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Polish prison documentary trilogy complete with Bad Boy

Polish director Janusz Mrozowski has been working in prisons for more than a decade – first teaching filmmaking to inmates in France and later in Poland where he made three features on the subject, with Bad Boy High Security Cell being the final one in the series. According to the jury at IDFA this film “doesn’t just show you what that situation does to the prisoner, it allows you to have the actual experience yourself.” Jacob Harbord reviews.

Bad Boy takes us inside the high security wing of the Tarnow High Security Prison, Poland, and deep into the mind of a young man forced to reflect upon his past. Composed almost entirely of interviews with this imprisoned individual, the subtle brilliance of this film was not immediately obvious to me. However, thinking about the film for this review, I came to realize how profoundly Janusz Mrozowski empathised with his subject and the sophistication with which the filmmaking team approached representing him.

Damien has been in held in isolation in the isolation unit for two years when Mrozowski’s camera settles upon him. Originally incarcerated for armed robberies, he’s been segregated from the prison population because of the authorities consider him a danger to other inmates. Surprisingly, as the film progresses, Damien emerges as more of a boyish rogue than a hardened psychopath. He speaks about wanting to impress his gang of friends, the difficulties he faced relating to his parents, and his dreams for a normal life on the outside.

Janusz coaxes incredible candidness from this apparently dangerous man yet, with Damien claiming in the first scene to have had his whole mind-set transformed by solitary confinement, you can’t help but think a degree of his new-found self-reflexivity is a performance for the parole board. Nevertheless, Mrozowksi successfully steps beyond the role of mere director or legal advocate and, by entering the realm of psychotherapist, allows Damien to bare his soul through this unique style of on-camera talking therapy. As he himself often reminds us throughout the film, he’s laughing on the outside but on the inside he wants to cry.

It is to Mrozowski’s great credit that he succeeding in turning such a controlled situation into a compelling narrative, not least due to the ingenious and experimental editing of Karine Olivier and Krzysztof Paluchowski. The structuring of Damien’s interviews reveals the deeper truths of his mental state; each story he tells is in fact composed of several different interviews, each shot at different times but sufficiently similar to be cut interchangeably. More than anything else, haphazardly jumping between the interviews and across time reveals Damien’s obsessive reliving of his past. Despite straining to look beyond his four walls, he’s held in stasis and struggling to maintain his sanity in the face of such extreme isolation.

I couldn’t help but wonder how this film must have vastly improved the quality of life for a man silenced by the full force of the Polish state. This probably isn’t the easiest documentary to sink your teeth into but one which has certainly broken new ground in the genre of single-subject documentaries.



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Jacob recently completed the MA in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester and currently works as a qualitative researcher by day and filmmaker/film journalist by night. His favourite documentaries are The Last Train Home, Hoop Dreams, and Encounters At The End Of The World. He’s also a big fan of VICE and loves long sessions watching short documentaries.

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One Response to "Polish prison documentary trilogy complete with Bad Boy"

  1. Dear Jacob Harbord,
    It is exhilarating for the director, when the critic discovers and reveals his deep intentions! Thank you very much! And thank you for noticing the work of the editors!
    Janusz Mrozowski