The Emotional Documentaries of Jerzy Kucia

By Gillian Lacey


Jerzy Kucia describes his films as emotional documentaries, impressions that conjure up feelings which some people dismiss as nostalgic and others are deeply moved by. Across the Field is a slowly paced and poetic piece. The images are very textured and in black and white. The film does not have a traditional narrative structure, but uses a different sort of impressionistic story-telling brought about by layers, textures, timing and, very importantly, sound. In animation the director has the opportunity to create the movement and manipulate it to suit their idea of what is being expressed and this is something Kucia is a master at exploring. He builds the images in misty layers like rifling through your memory, to reach its heart. He says if you strung his films together they would make a feature, a feature charting a journey. The sound of a train, fleeting images of a train or from a train, certainly carry us from film to film.

This film was made in the early ’90s. We start in a poor and simple peasant home. Such places are disappearing fast in Poland now but people still have a strong connection to the land and in country districts work their small farms alongside other jobs. It is hard, hard work. Through the layered images of the film we see ghosts of people, their bent backs and bowed heads merging into the sheaves of corn.

There are the musicians of the village, playing to celebrate a successful harvest. We hear the sounds of workers cutting the corn. We pass through the field as the crop is slashed in front of us. The cartwheels rumble and creak, hundreds of insects fly up with the dust. A sense of the community is conjured up. Glimpsed through hazy light, old customs parade across the screen. An angel jumps into a pond, a ghostly procession of warriors/monks on horseback moves slowly in the mist. We wander through time, across the field. Suddenly cars pass and we have reached the field’s edge. The speed and sound bring the field into the present.

We return to the peasant house. Now the door creaks back and forth allowing a glimpse of the deserted room. It is raining. A train passes. The journey continues. As the door swings to and fro the table piles up with abandoned objects. Time passes on, the train passes by. Flames destroy the objects, and burn the stubble after the harvest. A way of life is lost. A portrait of rural life is conjured up and fades away.

The film is wordless. Kucia sees the use of sound and music as absolutely crucial to how we experience the narrative. He spends a lot of time with his composer working on almost frame by frame nuances between sound and image. The relationships are beautifully integrated and the films are well worth viewing to see how he achieves this.

Although the film is animation it is like a moving painting and Kucia often shoots live action sequences and then reworks them. They may be re-drawn, cut out and stuck on cel with a lot of air brush work. The use of multiple exposures (up to 10 passes) on 35 mm rostrum camera necessitates a very long time under the camera and meticulous artwork. The angel in Across the Field was a live action boy transferred to cel with art-worked wings stuck to his back. None of the work is done with computers, it’s all very labour intensive artwork.

Across the Field illustrates a special way of storytelling possible within animation. Live action stories are often struggling for authenticity and realism, which is only one aspect of cinematic narrative. Kucia uses another kind of film magic. I visited the field when I was in Krakow and saw the house used by the crew. I was there in autumn when the trees and fields were bare. It was strangely empty without the evocative music and rural community of the film. But I was still moved.

Jerzy Kucia is Professor of Animation in the Fine Art School in Krakow University, Poland. He will be participating in the forthcoming Art & Animation event at the Tate Modern and screening some of his work, including Across the Field, his most recent film.

Gillian Lacey is a filmmaker and animator.