In this award-winning documentary, director Eric Bednarski traces the history of Poland’s capital through the city’s neon lights – merging design, politics and history in an ambitiously innovative project. It’s a retelling of Polish history, so often the subject of grand films that exploit the emotional weight of its traumatic turns from Nazism to Stalinism.
Instead Bednarski scales down this epic approach. It’s a documentary made for television, and the story’s told not by war heroes, but academics, designers, collectors and artists, who have either developed a recent passion for Warsaw’s neon lights, or who produced them during the country’s Soviet occupation. Mixed with documentary features from different decades and a tailored soundtrack by Daniel Bloom, Neon is a film that focuses in on a small stories, alongside the great events of Polish history.
While Bednarski doesn’t limit his story to neon lights produced in the communist era, they’re in focus most of the time, and highlight the paradox that something like neon – made for entertainment and consumer culture – could have been produced so prolifically in communist times. Yet this is exactly what makes Warsaw’s neon lights special – compared even to other post-communist countries. Bednarski has the pictures to prove it: shot at night, neon sculptures like flowers, café names in beautiful fonts or a girl playing volleyball on a building-front are gems of design, which add to the cityscape, but never overwhelm it. Supported by design and visual culture specialists like Ella Chmielewska and David Crowley, Bednarski shows that the mass culture of socialism could produce public artworks openly thriving under oppression.
While the director’s argument – that Neon counteracts the Western stereotype of Poland as grey and ugly under communism – already gives his film plenty of relevance, it’s all the more astonishing that in recent years a genuine kind of cult seems to have developed around Warsaw’s neon lights While, just after the fall of communism, neon signs were taken down as reminders of a bygone history, replaced by a new Western commercialism, artists like Paulina Olowska have started to renovate decrepit signs. They’re also collected by Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, and photographer Ilona Karwinska even co-founded a museum, devoted specifically to neon signs, many of which she rescued from the streets.
One of the most intriguing things about Neon is the audience the film’s directed at: it was released by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which fosters Polish language and culture abroad. Yet the film was also screened on Polish television (explaining its all-too-short duration of only 52 minutes) and thus for a Polish audience. So while it seems the fascination with neon largely derives from Poles living abroad – who from a distance rediscover things about the capital that might have been otherwise lost – it’s through joint local and international efforts that attention’s been drawn to neon signs as a historical and cultural signifier – an important part of Warsaw’s cityscape. As Bednarski suggests, ‘Perhaps Poles take more notice of things like this when foreigners become interested’.
Viewed from a critical angle, it might appear Neon only scratches the surface of a topic that goes much deeper- of course, it’s quite impossible for a short documentary to trace in detail the whole history of neon lights in Poland, which started in the 1920s. Yet, it’s certainly unique for a historical documentary to be showing a city and its populations development through the lens of art and design the way Bednarski does, making this film a kind of prototype of how history can be told as a fusion of art, politics, and individual engagement: Neon highlights with finesse just how many layers history always contains, and subtly and carefully introduces an alternative to the great big narratives that are so often held hostage by nationalist thought.
For something that sounds as niche as a documentary about neon lights in Warsaw, Neon has an astoundingly popular appeal, and speaks democratically to a local and foreign, a professional and lay audience through a focus on design in the public sphere. Hopefully it won’t be the last of its kind!
Eric Bednarski’s Neon can be seen on 21 February 2017 as part of the ongoing cultural programme at South Kensington’s Ognisko Polskie. The film has also been chosen to appear at Glasgow’s Krafta film festival in March 2017.