In ‘Neon’, Eric Bednarski’s award-winning 2014 documentary, the history of Warsaw is traced through its neon lights. It’s a retelling of Polish history, mixing documentary features from several decades, focusing in on small stories alongside the great events of the recent past. We caught up with the Director here.
CEEL: How did you come to choose neon signs as a way of telling Warsaw’s history?
Eric Bednarski: I’d been fascinated by the neons for years, ever since I worked on another film about Warsaw, titled MDM, in 2004. Through the work on Warsaw’s neons by people like Ella Chmielewska, Paulina Olowska, Ilona Karwinska, and David Crowley I began to see that a film about these neons might be a great way to look at the city’s history.
CEEL: Do you think Neon is a film directed at a foreign (rather than Polish) audience?
EB: It’s a film directed at both foreign and Polish audiences. The story of neon signs in communist-era Poland is little know both inside and outside the country. In the West there’s a stereotype about Poland that everything was grey and ugly during the years of communism. Obviously a lot was grey and ugly, but there were also neons, which were beautiful and designed by some of the best Polish graphic designers, architects and artists of the day. Neon is a part of a series titled “Guide to the Poles”, that was released by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, aimed at audiences outside of Poland. The film was also made for broadcast on Polish television.
CEEL: There have been numerous films engaging with Polish (and Warsaw’s) history. How do you place your documentary in relation to them?
EB: My film on the Warsaw neons is a documentary that was made for TV. As I mentioned, it was produced for both Poles and non-Poles, which is fairly unique for a historical documentary. I’d like to think that Neon has a fairly original approach to Warsaw history. The film has been shown throughout the world, and because of its connection to city, and to design and architecture has been particularly successful at architecture and design film festivals. (Neon has been screened at some 20 festivals including in New York, Warsaw, Toronto, Milan and Lisbon. The film won two awards, at the International Festival of Films on Art, Montreal and the Master of Arts Film Festival, Sophia, Bulgaria.) I don’t think there are too many documentary films that have been made about Warsaw that deal with its urban design and cultural history, from the pre-War era, right up until the present day.
CEEL: How much awareness did the producers of neon lighting in the 60s have of artistic practices in the West (eg. Bruce Nauman/ Dan Flavin)? Did they consider them as counterparts?
EB: That’s a good question, and one I’d really have to ask the neon producers from the 60s themselves. These were in many cases leading graphic designers, architects and artists. Some of the neon producers/designers no doubt travelled to Western cities and must have had contact with things going on in the Western art world, including neon design, but many other Poles involved with neon were isolated behind the Iron Curtain in a way and must have gotten only the occasional piece of news or dose of influence from the West.
CEEL: Is there any wider socio-political significance to a documentary like Neon in contemporary times? Perhaps a mediated retelling of national history?
EB: I guess you could say there is some wider socio-political significance to a documentary like Neon. In the film we’re looking at Polish and Warsaw history through neon signs, so this is a retelling of national history for sure. It’s clear that these signs were and still are popular among many residents of Warsaw. Sometimes it takes time for people to appreciate things from the past, in this case neon design. And especially a problematic past, like that of the People’s Republic of Poland in the 1960s and 1970s. Today there’s a lot of visual pollution and advertising chaos in Poland. Even though the neonization of Warsaw and other Polish cities was state-controlled and state sponsored, there was a real emphasis on harmonizing the neons with their surroundings. People appreciate this now.
CEEL: The documentary is a ‘celebration of neon’. But could it also have negative impacts on city life? Was there any criticism in relation to the restoration project?
EB: Too much of anything is usually bad, especially too much advertising. So yes, even too many neons are not a good thing. In Vancouver, Canada in the early 1960s, when the “Neonization” of Warsaw was happening, Vancouver had a neon problem. There were over 16,000 neons in the city, and they came to be viewed as being in poor taste. They were often associated with sleazy and tacky establishments and neighbourhoods, so they were banned completely, and didn’t make a comeback until many years later. Warsaw never had a neon problem, as even during the height of the neonization in the city, there were only islands of light here and there in a generally pretty drab and gloomy city. However, there have always been critics of neons, from the 1920s, when they first arrived in Warsaw. With neons, one either likes them or not, and I have met very few people who don’t like them.
As far as criticism of the neons and any restoration work in recent years, the main issues are what to do with them and what their purpose is outside of their original world, which no longer exists. Some people think they should remain in their place, if possible, while other people think they should be protected in a museum or gallery setting, and others want neons actually re-created, not only refurbished. There has been much debate around all this. It’s difficult, as often the buildings that old neons once hung upon have been torn down, or new businesses no longer want communist era neon signs above their establishments. Others do, of course.
CEEL: Is there any evidence that the neon signs were used subversively by their designers?
EB: Some people have argued that after the collapse of the Stalinist system in Poland, fashion, architecture or even industrial design offered Poles a way to express themselves relatively freely. I couldn’t, however, find any evidence of designers using neons in a subversive way. There are stories though of neons being damaged in storms or under mysterious circumstances, which led to amusing new slogans or statements stemming from burnt out neon lettering. For example, “Soviet Watches – precision, aesthetics, durability” (Zegarki Radzieckie), once became “Soviet Pots – precision, aesthetics, durability” after two letters burnt out (garki Radzieckie).
CEEL: If many signs were destroyed after 1989, a clear link between the regime and neon production is at hand. Is the restoration now reverberating a nostalgia for communism more generally?
EB: I don’t think there is a nostalgia for communism more generally, but perhaps there is nostalgia for some elements of those years, like the fashion, architecture, graphic or industrial design that was quite exceptional in many cases. The neon culture of Warsaw goes back to 1926, so this is a classic and elegant way of advertising that has really caught on again. Throughout the city there are countless new restaurants, shops, clubs, and bars that have had new neons designed or have had old neons refurbished and hung up over their establishments.
Eric Bednarski’s Neon has been chosen to appear at Glasgow’s Krafta film festival in March 2017.