Friday, 14 September 2007

The Radio Maryja Pilgrimage


My plans to make a documentary film about a supposedly fundamentalist right wing Catholic organisation started today. Anti-Black, Anti-Jew and Anti-Gay where just some of the comments I had heard from various people about the Polish Radio Maryja family, who allegedly operate outside the rules of the Vatican and promote campaigns of hatred and violence behind the façade of a religious group dedicated to following Mary, mother of God.

I was raised a Catholic; I was baptised very shortly after my birth and was frog marched to the front of the altar every Sunday at 10.00 a.m. to sing songs, recite prayers and confess my sins, which was not something I was particularly fond of. I did this until the rebellious age of fourteen, when even after taking my First Holy Communion and my Confirmation, I stopped going to church. I immaturely decided that there was no room for God in my life, and even if there was, I had no intention of sitting in a mass for an hour and a half, listening to a man tell me how much of a sinner I was. It wasn’t until much later when I realised that the act of going to church and attending mass brings comfort and joy to millions of people, and the feeling of spiritual cleanliness, Holy rapture and having faith is more important than the religious eccentricities I had told myself were pointless.

Over eighty percent of Poland’s population are practicing Roman Catholics, which is an overwhelming majority. If that is the case, then why is it that a seemingly dedicated and structured organisation such as Radio Maryja and sister television station TV Trwam, are criticised by the Polish public as being manipulating and aggressive. It is easy to find such information on the Internet as there are scores of smear campaigns and hate mongering forums to digest. I am therefore taking a neutral standpoint in my film, I am only going to talk to people from both sides of the story who have had first had experience with the organisation. Hopefully, with enough footage from both sides of the argument I will be able to piece together the puzzle and make my own conclusion as to where I stand as a newly initiated member of Polish society. . .

I wake up with a splitting headache and a bad memory of what happened to my last night, over the last few weeks I have had little time for social activities but last night seemed to open a gateway of absurdity in Bochnia. Regardless, I swallow a handful of aspirin, gather my camera gear and make my way to the train station where I am to meet the organiser of the Radio Maryja Bochnia section. His name is Andzej and he takes my hand firmly as he introduces me to the rest of the group and pays for my train ticket. He seems like a rather nice gent considering my hung over state and my bag full of electronics. There are only six of us heading up from Bochnia, which is a disconcertingly small number, but apparently some of the team are ill and can’t make today. We are on our way to Częstochowa, which is three hundred kilometres north west of Bochnia, to be part of a day of prayer and celebration. Tadeusz Rydzyk the director and founder of Radio Maryja Poland will be at the event, conducting the festivities and speaking about his organisation.

We arrive at Częstochowa after three and a bit hours on the train, I am strung out and on the verge of sleep but the rest of the team are eager to get involved. I walk to through the centre of the city with the Bochnia team; two young ladies, a chap a bit younger than myself, Andrzej the leader and an eleven-year-old boy named Jacek. We come to a clearing before we get to the Cathedral and I give Andrzej a hand in constructing the Radio Maryja Bochnia sign, which I carry and wave for the majority of the day. The Cathedral is a giant place, like a small Holy village in a park, there are thousands of people crowded around a small stage at the front, each of them as part of a community, waving their town banners and signs high in the hope that they will be seen on the large television screen under a rather graceful podium.

The event is aimed at the younger generation of the RM family and is driven by live music, speeches by a few Polish celebrities and lots and lots of singing. The atmosphere is very communal and full of delight, swarms of people gather around the stage, clapping their hands and singing at the top of their lungs. After a while I hand the sign over to Jacek and take a walk around the grounds, there are dozens of stalls and tables selling Radio Maryja merchandise and cakes. Polish people seem to go nuts for religious paraphernalia so it is no surprise when I come across things like portraits of Jesus and the pope surrounded by flashing lights and glitter. I buy a skin-tight RM t-shirt.

Częstochowa is a place of pilgrimage and so there are hundreds of people walking in and out of the Cathedral and Basilica who are nothing to do with the event. I speak to some people who have not come for the Radio Maryja experience and they tell me they are not bothered by RM but would never take part in one of their celebrations, they tell me the RM is aimed centrally at old Polish people in villages who are encouraged to send money to fund Rydzyk’s private helicopter and collection of cars. This is a complete contradiction to what I see when I head back over to the central stage, there are very few old people here at all, most of the audience is made up of people my age and they all seem to be having a wonderful time.

Amid the singing and dancing there are several contributions made by the two spokespeople at the event, they both look about twenty five and claim to have been saved by RM. They continue to emphasise the importance of listening to RM, and to overcome the embarrassment they might feel in being young and being mocked for being a part of the Radio Maryja Family. It is during one of these contributions that I walk through the Cathedral to the balcony section that looks over the entire event. There is a heavily guarded gate to the overlooking podium where Father Rydzyk and his friends are sitting. Suddenly they stand up and walk to the left hand side of the podium and a group of youths queue behind the guarded gate. One by one the security guard lets them in, seeing that this could be my only chance to get a prime position, I stand in line and manage to get myself up high in full view of the audience with a group of about fifteen people. Suddenly the music down below shuts off and the group I have imposed on become the centre of attention. The group suddenly begins a synchronised dance routine to a song about Jesus Christ! I move to the beat and do what I can but it is clear I do not belong with them. Why I choose to do this I do not know.

Being stood up on the podium and being the centre of attention to a group of thousands of Polish Catholics waving banners and clapping was something of a new experience. It gave me a chance to see first hand, how much fun these people were having and how dedicated they seemed to their organisation. When I was seventeen years old, there is no way you would have caught me at such an event, waving my hands and cheering to songs about Jesus, but here, in full view are lads from sixteen to twenty five, jumping around with beaming smiles on their faces and praising Jesus Christ.

I am allowed to leave the podium without being kicked out of the grounds and so I make my way down to the crowds in time for the mass to begin, it is here that things start to get a little bit strange. A priest gets up onto the podium and begins speaking, he says a few words and the crowd respond with a slow and dreary chant. It is difficult to make out at first but I interpret the priest’s words as being ‘painful agony for him’, and the crowd respond with ‘mercy for the whole world and us’. I know the Catholic mass inside out after going to a Roman Catholic school and being taken to church so frequently by my folks and I know that there is some chanting and repetition involved, but the slogans here today are repeated for about forty minutes, with no rest bite. The chanting is followed by a speech made by the main man, Rydzyk himself. He speaks about Radio Maryja’s bad reputation in the press and blames all negative publicity on the work of the Devil. He urges the crowd to fight the Devil’s evil bidding and to listen to Radio Maryja without any shame or embarrassment.

But this is what I don’t understand, if all these people want is to be good Catholics, then why do they need an organisation like Radio Maryja to help them? What is its purpose and why do people feel compelled to join the RM Family? It is going to take more than a trip to Częstochowa to find the answers to these questions.

The event finishes shortly afterwards and I make my way back to the RM Bochnia crew, we head back to Janusz’s car and he drives us all home. The group seem very happy with how today’s event went. They ask no questions about my filming but instead they ask to keep in touch with me, I am happy to oblige. Today’s experiences were positive, I found there to be no evidence of racism or hatred toward anybody. In fact, the only negative aspect of the festivities, as far as I could tell, was the chanting, but on reflection, this was only a little more extreme than the repetition and mantra I have experienced at church in the past. My time with RM so far has been optimistic, and I for one am interested to discover what I will find next in my inquisitive exploration of this supposedly negative organisation.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Behemoth



I arrived in Krakow with enough time to explore the city a little, make sure I knew where the venue was and to take a few photographs. For the last six days it has been raining continuously in the South of Poland so today’s display of wet weather was nothing of a surprise. The Loch Ness club opened its doors at six o’clock in the evening, I was able to chat with a few die hard fans that arrived early, I asked them about the support bands for tonight’s show and what they thought of Behemoth’s latest album. The majority of people I meet at these kinds of events seem rather jolly and light hearted considering their appearance; the entrance soon filled with a sea of black clad leather metal soldiers, eager to watch the first act of the evening. The line outside the doors assembled quickly, but instead of flocking with the rest of the heard, I met my mate Pawel. We grabbed ourselves a beer at a small bar near the venue and spoke of our mutual respect for the band we were about to see. The general vibe about the two unknown supporting acts was not particularly promising but nevertheless, after a cold bottle of Zywiec, we eagerly made our way to the now two-hundred strong line of people waiting to get in. The security guard at the entrance made me throw away the apple I had in my bag, which irritated me off slightly, but who knows what kind of chaos could be bred if the audience were allowed to take fresh fruit into the venue.

Loch Ness is not a big club, and that soon became apparent as the first act started and people from every corner began pouring towards the front of the make-shift stage. Rootwater, a Polish metal band from Warsaw, open things up by getting the crowd jumping around like loonies and testing the speakers with their nu-metal fused Polish jock rock. Their style is somewhat sadly similar to early Korn material; a style that I feel died and was buried along with the whole nu-metal era. But by the mawkish sound and onstage antics that Rootwater provide, they are in no danger of opening another floodgate of the genre and lets hope it stays that way.
I manage to sink two vodkas, befriend a Ukrainian fellow named Alex and get myself in a good standing position in the time between the first and second act. Danish thrash metalers Hatesphere are up next and by this point I am ready to see something hard, fast and angry. Behemoth have been one of the most talked about metal acts of the year so far, but if all they can muster are second rate nu-metal acts to support them on their homecoming tour, there is something wrong. Hatesphere on the contrary prove not to disappoint, their polished thrash capabilities are second to none in warming the crowd immensely for what is to follow. I count four crowd-surfers during their opening song, which is saying a lot for the size of the venue. Although they only have half an hour, Hatesphere plough through an eclectic set, displaying talent and prowess in thrash, doom and melodic death metal. As their show comes to a close, I manage to get myself right at the foot of the stage before Behemoth come on.

The venue is so cramped at this point that I’m pouring with sweat and gasping for air before the sound check finishes. People are screaming, jumping and punching their fists skywards even before the pentacle microphone stands, Apostasy flags, cast iron eagles and upside down crosses are brought out to decorate the stage.
As award-winning drummer Inferno initiates the performance, the crowd erupts and swallows me like a brachiosaur in a tar pit. I find myself sandwiched between a rather large woman, who must be four times my size, and her equally portly boyfriend as Nargal and the crew get onstage. They storm into ‘Slaying the Prophets ov Isa’, a track that sees Inferno displaying his immense quality as a drummer, reaching speeds of 260bmp. After getting a face full of gothic breast and having my torso repetitively punched, I clamber onto the shoulders of an overly enthusiastic, but unsuspecting headbanger. I manage to catch a glimpse of Pawel at the front snapping pictures and Alex the Ukrainian pulverising metal chumps to the increasingly fast beat of the drum. Nargal, Behemoth's vocalist, proves to be on top form, from the moment he hit the stage in his all black, spiked body armour outfit he had the audience in his palm. With their trademark corpse paint and ultra tight set list it is impossible for Behemoth to go wrong. I last several songs at the front, catching the glare of the Nargal from time to time, before being savagely flung into the mosh pit for ‘Slaves Shall Serve’. Throughout their eighty minute set, Behemoth master a variety of material, old and new, as well as covering tracks by Turbonegro and black metal legends Mayhem.

The heat of the venue and the distinctive flashbacks of being trapped at the front of stage and pummelled in mosh pits, lead me to come to terms with the fact that maybe, just maybe, I am getting too old for this. As I am lured further away from the ever-erupting carnage at the front of the venue by the sweet serenity of cool air and a small gap in the proximity of my neighbouring metalheads, I am able to stand back and admire Behemoth for what they truly are. As the set finishes and the lights return to normal, the battled state of the audience sums up my thoughts entirely, we are in the presence of one of the most practiced, confident and entertaining bands on the underground music circuit. Behemoth are not only sharp, accurate and extreme in their methods, but they are undoubtedly in the prime of their game and have certainly left tonight’s audience gasping for breath and gagging for more.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The Regional Harvest of Dzialoszice


Today I took part in a truly remarkable tradition that brought together local Polish communities and put smiles on the faces of all who attended. It was a gathering of both social spirit and local collaboration to a most exciting and humble degree. I am one of the only English people to have visited the area of Dzialoszice of late and so today I was invited to interview one of the senior language teachers of the region at the annual event and take part in the local festivities.

The harvest festival is one of the biggest events of the year in the eyes of the farming community; there are hay sculpting competitions, prizes for the tastiest baked goods, awards for the ripest fruits and vegetables and a series of dancing and singing performances by children from the surrounding villages.

Dzialoszice is a small town about sixty-five kilometres north east of Krakow, Poland. It could be compared to many small villages in England, there are a few small shops, an old church and a small green in the centre with several benches about the place. Aside from the occasional local event, not much happens in this part of Poland, which is perhaps why this area of the country does not attract many tourists. I arrived at the event with a few friends who were greeted by three monks and priest who were carrying a rather large loaf of bread, carved and crafted into one of the final Stations of the Cross. Although the scene was comprised of yeast, it harboured distinct gruesome detail and I don’t envy the man who had to tuck into that for his supper.

A series of sharp trumpet blasts announced the arrival of a battalion of elderly gentlemen in traditional costume. The group numbered around fifty men in total and they proceeded to lead the way to the main square, where a small stage had been assembled next to various tents and marquees. The harvest was declared open and I was invited to inspect the various attractions.

The bakery stalls fronted freshly baked cakes and bread that were served in wicker baskets by pretty young girls. The vegetable tables where remarkably laid out and manned by large burly Chłopy in aprons. I made my way to one of the smaller cake stalls where an enthusiastic village girl talked me through the various sponge cakes. She invited me to sample a few generously sized portions before making my decision as to which of the cakes I should purchase. I was more than happy to comply and when I finally made up my mind I was rewarded by a peck on the cheek and a knapsack of fresh cake, all for the price of about fifty pence. I made my way over to a ‘fruit and veg’ table where a toothless beaming fellow clasped my hand firmly and invited me to give his apples a squeeze. I ended up buying three juicy red apples and thanking the salesman for his assistance. I asked him where he was from and how he thought the festival was going so far. He said he was from Miechow, a town not so far away and that the harvest is always a treat, “as long as it does not rain like it does in England” he added with a gummy grin. He said that his stall has won the prize for best apples and potatoes for the last five years and he would be “very fucking surprised” if he didn’t win again this year. This statement ended in a giant guffaw before the man boldly moved onto his next customer, giving me a bold wink as he did so.

I have been living in Poland for a few weeks, but I have still not become fully adjusted to the intertwining of formal and informal language that is often used by people outside of the main cities like Krakow, Warsaw and Łódź. It is common practice for younger people to refer to their seniors as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. I made a conscious effort to maintain this formal form of dialogue with the man who sold me my apples, but he still persisted in swearing at me.

As I made my way around the event, I came across an alcohol tent swarming with middle-aged men. Grubby gents threw their empty cups and dead cigarettes on the ground while clambering over each amongst a haze of stale smoke and the stench of spilled beer. I made my way past the alcohol tent, a bouncy castle, trampoline and carousel swing to what seemed to be the most popular at the harvest; the tractor stall.

Husky men and women alike horded around tractors of all shapes and sizes; reving the engines, clambering on top of them and even getting under them. I know nothing about tractors and so I was unable to judge the most sustainable or the most efficient when my curious colleague asked me. I was soon ushered to the main square where I was introduced to Mr Stanislaw Nowak, a local foreign language teacher. Mr Nowak gripped my hand tight and greeted me. He looked warn out but confident and had a face that looked to be stretched, so much so that one of his eye sockets seemed to be trying to escape half way down his face. “What your name is?” he asked in a deep and aspiring voice “and what you think of Dzialoszice”. I told him how the harvest seemed very well organised and that I was particularly impressed by the confidence and friendliness of the local farmers. He chuckled slightly before asking me what I knew about his work. At this point it struck me that we were speaking in Polish and I supposed he was an English teacher, when I told him this he laughed manically “no” he said, “I am retired language teacher, I learn French and Italian”. He seemed like a fascinating gentleman and I wanted to know more about him. I asked Mr Nowak how he came into contact with foreign languages, particularly when living in such a small town. He proceeded to dazzle me for the next thirty minutes by telling me about an interesting theory of his. He claimed that the best way to learn a language was by learning several at a time, starting out with everyday words in a language like French and then translating them into Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. This seemed like a bizarre way to learn, and when I told Mr Nowak that one language at a time was enough for me, he laughed. “just like all the people” he said, “and this is why there is so much war”. Without warning he reached across me and grabbed the arm of my wife’s mother. This is one of my former French students he remarked, clasping her firmly by the arm. I happened to know that my mother-in-law speaks no French at all, but I chose not to make any remarks about this. Instead I asked the teacher and his former student to pose together for a photograph. Mr Nowak thanked me tremendously for taking the time to speak to him; he shook my hand and made a strange gesture with his good eye. I winced uncontrollably before I could thank him for his time. He vanished in the direction of the beer tent.

Several more trumpets sounded and I was ushered towards the centre stage for a prize giving ceremony. First prize was a large bottle of fruit liquor which was elegantly displayed by a member of the town council before other prizes were awarded. I hurriedly snapped away with my camera as men and women gracefully accepted their prices in traditional dress. The rugged fellow who sold me the apples won first place in his category while a group of teenage boys won a prize for their sculpture of a combine harvester made of out hay. The day was topped off with performances by various groups of children singing and dancing. From the desperately inappropriate techno performance to a song called ‘Lick Me’ by a group of village girls, to a gutsy rendition of traditional old Polish songs by a scruffy old farmer in a top hat.

I never saw Mr Nowak again but I will be sure not to forget his enthusiasm and his peculiar methods of language instruction. My interview with him was indeed fascinating although the most extraordinary thing was his comment about war, which was left hanging like a cat from a branch. There could have been some truth in his comments, for if more people took the time to learn how to speak foreign languages perhaps there would be more understanding amongst people of other cultures. So much so that events such as this, without masses of security, armed police and bomb squads, are not confided to small Polish towns but celebrated everywhere with understanding, respect and a mighty fine selection of Fruit and Veg.