A Polish Journey – A web-doc about migration and its legacy

A Polish Journey, a web based documentary produced by using Klynt, is a highly poetical interactive experience exploring borders, the theme of migration and the legacy it holds for future generations.

Focusing its lens on landscape, referencing the romantic poetry of Heinrich Heine and Adam Mickiewicz, documentary filmmaker and media artist Julian Konczak embarks on a journey across the frontiers of Europe. In his interactive web-based documentary, he invites the user to come along with him, to reflect on 20th century European history and to explore the mutability of the political borders, the uncertainties as to national identity. As such, A Polish Journey ponders on the motive of ‘being on the road’ as a ‘Lebensaufgabe’ – a life task –, discussing the challenges that (enforced) migration can entail for future generations.

To make these abstract themes accessible for individual experience, A Polish Journey reflects upon the paradigm of one specific journey: Julian’s own journey of discovery to uncover truths behind his father’s migration to the British Isles.

One central ‘artefact’ and a narrative key for Julian’s project as a whole is father’s World War II German army passbook. Not only did finding this document initiate all his further inquiries and research, this document also reveals that tens of thousands of Polish men were coerced into the occupying army during the WW II. This contentious history does still have a resonance on Poland today and it is this conflicted legacy that provides a context for exploration into the “fog of war”.

In the following section, Julian Konczak shares some of the experiences he made during the production process. So – to take up the motif of travelling in a metaphorical sense – let’s set off with the author of A Polish Journey on the journey he made when designing this interactive documentary work.

A Polish Journey evolved over a period of about five years. The project came out of an interest in developing an online platform for sharing stories about migration, and its initial aim lay in exploring the less known narratives around political exile and refugee status.

The first steps revolved around creating a bespoke interface using Joomla. However, this element of the project fell through during early stages of development, as funding was not forthcoming. Through this, foundations were laid for A Polish Journey as you can experience it now: A documentary work with a story split into geographically based narrative segments and content that lends itself to both a lean forward and lean back user experience – and an alteration of both attitudes. There is a particular emphasis on optimising material for the iPad as this probably is one of the devices that may be best capable of blurring such distinctions.

Joomla Prototype

Joomla Prototype

The creation of the documentary film segments had its own distinctive flavour and is the result of a considered study of the strategies and potential inherent in software used at the time. While the web lends itself to fragmented storytelling in terms of video, the objective became to create something that would deliver satisfying morsels while also contributing to an overall story arc.

The structure from a very early stage was orientated around the seven ages of man as this seemed to be something that would effectively “hold” the intersecting life stories. The first steps in the production process were the recording of piano motifs with musician Jeremy Avis who, amongst other talents, is a very gifted improviser.

Jeremy Avis Piano Improvisations based on Frederic Chopin Prelude in D Flat Op 28 no 15

The documentary itself was shot over a couple of years with trips to Scotland, Poland, Germany and London with the piano recording providing a background to the numerous road trips. The score and the emotional texture of the seven stages was something that was developed before the script was written.

“The scriptwriting “rule” was that each act or storytelling segment needed to be self-contained”

That initial structure was then used as a device to help discover the story and served to develop a multi-levelled narrative structure: The stages of life became the framework for the road trio and also for the discovery of the past such that the audience is taken on their own route across time and place. The scriptwriting “rule” was that each act or storytelling segment needed to be self-contained, forming the basis for the script and inspiring the editing process. At the same time, this framework ensured that the resulting documentary worked as a complete piece.

The development of the voice of the work came from a couple of sources: During the principle road trip I recorded an audio diary each day so that it was easy to get a feeling of the journey – of ‘being on the road’. During the writing stage I assembled some sequences of travelling footage, audio diary and the piano motifs.

The story told in the documentary itself, however, is not mine. The web-documentary A Polish Journey brings back to life a journey my father made 70 years ago. At the outset, no-one had really a sense of what it might entail, therefore research involved examining accounts of people who had similar World War II experiences as my father. This research helped us creating the voice of a young man living through those troubling set of circumstances.

During the post-production process – the recording of the voice-over and comment – I was once again very fortunate: In the actor Adam Wittek who was able to use his performance skills for the Polish, German and accented English voices, I found once more a collaborator who contributed to the individual tone of the i-doc as a whole.

The implementation of the interactive elements using Klynt came at a later stage. We here used prototype software in Joomla which worked on an iPad unlike the previous flash based incarnations of Klynt. By happy coincidence Honky Tonk got around to developing an iPad friendly version using HTML5.

“It is important for us to engage with both the political economic and the humanitarian aspects of migration – maybe today even more than ever”

The web elements allow the user to explore historical contexts, slideshows of additional materials, archive, maps and social media links. The historical and geo-political issues that are alluded to within the films are potentially complex and would not necessarily been accessible to a general audience if they were standing alone. Thus it has been very constructive working with Bogusia Wojciechowska who wrote Waiting to be Heard: The Polish Christian Experience Under Nazi and Stalinist Oppression 1939-1955 on these contextual elements. The interactive elements also allow the user to explore the visual elements which also serve as guiding leitmotivs: My father’s German Army passbook for example is a motif throughout the film and while we see Josef Konczak behind a camera in the documentary, it is here that we get to see some of the resulting images.

Especially these days, it feels prescient to be looking back on these stories as the themes appear to be recurring right now with a vengeance. The work was focused on the human and personal aspects that underscore historical narratives and it is important for us to engage with both the political economic and the humanitarian aspects of migration – maybe today even more than ever.

Julian Konczak works across screen and installation with a particular focus on using interactive and immersive technologies that engage audience perception in novel ways. His projects involve taking the conventions of video distribution and exploring how those can be expanded into web and gallery presentation. One of his particular interests lies in how narrative is constructed in both the formal qualities of the script and in creating immersive audio-visual environments that are able to “transport” the viewer.

His work ranges from multi-screen surround sound installation and on-line experience based on the forest landscape, interactive physical computing interfaces and glitch art and projects using maps to connect narrative with location along with the implementation of computational video.

Some of his works have been internationally exhibited, presented and screened, and A Polish Journey has been selected for Sheffield Documentary Festival 2016.