Et maintenant par la grâce de l’imaginaire, bon voyage!
– Guy Hocquenghem, Le Gay Voyage
Picture a scene: young sportsmen at the end of a running competition. Their muscles flexed in the last effort to make it to the finishing line. Then, the race complete, they let their bodies soften, relax. They stroll slowly off the track, shaking hands, chatting lazily. This is where Piotr Majdrowicz’s 1978 film, Nieporozumienie (Misunderstanding), begins.
This first scene itself wouldn’t, perhaps, be worthy of a particular attention. To a Polish viewer especially, it resembles an all-too-familiar format of the Polish Film Chronicle, a series of short propaganda documentaries shown before cinema screenings between 1944 and 1995, and often replayed by the public television today for entertainment. The videos, particularly pre-1989, portrayed prosperous daily life in communist Poland, as well as significant events, such as celebrations of national holidays or sporting events. The material was accompanied by a light-hearted commentary praising the quality of life under communism. At first glance, then, the scene described above could well be an outtake from a Chronicle, emphasising agility and commendable sporting spirit of Polish youth; and yet, a sense of confusion appears. The background music – a slow piano tune – seems ill-synchronised, disrupting the dynamism of the scene. Gradually, it transpires that the camera gaze fixates on one runner in particular, in a transition so subtle it only becomes evident on a close inspection. Then, we see a series of photographs of the same athlete, carefully handled by someone’s hands. A short shot of a melancholic young man’s face – presumably the photographer – is interrupted by the opening credits. What are we witnessing? What is the dynamic at play?
As the narrative unfolds, we come to realise the intricately woven net of connections between the two men. While the athlete is portrayed as outwardly strong, self-assured in his masculinity and unmistakeably identified on screen as heterosexual (appearing with a girlfriend in several scenes), the other man’s ambiguous feelings toward his friend are more complex. He appears withdrawn, a silent observer rather than a participant in other boys’ socialising. Since dialogue is not used, the film relies on Paweł Grzesiński’s minimalist acting, which expresses an array of stifled emotions. Effectively, it is the camera that bears sole witness to the protagonist’s unspoken sexual desires, which, as becomes clear, are directed towards the athlete. His photography acts as an important facilitator through which he can explore the athletic male body he finds arousing, without the danger of being socially ostracised as homosexual in the bigoted socialist society and overwhelming Catholic morality.
As we trace the dynamic between the two men, the subtle melancholy of the initially distanced attraction grows in intensity. In a sequence of several scenes, the photographer follows his object of desire around the city of Poznań. The urban backdrop facilitates his game of hide-and-seek with the unwitting man. This cruising through the camera’s eye without reciprocity of the athlete, who remains none the wiser, introduces a somewhat troublesome context of stalking into the work. In the film, it is culminated with an outburst of violence. Upon realising he had been followed and taken non-consensual photographs of, the athlete attacks the man and leaves him, beaten up, on the staircase leading to his flat. It is easy to accept this aggression, shown by the man who had felt violated and infringed upon, as justified, and his anger as righteous. However, rather than qualify it, Majdrowicz offers a more elaborate interpretative field for the emotions at stake. Particularly in the context of the opening scene, reminiscent of propaganda footage, he refuses to participate in the narrative of the austere public sphere, unequipped to so much as tolerate displays of difference of any kind. In a bold – certainly for the 1970s’ Poland – move, Majdrowicz, through the character of a well-adjusted, heterosexual man, deconstructs the aggression and outright hostility of the socialist public sphere towards homosexuality. Majdrowicz’s portrayal of stalking is therefore more complex than fetishist voyeurism. The photographer’s camera continues to document and trace his route, thus mapping the city, after Guy Hocquenghem, with gay desire. It does so in a permanent yet clandestine manner, as fleeting moments are outlasted by their photographic traces. It is both an expression of internalised self-control, but also a temporal liberation from imposed chronobiopolitics through creation of queer spatiality transgressing the there and then of the public sphere. The man’s inability to act upon his forbidden desire, regarded as a disruptive pathology and dismissed by the hegemonic discourses of totalitarian regime and the Catholic Church, obscures the boundaries between his sexual fantasies, reality, and photography.
So is, in fact, the case for the viewer. We’re left to wonder whether what we see is real or imaginary. As the boys, sat in a café, study the archetypal male beauty of Greek sculpture, the images of the perfectly sculpted, muscular Greek men, and that of a young boy in flesh and blood are superimposed, blurred in a gay man’s fantasy. The sculptures serve as an inspiration for a photoshoot arranged by the photographer, with the athlete posing as Discobolus or Boy with Thorn. In the very few existing accounts of Misunderstanding, this scene is described, notably by the art historian Paweł Leszkowicz, as a momentary liberation where “both men [enter] the alternative homosexual matrix and its visual aspect.” However, as we follow the photoshoot on the screen, it is backgrounded by the café sounds where the two men were sat, suggesting that this, too, was but the man’s imagination. The film, tracing the forbidden homosexual desire, focuses on the eroticism of the male body. However, through its encapsulation in the phantasmagorical sphere, this conveys the feeling of imposed sublimation through the context of compulsory heterosexuality, regulated by the rigid, dehumanising system of oppression. Thus, registering the interstitiality of relations between the norm and homosexual desire, Misunderstanding is an unprecedented work from communist Poland. As Krzysztof Tomasik writes in his book Sexual Minorities of the Polish People’s Republic, “[a]lthough we can count over fifty LGBT episodes in post-war Polish films and television series before 1989, most of them fall under one scheme. [LGBT people] are represented not as characters, but “types” in the background, somewhere around … [their] closet [public toilet], causing laughter or revulsion. In short – faggots: pathetic, blasé, with scarves and modelled haircuts, just looking around to pick up some guy.” In parting with this stereotyped representation of LGBT people in the Polish cinema, Majdrowicz skilfully employed the double gaze of his camera and his protagonist’s photography. Rather than fed superficial imagery of homosexuality, designed for comical effect, the audience is asked to follow the unfolding story of the gay man, allowed to perceive him sympathetically. We delve into his desire, which brings him to an unfortunate end, through his own eyes and the gaze of his camera. It cruises not simply the urban spaces but, significantly, the most intimate manifestations of the young man’s frustration. Ultimately, allowed but a brief insight, we are denied a happy ending, or, in fact, any ending to the story. The system clearly prevails, and the man’s desire doesn’t vanish – we’re back at the start.
From this apparently inconsequential incident presented in Misunderstanding, we can nevertheless gather that the film imagines and attempts a certain utopian temporal spatiality within the always-already political totalitarian sphere. The boy’s photography, like Derridean trace, maps the streets of Poznań with homoerotic desire. Along with the film images, flickering so as to confuse the fine line between reality and imagination, the photographs become a negotiation of boundaries between the private and the public sphere, theretofore unshaken, and altogether “an attack on the totalitarian unity.” The disruption of this uniformity participates in making queerness which, as José Muñoz wrote, “propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” These feelings, indeed, resonate in Misunderstanding, as Majdrowicz employs the margins of the public sphere – in this case, censorship-free Amateur Film Club – to create a work of disobedience. While invisible in mainstream culture, a careful viewer may superimpose the images of the film onto the public space in order to temporarily unearth the already mapped gay desire and make it “legible outside of its insular sphere… through a process of erasure that redoubles and marks the systematic erasure of minoritarian histories.” Through the camera gaze, we experience these images of homoerotic utopia, which remain haunting and elusive today. Certainly, a lot has changed since 1978; however, in a country like Poland, sadly and deeply ridden with homophobia, this delving into the affective aspects of Misunderstanding might still be as potent a critique of the oppressive social system as it was nearly forty years earlier.
The full film is available online here.
Aleksandra Gajowy is a PhD researcher in Art History at Newcastle University. Her doctoral project focuses on representations and ontology of queer body in performance and body art in Poland since the 1970s until present, with particular focus on censorship, Catholic Church, and HIV/AIDS narratives. Her research is funded by the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She has presented parts of this research at international annual conferences such as Association of Art Historians (Edinburgh, 2016; Loughborough, 2017) and College Art Association (New York, 2017). She will chair a session on queer spaces in visual arts at the Universities Art Association of Canada annual conference (Banff, 2017) and is currently working on a journal article which will be published in Art Margins later this year.
For further reading see e.g. Grzegorz Łęcicki “Censorship in People’s Poland,” Journalism Research, No. 10, 2016, pp. 147-175
Guy Hocquenghem, Le Gay Voyage: Guide et regard homosexuels sur les grandes métropoles (The Gay Journey: A guide and a homosexual look at the great metropolis) (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1980)
Dana Luciano, Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth-century America (New York and London: New York University Press, 2008), 9
Paweł Leszkowicz, “The Queer Story of Polish Art and Subjectivity,” Art Margins Online, April 2006, http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/2-articles/163-the-queer-story-of-polish-art-and-subjectivity-
Tomasik uses the word “szalet,” a Polish slang word to describe a public toilet, in a double context of the toilet as a place of gay cruising; as well as the closet, the metaphorical space of isolation.
Krzysztof Tomasik, Gejerel. Mniejszości seksualne w PRL-u (Sexual Minorities of The Polish People’s Republic), (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012), 138
“the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself”, Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (Evanston, Northwestern University Press 1973), 156
ed. Anka Ptaszkowska, Kurtyzana i Pisklęta, Czyli Krzywe Zwierciadło Namiętnego Chaosu Albo Inaczej Studium Chaosu. Traktat o Życiu Krzysztofa Niemczyka na Użytek Przyszłych Pokoleń (Courtesan and the Little Chicks, or a Crooked Mirror of Passionate Action, or A Study of Chaos/The Treaty About Life of the Artist Krzysztof Niemczyk for Future Generations) (Kraków: Ha!art, 2007), 289
José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia (New York, London: New York University Press, 2009), 1
Amateur Film Clubs, popular in communist Poland, were largely dismissed and looked down on by professional film industry. Since they were not officially regarded as art or widely distributed, the films managed to escape censor checks. The Clubs became a haven for those creators who explores themes forbidden in professional productions, such as sexuality and sexual minorities, but also “consumerism and relations between the public and private life. In their films and animations, [the Club filmmakers] experimented with the form, and employed many self-referential and analytical strategies, identifying their position very consciously.” – in “Entuzjaści. Kino outsiderów od lat 50tych do lat 80tych.” (“Enthusiasts. Outsider cinema from the 1950s to the 1980s.”), artmuseum.pl. http://artmuseum.pl/pl/wydarzenia/dyskusyjny-klub-filmowy-1-entuzjasci-kino-outsiderow-od-lat-2.
For further reading see e.g.: Paulina Haratyk, “Amatorskie Kluby Filmowe. Zapomniany fenomen PRLu” (Amateur Film Clubs. The forgotten phenomenon of Polish People’s Republic.”), Magazyn O, September 2016 [Polish version only]
José Esteban Muñoz, „Ephemera as Evidence,” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Vol. 8, Issue 2, 1996, 6