Boleslaw Sulik: Film-maker who brought the realities of modern Polish life to the West
Put in charge of broadcasting in the new Poland, he declared, 'My aim is to depoliticise television'
Saturday 02 June 2012
Boleslaw Sulik was a much-loved and respected figure in the film worlds of both Britain and Poland. He was one of the first people to move between those two worlds, making documentaries which brought complex Polish reality to a moved and amazed Western public – and which often infuriated Cold Warriors on both sides of the line.
For those who met for the first time this handsome, soft-spoken, apparently rather distracted and absent-minded man, it was possible to miss his inner toughness. Bolek had an obstinate integrity drawn from both his homelands: a Polish fearlessness in the face of lies and threats, and an English inability to shut up in the face of unfairness. Both qualities got him into trouble.
He was born in 1929 into a small-farmer family in north-east Poland, son of the formidable soldier Nikodem Sulik. In September 1939, Bolek's father fought the Soviet invaders then organised underground resistance. Imprisoned in the Moscow Lubianka, he owed his life to the Stalin-Sikorski pact. He was released to join the free Polish armies and became a divisional General, fighting at Cassino and almost every other battle on the Italian front.
His family had taken refuge in their village near the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line. Bolek remembered the thunder of artillery on 22 June 1941 as Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union. As the war ended, a disguised Bolek escaped from Poland, crossed Europe and reached Italy, striding up the vast hall of an Italian palace to face the father he hadn't seen for six years.
The family preferred exile in London to a Communist Poland. But Bolek would cease to share the anti-Communism of the London emigration. The "Polish October" of 1956 made him hope that a democratic, non-Soviet form of socialism might develop in Poland (an illusion shared by me and many others in Britain). He became film critic for Tribune and joined CND; even more shocking for the conservative wing of the emigration, he began (now as a British citizen) to visit Poland and make cultural contacts. It was Bolek who gave Andrzej Wajda the idea of filming Conrad's Shadow Line and in 1976 he did a script for it. He worked with other Polish directors, especially Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End and Moonlighting) and Kazimierz Kutz. But trouble was brewing. His job with Wajda concealed work on a passionate, subversive film of his own, Three Days in Szczecin, about the tragic 1970 workers' rising in the Baltic ports. The regime refused Bolek a visa for almost 10 years.
One day in about 1977, Bolek came to see me in the company of an angelic, curly-haired choirboy with a terrible stammer. I slowly realised that this was Adam Michnik, the most dangerous revolutionary in Sovietised Europe. Bolek's friends in Poland now included the left-wing opposition group "KOR"(Committee for Workers' Defence), whose underground publications he smuggled out of Poland.
The ban meant he was unable to witness the Solidarity revolution of 1980-81. But after his first marriage to Krystyna Stawicka ended, he had married Elzbieta (Ela) Smolen-Wasilewska. She was ill when he brought her to Britain, and after her death in 1979 he was allowed to attend her funeral in Poland, at the pitch of the political crisis of late 1981. His friend Jacek Kuron told him: "Don't go back! Stay here!" But Bolek returned.
Among many other films at this time he directed three episodes of the Channel 4 series The Struggles For Poland (1987) which distressed older emigrés by describing the internment of opponents and the mistreatment of ethnic minorities in pre-war Poland. But at the same time Bolek was collaborating with Jerzy Giedroyc and the Paris "Kultura" group, the core of intellectual resistance to the regime, and arranging discreet contacts between leaders of the London exile government and opposition figures in Poland. He was also a prolific writer on film: his publications included A Change of Tack (about working with Wajda) and Hollywood and After (1974, with Jerzy Toeplitz).
He returned to Poland after the fall of the Communists, his natural allies the leftish KOR veterans who led the first democratic government, and in 1993 they appointed him to the "National Council for Radio and Television", charged with creating a new broadcasting structure. He had continued to make controversial documentaries: In Solidarity (1991) dared to criticise Lech Walesa; General interviewed Wojciech Jaruzelski, whose 1981 putsch suppressed Solidarity. Both films made Bolek enemies.
Although he became chairman of the Council, the feral scrum of money and politics around broadcasting licences did not suit Bolek, whose ideal was something like the BBC – a body whose board's first loyalty was to the institution and not to the party which nominated them. "My only aim is to depoliticise television," he once said.
In 2003 Bolek was sucked into the murky scandal of the "Rywin Affair". To make it comprehensible, it was as if an emissary had gone to Alan Rusbridger and suggested "on behalf of the group in power" that, in return for a cash bung of $10 million, The Guardian could acquire BSkyB. Adam Michnik, editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, secretly taped the conversation; he let Sulik hear it but some months passed before the attempted bribery was made public.
Bolek was harshly blamed for defending the chairman of Polish TV, who had been dismissed for supposed involvement. Bolek's position, typical of his fairness, was that he liked and trusted the man and could find no evidence to stain his integrity. In the poisonous atmosphere of the time, some found this decency preposterous. In 2006 he left Polish Television and retired to his home in the Warsaw suburb of Falenica.
Bolek continued to direct and his last work, the Polish-French In The Shadows of Casablanca was shown at the Kraków Film Festival in 2010. Afflicted by cancer and circulation problems, he died after a long illness.
Boleslaw Sulik, film-maker: born Torun, Poland 8 April 1929; married firstly Krystyna Stawicka (one son), secondly Elzbieta (Ela) Smolen-Wasilewska (one stepdaughter), thirdly Iwona Wieckowska (one daughter); died Otwock, Poland 22 May 2012.
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