Little Town

Documentary about the fate of small towns in post-war Poland: unemployment, low wages, bureaucracy, loss of the young and able to the cities, and general physical erosion. Original title: Miasteczko

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This shot of an empty bench in the rain is my favourite from Jerzy Ziarnik’s “black series” docu-short about small-town emigration. Its evocation of humanity through an inanimate (though earthy, worn) object reminds me of Vincent Van Gogh’s chairs and shoes. And the fate of the bench is the fate of the town—itself, the narrator tells us, the fate of thousands of towns: anyone with courage or hope leaves; no one ever comes back. Before the war, the miasteczko of the title was home to famous and impassioned shoemakers. By 1956, one thousand of its five thousand inhabitants are unemployed. Moreover, wages for state-working shoemakers are too low, and the taxes for private shoemakers (who also miss out on benefits) too high. Supporting a family is difficult. On market days, an illicit leather trade attempts to bypass some of these regulations, but the film shows the consequences of being caught leather-handed. As a result, most people with any ambition or talent leave—perhaps waiting on the rain-soaked bench for the bus—while the ones who stay behind seem content for time to pass them by completely. The film doesn’t particularly point fingers, but its tone is bleak and its insistence that there is a problem unwavering. It would be interesting to visit this town again, today, to see how life went on.

I passed through the Little Town, but didn’t stay. The bus merely slowed down and went on its way.

Jerzy Ziarnik, 1956

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