, the production profile assigned to the studio was modified. This last aspect explains why in some periods there were more films for children, while in others there were also films for adults. When, during the first few years of the studio’s existence, Zenon Wasilewski presented film projects for adults almost year after year, his proposals were rejected. This was connected with the expectation that the studio in Łódź should attempt to fill the gap in film production for children, and that production resources of the studio should entirely be subordinate to this creativity. Therefore, Zenon Wasilewski was obliged to continue working on the puppet films for children, while subsequent scripts for Mr. Piórko’s adventures, the adult film character designed by Wasilewski (the only film with Mr. Piórko’s was not distributed), remained only on paper.
Modality n. 2: Gender. The structure places limits on the agency causing it to act in a certain way [Giddens, 1983: 69]. In this respect, the structure (in this case, the studio) imposes restrictions upon the agent to reflect societal norms. This theory explains why there is a long tradition of fewer women than men working as film directors in this position. Norms, however, are subject to constant manipulation by society through the use of structural “resources”, and in certain periods of time women appeared in managerial positions. Interestingly, however, such women never entered public awareness as directors of artistic animated films. Their domain remained the production for a children audience, like it was the case for women directors of fiction films.
Se-Ma-For, like Cartoon Films in Bielsko-Biała, was a typically male structure, both in terms of the studio’s management and the composition of the artists. While there were still female animators, phasers, or decorators, directors and cinematographers were almost exclusively men. Łódź studio’s most famous creators were Zenon Wasilewski, Daniel Szczechura, Stefan Schabenbeck, Zbigniew Rybczyński, and Hieronim Neumann. It was they who won the foreign awards and made their own films using various animation techniques. Authors such as Lidia Hornicka, Halina Bielińska, Teresa Badzian, and Katarzyna Latałło only occasionally had the opportunity to make animations targeted at adult viewers. Their work was mostly related to productions for children, which, in the People’s Republic of Poland, was treated as “utilitarian” and lacked both festival distribution and appreciation of the craftsmanship of the work. The lack of festival prizes contributed to the lowly status of artists within the studio and in the field of animation, which made it impossible for them to negotiate conditions related to the functioning in the studio and make independent decisions.
Modality n. 3: Cultural capital. So, how is it possible that some of the studio’s members could make films in the spirit of auteur cinema (i.e., by choosing the theme, production technique, and target audience), while others had the opportunity only to direct scripts of single or multi-year series approved in the plan?
The sustainability of the studio’s structure was based on flexibility and the ability to achieve various goals. The two main goals of the studio were to strengthen its position in the field of Polish film production and to gain symbolic capital in building the prestige of the studio. The first goal was achieved by fulfilling the tasks assigned to the studio by its sponsor (i.e., the Ministry of Culture), which was to produce animated films for children. The second goal was achieved through awards received at foreign film festivals, which built the studio’s symbolic capital. Authors who contributed to building the studio’s symbolic capital gained a greater say in the selection of topics and production techniques. Directors such as Daniel Szczechura and Zbigniew Rybczyński worked in the studio under different conditions than other animation filmmakers, and their independence was associated with the cultural capital they gained abroad.
Conclusion. Independence is an ambiguous concept, and its definition should refer to the specific organizational conditions under which the animation industry operates. In the case of Se-Ma-For Small Film Forms Studio in Łódź the time and place of production, the gender of the filmmakers, and the cultural capital of the artists were the factors that conditioned the agency and enabled the appearance of independent animation in Poland. In the instances in which these three factors were all present, the conditions for independence were most favorable.
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Ewa Ciszewska is an assistant professor at the University of Łódź in the Department of Film and Audiovisual Media. Her recent publications concern cultural heritage management in the field of animation in Poland, Polish–Czech film cooperation during the communist era and film education in Poland. Her article “Who Benefits from the Past? The Process of Cultural Heritage Management in the Field of Animation in Poland (The Case of the Se-Ma-For Film Studio in Łódź)”, which was published in animation: an interdisciplinary journal, received an Honorable Mention in the SCMS Central/East/South Cinemas Outstanding Essay Award. She is currently working on a postdoctoral project concerning Polish and Czechoslovakian film cooperation between 1945 and 1990, and on the history of the Se-Ma-For Film Studio of Small Film Forms in Łódź.