I don’t know that they fit together perfectly or necessarily as a unified feature film, but it’s still great to see two of Wojciech Staron’s medium-sized documentaries, Siberian Lesson (1998) and Argentinian Lesson (2011), receiving a special theatrical release this week. Combined, they’re called Two Lessons, and they at least share the basic trait of involving the filmmaker’s family. The specific inception for both is his wife’s work as a traveling Polish-language teacher, which brings him and eventually their kids to temporary new homes around the world.
Following the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc, Malgosia Staron was one of many sent from Poland to other countries to teach the language to emigrants and exiles of Polish descent, and as can be deduced from the titles, the film highlights such missions to Siberia and Argentina. The first part was made in the mid ’90s and follows the young woman before she was married to the director — actually their wedding is documented in the film. Heavily narrated by Malgosia, she tells of her year in the city of Usolje-Sibirskoje as we’re treated to mostly dialogue-free scenes of potato farming, ice fishing and teachers striking.
The strikes are the unexpected of the three, and like the local educators suffering financial difficulties, she too is unpaid at first. That’s an unfortunate turn of events for someone who is already having trouble with the idea of living in a strange and faraway land and adjusting to different customs as well as a harsh climate. At least she has a partner, right? Well, there’s very little that we see of Wojciech on camera or in Malgosia’s story at all. At one point she finally acknowledges his absence at least within the cinematic frame, stating in voiceover how a film just about her can not be true. It should be a film about “us,” she indicates as we watch her prepare a meal for the both of them, his plate appearing like it will go uneaten as there doesn’t seem to be another person in the room. Because Wojciech’s camera mostly manages the facade of being an invisible presence in all scenes, he’s like a ghost in this very moment especially.
Malgosia’s apparent loneliness is a contradiction to what we can figure to be the case. She claims in her narration to being the happiest she’s ever been, yet as this is heard the visual is a close-up on her usual stone-faced expression. Later we’re also told of how happy her students are and again we see faces without smiles. I’m not sure what the filmmaker’s meaning behind these contradictions are, and maybe it’s just the residual defiance of a recently graduated artist, but aside from how the film captures a cold snapshot of post-Soviet Russia and relates her culture shock to that of the inhabitants of a place going through its own drastic change, those trickier elements are what I find most interesting with the Siberian section.
The second part, which debuted a couple years ago (I saw it the first time at True/False in 2011), is more enjoyable. And this is probably intentional, another level of contrast from the director. Compared to the snowy Siberian Lesson, the aesthetic of Argentinian Lesson is much warmer, but I don’t accept this as simply because it takes place in the subtropical climate of Northeastern Argentina. The section focuses on a more heartfelt story of two adolescents who form a nearly romantic bond during the Storans’ two-year stay in the village of Azara. Here the main character is not Malgosia (credited now also as a producer of this film) but their 7-year-old son, Janek, who initially is having the most difficult time settling in.
But maybe even more so, Argentinian Lesson is about Janek’s new female best friend, Marcia. It’s rare if at all that we see the girl in a scene without the boy, but Staron does tend to have the camera fixated on her. And we get more of her story, how she and her four siblings are living in relative poverty because their father currently resides elsewhere for employment purposes and their mother isn’t working at all. Marcia is also of Polish ancestry, so she takes Malgosia’s class, and after a while she appears to accept the Starons as a second family.
Because she doesn’t state that directly, it’s only a guess that this is how she feels. Another way Argentinian Lesson is different than Siberian Lesson is that it features no voiceover narration and so all exposition and context comes only from what we can gather through its little bits of dialogue. The director’s spectral presence is the only thing remaining the same from the first film to the second. Most of the time we may forget that the two kids aren’t alone in their activities, even when they take a train a good distance, seemingly by themselves, to visit her father. We can assume the two dads had a significant greeting and conversation, but we don’t see or hear about any of it. Nobody even looks at or to the camera in this section — unlike in Siberian Lesson when we get at least one flash of a smile as Malgorsia glances at the lens during the wedding.
Without the other, each of the two films in Two Lessons is lacking a certain distinction that the contrast of the two brings, so they do play very well as a double feature. This isn’t simply a programming of Wojciech Staron’s work like you would throw together any other separate, personal documentaries by any one of the other filmmakers who continue to focus on their own families. Did Staron plan to make Argentinian Lesson with such opposing traits upon realizing that the location was in the antipodal quarter of the Earth (as in lower-Western hemisphere opposite Siberia’s upper-Eastern — not as in it being a true global antipode)? I do not know.
And it doesn’t matter. Whether bumping up against each other or watched on their own, the parts of Two Lessons are not exactly pieces. They’re independent individuals that have their own narrative but also can connect for a larger story. I see their relationship as being somewhat akin to those in the episodes themselves, Siberian depicting a detachment of bodies like the two films’ existence prior to being joined here and Argentinian showcasing a greater sense of two very different objects making contact, beautifully. In any case, they should be seen in any which way you can or prefer to see them.
Two Lessons is now playing for a week-long run at the Maysles Cinema in New York City. Visit the Maysles Institute website for more info.