Two Lessons unites a pair of hour-long documentaries by Polish cinematographer and director Wojciech Staron, each depicting a community of agrarian or hard-laboring citizens, without condescension and with a touch of populist poetry. The first, Siberian Lesson, follows Staron’s young girlfriend, Malgosia, in 1996 as she journeys 7,000 kilometers by train to the small Siberian city of Usolye-Sibirskoye, to give Polish-language lessons to the descendants of exiles from her country. As Malgosia navigates through her culture shock with increasing confidence, growing closer to the locals, her narration notes how the local economy is “attached to the rhythm of the potato” for sheer survival, and observes the people’s bitterness over their rudderless state five years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, amid joblessness and wage freezes. A pathologist sustained by his artistic life as a painter, girls using too much mascara, and a “sacred” lake used for the rituals of ice fishing and hardy self-immersion augment Staron’s scenes of deprivation and civil dysfunction. Despite the sordid spectacle of a ruinous mental hospital housed in a former czarist prison, and the ubiquity of vodka to deaden everyday pain, Malgosia sees “dreamers, looking for something new.” Staron’s camera finds freshness in celebratory folk dancing by elders, and he fulfills the discovery of inner peace by his girlfriend in ending the film with their wedding among the Siberians.
Argentinian Lesson, again shot in 16mm but more than a decade later and with a significantly refined visual style, finds Malgosia, now the mother of three, moving into a pueblo in northern Argentina to once again teach Polish to the sons and daughters of emigrants. Staron this time eschews narration (and scarcely shows his wife at work), sketching the village life with scenes of Catholic ritual, mass dances, and billiards, but focusing principally on his nine-year-old son, Janek, and the boy’s local playmate and co-worker Marcia. The girl, an alternately sunny and despairing pubescent, is a vital, magnetic figure, and Staron smartly lets her take over the film, as she and Janek frolic with a grumpy calf, or she schools him in molding mud bricks and hacking at bamboo stalks in a series of short-term, low-paying jobs. Most touchingly, Marcia’s pining for her itinerant farmworker father climaxes in a visit to his present home, where he glumly assesses their dead-end economic prospects and asserts that her mother has emotional problems that make her impossible to live with. “It’s not easy,” he says, embracing his daughter, then lifting his eyes to the camera, pleading, “It’s not easy, Mr. Staron.” While its Siberian segment may be more overtly political, this moment of Two Lessons cuts most deeply on the issue of its impoverished subjects’ perpetual trap, and the filmmaker can only cut to a beetle on its back, kicking fiercely.