At the DOK Leipzig festival "Argentinian Lesson" by Wojciech Staroń has its world premiere. Daniel Stopa comments on the subtle narration, astonishing pictures and unique atmosphere of the film.

Wojciech Staroń confirmed with his "Argentinian Lesson" (2011) that he belongs to the group of documentarians who prefer the language of film rather than the stylistics of television or the Internet. A "simple" story about friendship between 7-years old Janek (the son of the director) and slightly older Marsja (a girl living in a small village in the North of Argentina) already in the first scenes charms with its sublime form. This article is a compilation of loose notes as well as a voice of a viewer enchanted by the poetics of "Argentinian..." and thirsty for more discussion about this masterpiece. 

The first minutes…

Film language triumphs already in the first minutes of "Argentinian...". Staroń, not using commentary from the off, situational dialogues or subtitles, transmits a vast amount of information, which is difficult to repeat here entirely. The sequence of the journey to Argentina, presented in an exposition, is divided into three stages, set by diverse means of transportation: a plane, bus, and car. The differences between the stages are highlighted by the contrast between developed and technologically-ordered urban world from which the Starońs come and the small, underdeveloped and depending on the vagaries of nature "part" to which they come. The closer to the destination they are, the worse the condition of the travel become - the vehicle more cramped and the road bumpier. The landscape changes. At the beginning Janek with his sister look out of a plane window (at the time still like tourists) into clear sky. Later, while the Starońs travel by night by bus, they see a storm in the distance - just where they are going. They cover the last part of the journey by car. Raindrops flowing down the windshield obstruct the visibility, the road lacks asphalt, first, poor villages appear. The increasing pain of the journey is expressed also by the duration of the scenes. The one on the plane is the shortest, while the scene in the car the longest. Thus, the road between the continents fades away opposed to the long and exhausting travel from Buenos Aires to Azara. 

The opening scene is interesting. We see Marsja saying goodbye to her father in heavy rain. In the distance, a bus passes (shots are slightly slowed down and it's easier to notice every detail). We focus on the girl and her father (in the soundtrack, we can hear only the rain, the sound of the bus is not introduced). When after a while we see the scene with Janek among buses at the station and later travelling, we understand how subtly and intelligently were prepared the frames presenting an indirect encounter of all protagonists. These few minutes shows the potential of "Argentinian ..." based on the power of film language and the skill of telling a story through evidence only.

The encounter

The encounter of children from different parts of the world is the subject of "Argentinian ...". The word "encounter" describes also the kind of documentary style close to Staroń. Firstly, the director focuses on individual portraits, at the expense of group scenes, in which people would remain anonymous. This decision requires certain technique consistency on the part of the director. In "Argentinian ..." there are many close-ups showing the smallest details (faces, feet, hands). These shots, using standard lenses, forced Staroń to approach the protagonists. All the boundaries between the documentarian and the portrayed person broke - the encounter took place. Secondly, Staroń was not interested in the form of "pure" observation, but a subjective perspective of a protagonist, uncovering the soul of a particular person. This is evident, for example, in the case of information about the problems of Argentina (poverty, bad economical situation, the fall of family values). We learn that the economical situation of Argentina is responsible for all of these problems, even the family ones, from Marja's father. Apart from these words no one speaks directly about the problems of the country. Despite this, we have the impression that life in Azara stopped in the 80s, which is proved by a chain of desolate shops, which Janek passes on his way to school. The presence of faded signs over the doors suggests that the village used to look differently, that people lead a better life there. 

The magic of childhood and the bitter taste of adolescence. The events presented in "Argentinian..." take place between the world of the magic which characterizes childhood and the bitter taste of adolescence, between the time of carefree play and the tragedies which the youngest have to face. The sequence ending the film remains unforgettable in this aspect. We see a vintage Ford, a symbol of the splendour of Marsja’s family, moving along a street. Inside there is Marsja and her family. Suddenly, he puts his hands in the air, but the car still moves forward, like in a dream. The bitterness and irony of the situation is clear in the fact that Ford is pulled by a tractor. The oscillation between the worlds of child's fantasy and the grey reality is emphasised by the soundtrack - lyrical illustrative music is accompanied by acrid sounds of Argentinian rain. 

The sun and rain

The rhythm of events presented in "Argentinian..." is dictated by nature, two elements to be precise: the sun and rain. When it rains, the protagonists set their work aside and contemplate. Staroń presents impressionistic pictures of microelements from the realm of nature (a small beetle, a drop of water, an orange sitting in a puddle). When, on the other hand, the sun is shining, the protagonists are active - they play, build a shop, make bricks, help during the harvest - the narration speeds up drastically, the scenes are shorter and more dynamic. The range of colours changes as well. In the scenes in the rain, fog and clouded sky eliminate bright colours; the colours are monochromatic, like in the scene opening the film, when heavy rain blends together the foreground and the background, while fog surrounds the stop sign and the bus passing in the distance. The sun, on the other hand, allows to see all the colours, shapes, and distances. A good example is the sequence in which children play in Marsja's garage, where the sunrays enter the smallest cracks of the room. 


The frame of the plot was based on events which entered the script long before the shooting began: the arrival, Janek's first day in school, the return. This sketch was filled with shots-impressions, putting on hold the development of the plot and emphasising the atmosphere.  There are scenes presenting still landscapes, small elements of nature or protagonists' faces. The mastery of Staroń is apparent in the way he joins these poetic digressions. Even the smallest particle of the plot has its own narration. Learning to do a handstand, which is present throughout all the documentary, is but one example. After arriving to Argentina, Janek tries it on his own, later, when he meets Marsja, they learn together, at the end he becomes as good as an acrobat. Staroń focuses on these "simple" stories showing their beginning, development and end, because he notices in them the title "lesson" which, step by step, moves forward. There are more reasons why the documentarian introduces these scenes. Usually it is to emphasise the emotional tone of preceding events, for example in the rhythmic collage after Marsja returns to her father. We watch a combination of diverse scenes (a billiard ball falling into a corner, a dancing crowd, meat being cut and so on) and sounds (a prayer, the voice of a priest calling for redemption, illustrative music). This enormous amount of pictures and sounds corresponds to pulsating emotions of the protagonists. In one of the flashes, Marsja, with all her strength, throws a stone in front of her house, as if she was giving vent to her anger for the family situation. Another time, Staroń uses cutaways to a comical effect, for instance in the scenes portraying the directors daughter. 

To be continued…

"Argentinian…" is yet another after "The Siberian Lessons" (1998) and "For a While" (2005) scene from the life of the Starońs. All biographical documentaries of the director are linked with a series of events from his private life - his wedding in "The Siberian..." and children in "For a While" and "Argentinian..." . These intimate films are joined by an individual and complete model of Staroń's poetics characterized by a subjective form of narration subjected to the emotions of protagonists and a penetrating analysis of a section of reality. The documentarian prefers storytelling in the form of sublime pictures instead of dialogues. Very often Staroń interweaves into the plot scenes in which seemingly nothing happens but which create an individual mood. His shots are characterised by a rarely found care for the treatment of colour. This comes from the fact that the documentarian makes his works on film. Working with a film, limiting significantly the footage, and excluding a simultaneous recording of picture and sound influences the language of Staroń. 

This modest essay does not portray even a smallest bit of the skill found in "Argentinian...". The works of Wojciech Staroń, though coherent, are constantly evolving. We can see a certain continuation, but not a mindless copying of previous ideas. And this continuation gives us hope for future "lessons" of the director. 

Daniel Stopa

(Translation by Olga Brawańska)