Two Lessons: Film Review

Although each short film is powerful on its own, this pairing delivers a greater emotional impact.

Wojciech Staron's documentary combines two short films, shot separately over a decade apart.

Demonstrating that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, Two Lessons combines two roughly hour-long documentaries by Polish director Wojciech Staron to emotionally powerful effect. The two works — 1998’s Siberian Lesson and 2011’s Argentinean Lesson — have each been screened separately at film festivals. But the pairing, currently receiving its worldwide theatrical premiere at NYC’s Maysles Cinema, should garner even greater exposure.

Shot in 1996, the first film chronicles the director and his then-girlfriend Malgosia’s yearlong residency in a desolate Siberian city, where she had been sent to provide Polish language lessons to the descendants of exiled Poles. Featuring extensive voice-over narration by Malgosia herself, the film, shot in 16mm, well captures the bleakness of its setting, with the community suffering deep economic distress after the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. As she describes her difficulties with her new assignment, Staron’s camera captures day-to-day activities of the citizens such as ice fishing, potato farming, social gatherings and folk dancing. It also becomes clear that the relationship between the couple is deepening, with the film culminating with their marriage ceremony.

The second segment, also shot in 16mm, features the couple, now the parents of two children, traveling to a remote village in Argentina. Malgosia is once again giving Polish language lessons, but the film’s main focus is less on her than the burgeoning friendship between the couple’s 8-year-old son Janek and one of his mother’s students, Marcia, an 11-year-old girl of Polish descent. Her itinerant farmworker father has left home and her mother is unemployed, with Marcia and her siblings struggling to survive amid conditions of sheer poverty.

Eschewing narration, this episode follows the two children as they engage in such activities as playing, attending school and doing various odd jobs to make money. Eventually, they travel together to see Marcia’s father, who appears exhausted and beaten-down by his circumstances.

Despite their superficial stylistic differences and gaps in time and setting, the two short films make a perfect pairing, delivering a deeply moving examination of social, economic and personal issues.

Production company: Non-Fiction Cinema Releasing

Director/director of photography: Wojciech Staron

Producer: Malgorzata (Malgosia) Staron

Editor: Zbigniew Osinski

Not rated, 114 min.