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Reel Life: a man of many homecomings

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Homecomings intrigue Chicago filmmaker Marian Marzynski. Born in Warsaw, Marzynski, 57, made his debut documentary, A Ship's Return, in 1963 when the first cruise ship of Polish Americans revisited iron-curtain Poland. In 1981 he made Return to Poland, about his own trip back from the U.S. In Duo Bravo, made in 1992, Marzynski followed a Mexican family's bittersweet journey from Chicago back home.

Marzynski captures that same mix of affection and alienation in his latest effort, Shtetl, which depicts the homecomings of three Polish Jews to a village where farmers had turned the gravestones of their ancestors into grindstones.

Marzynski's personal exile began when, as a little boy, his parents passed him out of the Warsaw ghetto to Catholics who cloaked his Jewish identity. Later, at a Catholic orphanage, he learned Latin and became an altar boy. At age 20 Marzynski began his career as a broadcast journalist in Warsaw.

Marzynski started documenting the psychic landscapes of exiles and emigrants when the boatload of Polish Americans arrived in 1963. He covered the occasion for live radio and television. "I was a pioneer of the live TV talk show in Poland," he said. "I was a kind of combination of Donahue and Oprah. I was the first to invite the public in for discussions of political issues, which was a big achievement under censorship."

The remarkable homecoming story inspired Marzynski to then make A Ship's Return, christening his career as a documentary filmmaker. He directed 15 other 35-millimeter films in Poland.

Marzynski left Poland in 1969 for the U.S. in the aftermath of an anti-Semitic campaign by the Polish communist party. Many Jews working in the government and media were fired. "I was designated the token Jew on Polish TV," he says. "I resigned." After teaching at colleges here for 12 years, Marzynski returned to his homeland in 1981 and made Return to Poland, a documentary diary about his childhood and the reform atmosphere inspired by Solidarity.

"War was my kindergarten," he states in his opening narration. On May Day he filmed an antiwar march by Warsaw's hippies that was rebuffed by army troops staging their own antiwar parade. He observes: "Poland enters the kindergarten of political democracy." Leaving Poland, Marzynski concludes: "Once again I'm leaving Poland, but this time I'm going home."

Other Marzynski projects include TV documentaries on former mayor Harold Washington's relationship with the press and the competition among architects for the commission to design the public library named after Washington. Marzynski ordinarily produces and directs shows for Nova and Frontline with PBS backing. But his current project is self-funded. So far he has no air dates or sponsors.

Inspired by Claude Lanzmann's 1985 Shoah, a nine-and-a-half-hour film composed of interviews with members of the Holocaust generation, Marzynski returned to Poland eight times, shooting 70 hours of tape. "You're racing with human memory," Marzynski said during a recent marathon editing session. "People are dying as you're shooting."

He tracks the highly charged homecomings of three elderly Jews to the village of Bransk, where 2,500 Jews lived before most were carted off to Treblinka's gas chambers. The ambivalent pilgrims in Shtetl come from Baltimore, Caracas, and Chicago. They face old neighbors--some were betrayers, others were saviors. One returning visitor wants to deed his ancestral land to the family that protected him from the Holocaust.

Marzynski records Bransk residents passing along anecdotes: "As kids, we'd catch crows and throw them into the synagogue during prayers." One aged villager with a ghoulish grin recounts: "During the war, hiding Jews was a business. Jews were kept for as long as they paid. When the gold ran out, you could find them with their hands tied, floating in the river."

Marzynski distills the pathos of the homecoming in a scene in which Jack, from Baltimore, walks through Bransk's empty streets. At a crossroad, unsure where to turn, he looks very much alone, accompanied only by the peal of church bells.

Marzynski faces a different sort of impasse in packaging Shtetl, with its heavy reliance on Polish dialogue. "Television executives, most of them, are totally against subtitles," he complains. Marzynski argues that users of personal computers are developing an eye for reading text and images together that could rewire viewing habits.

Compounding the subtitle problem is Shtetl's length, which could reach five hours. But that could work in his favor in pitching the project as a series.

As the VCR generation well knows, each dub of a tape loses detail. Marzynski aims to minimize the comparable "generation loss" by documenting the testimony of the last living witnesses of the Holocaust.

Marzynski will premiere his work in progress, with two breaks catered by a Polish restaurant, on Sunday at 2 PM at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Admission is $10. Call 384-5533.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.

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