Two hourlong documentaries by Wojciech Staron — 1998’s “Siberian Lesson” and 2011’s “Argentinian Lesson” — constitute the feature “Two Lessons,” spanning 15 years and two continents as the director follows his wife, Malgosia, to her teaching assignments abroad. Glimpses of life under extreme conditions in both regions (economic in Argentina, economic and climactic in Siberia) maintain interest in two diaristic efforts that nonetheless offer only limited insight into the people and cultures depicted. Of primary appeal to students of ethnographic film, the pic made its theatrical debut Dec. 16 with a weeklong run at New York’s Maysles Cinema, and may announce further U.S. dates in coming weeks.
Staron (best known as a cinematographer on other directors’ projects) was just out of the Polish Film Academy in 1996 when he accompanied then-girlfriend Malgosia to Usolye-Sibirskoye, a small Siberian city. She was part of a Polish government program sending native-language teachers to communities in former Soviet territories, inhabited by descendants of Polish emigres and exiles. Five years after the fall of communism, things are bleak; having gone unpaid for months, local educators are on strike, and even if there were money to spend, there’s nothing to buy. (Malgosia is taken aback when she’s first told that everyone, no matter what their position, must plant potatoes to survive the long, harsh winter.)
Her students are primarily looking for any form of escape, and the remote hope of eventually studying or working in Poland is enough to lure them into class. But we only get glancing portraits of them, the teachers and a few colorful other local residents, with the main focus being on Malgosia and her not particularly revealing voiceover narration. As she and Staron finally leave, having chosen to get married while here, she tells us she hopes they’ll be as happy back home as they were in Siberia — though in fact, we’ve seen and heard little evidence of that happiness.
Many years later, now with three children of their own, the couple travel to rural Argentina under similar circumstances. Their eldest, Janek, becomes best friends with neighbor Marcia, who at age 10 or so already seems burdened with responsibilities. Her mother has “nervous” problems, her father is working at a distant rice plantation, and her siblings (notably a layabout older brother) aren’t much help.
Desperate to make money somehow, Marcia tries her hand at brick making, then attempts to operate a small shop from their home. The Starons are clearly a stabilizing influence, but they can’t really solve her problems — and neither can her father, when she and Janek journey to visit him. Her plight becomes the film’s empathetic focus, although this time there’s no voiceover narration to fill in any explicative blanks. When the Poles leave after their two-year commitment is up, one fears things are only going to get worse for the tearful Marcia.
The filmmaker stays almost entirely off-camera in both documentaries, and there’s little insight into the Starons’ little-discussed marital or family dynamics. Results are intriguing snapshots that each leave a lot of questions unanswered — about the individuals involved, their communities and the overall circumstances in which they live and suffer considerable hardships.
The 16mm lensing provides a grainy, faded-color texture (especially in the Siberian half) pleasantly reminiscent of an earlier filmmaking era — apt enough, since life doesn’t seem to have conspicuously changed (certainly not for the better) in either of these locations.