Tomasz Knittel’s documentary chronicling the life span of Universam Grochów, a supermarket in Warsaw, is not pretty, and it doesn’t try to be. However, such directorial prudence is the exception rather than the rule in “Universam Grochów.” The filmmakers boldly endeavor to render a seemingly unextraordinary supermarket worthy of a documentary, but their argument in favor of Universam Grochów’s importance is never adequately developed. So while audience members may remain intrigued by the compelling but disjointed scenes, they never know enough to feel persuaded.
Some of the arrangements of scenes in the film work. For instance, it shows its audience Universam Grochów first through the eyes of one of its most loyal employees, and then through a historical lens. This ordering of encounters with the supermarket — subjective first, objective second — successfully initiates the filmmakers’ argument in favor of the supermarket’s unlikely notability. Some of the interviews, especially with a younger shopper, further develop this argument. In several segments of her interview interwoven throughout the documentary, this younger shopper makes a fascinating argument: A person’s possessions have an immortalizing function, for perhaps they do not merely outlive their owners but allow their owners to live on in them.
Other arrangements in the film, however, simply don’t work, undermining those that do. For instance, the documentarians only hint intermittently at the historical importance of the supermarket, which is an especially surprising absence given the context of Poland’s history of communism. As another example, several transitional montages are set to the songs of a troubadour who performs regularly just outside the supermarket, but the film does not dive into the questions his role in the film raise (e.g. as an outsider, as a man struggling financially). By and large, the filmmakers place an inordinate portion of the burden of forging connections between scenes on their audience.
On top of that, mere accumulation of scenes that address the documentarians’ driving question does little to advance an argument, and this disconnect will likely confuse and frustrate viewers. He’s talented, but why are you showing me the troubadour who sings outside the marketplace? Their dialogue is vivacious, but why do you keep showing me the elderly women gossiping before they shop? Such questions run the risk of congealing into the last question a documentarian ever wants to hear their audience ask: Why does this topic warrant a documentary?
The closing sequence of the film summarizes the missed potential of “Universam Grochów.” The documentary captures the life span of the beloved supermarket, so the finale rightly showcases its closing — its death, so to speak. The scene can only be described as a supermarket’s memorial, complete with a crowd of mourners and a eulogy delivered by the same adoring employee who opened the film. If the filmmakers had committed more fully to personifying Unviersam Grochów, perhaps this scene would have felt climactic instead of disconcertingly cult-like. And perhaps audiences would have felt something other than bewilderment with respect to the subject of this documentary, too.
“A Sky without Stars”
How does a father love his son? Let Katarzyna Dąbkowska-Kułacz (“Between the Worlds”) count the ways. For while in theory, her majestic documentary “A Sky without Stars” is about Robert, father of five-year-old Gabriel, losing his sense of sight, the father’s disability never overshadows the father-son relationship at its crux. What results from these fastidious efforts on Dąbkowska-Kułacz’s part is a testament to the strength and adaptability humans claim when buoyed by unconditional love.
The opening sequence alone accounts for the luminescence of this documentary. In this sequence, we witness multiple incarnations of the impossible tenderness between Robert and his son. Perhaps the most stunning among these opening scenes captures the two seated in their backyard swing set, Robert cradling Gabe while Gabe puts eyedrops in his own eyes.
Aside from its beauty, this scene introduces two points Dąbkowska-Kułacz develops throughout the remainder of her film. On one hand, it addresses a harsh reality the documentary does not shy away from yet still approaches with ample compassion: Robert’s disease is genetic, and his son will likely lose his vision the same way his father has. We also see in this scene that Robert’s relationship with his son would be better approximated by the term “partnership.” Five-year-old Gabe, is, of course, dependent on his father. As Robert’s vision deteriorates, however, he becomes more dependent on Gabe. But as the abundant affection in the scene illustrates, neither of the two see their codependence as weakness; instead, it is portrayed as an incomparable source of strength.
Though “A Sky without Stars” sets a high bar for itself with this opening sequence, the film hardly ever departs from that standard. An example of a subsequent triumph of the film lies in the singular sensory experience it forges. In several shots, the camera is claustrophobically close to Robert and Gabe, so we see them only in part but hear them in full. In a display of directorial wisdom, Dąbkowska-Kułacz appreciates that there are times when it is more effective to speak through silences. In a particularly heartrending scene following a checkup with his doctor, Robert is filmed undertaking a vigorous exercise routine. The subtext is that in a previous scene, his doctor recommended exercise to prolong his ability to see after Robert lamented the prospect of never being able to see his son’s face again. Dąbkowska-Kułacz is wise enough to let the emotional complexity contained in this scene speak for itself.
These sensory overloads and deprivations remind able-bodied viewers not only how much they take for granted but also how much Robert maintains despite his disability. In a prime example, Dąbkowska-Kułacz lets the sound of Gabe’s laughter steals several scenes, reinforcing the fact that nothing can steal that sound from his father.
The same can be said of the unrelenting love viewers witness every second of the film. Highlighting this love, “A Sky without Stars” radiates its own inimitable light.