The heart-breaking documentary Communion focuses on a Polish girl who seems to be the only responsible person holding together her little family. Filmmaker Anna Zamecka makes an impressive directorial debut with this story about 14-year-old Ola Kaczanowski and her family. The documentary uses an unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall approach without narration, as we watch as Ola handling all the household chores as well as her own school work, while helping her autistic, mentally-challenged brother Nikodem prepare for his First Communion and handling other parental duties her well-meaning but alcoholic father and absent mother have abandoned.
The Polish-language Communion has garnered awards in Europe, critical praise across the globe, and a place on the short-list for an Oscar nomination. In a year with many worthy films vying for our attention, as well as another banner year for documentaries, Communion is another must-see. The documentary seems particularly timely now, with its focus on the contributions of the overlooked – in this case, a very strong girl shouldering adult responsibilities shirked by childish adults.
It is impossible not to be moved by Ola’s plight, and our hearts are won by her appealing personality as well as her hard-working nature. Periodically, we see Ola on the phone with her mother, who is estranged from Ola’s father and living with another man. Ola urges her mother to come to Nikodem’s upcoming First Communion but their mother is vague about whether she will and seems more interested in talking about her new baby or eager to get off the phone. In her phone conversations, Ola’s longing for her mother’s attention and her help are achingly plain.,
Care for her brother Nikodem falls almost entirely on Ola, who has to wheedle her father to do even small tasks with him. Nikodem can be charming and funny but he is a challenge, distractable as well as barely able to handle simple tasks like tying his shoes. Only one year older, Ola works with him doggedly, even though we see her natural child’s frustration from time to time.
As we see Ola valiantly juggling her many responsibilities, the camera often focuses on her sad, pretty face, a face that shows strength but anger and a little despair too. Ola is such a committed worker, the rock of her family, and seems so grown-up, it is easy to forget how young she is. Only occasionally do we see moments of exasperation and tears. Rarer yet are moments when we see Ola just being a kid, at a school dance contest or hanging out with her friends, before her responsibilities intrude again. Our hearts ache for this girl being deprived of her childhood, and we can’t help but wonder what will become of her because, after all, she is still just a child herself, despite her strength of will. That is the central heartbreak of this moving film.
Despite Ola’s struggles, Communion is also an inspiring film, thanks to the brave resilience of this remarkable, admirable girl.