“The Boot Factory”: Lech Kowalski’s neo-realist portrait of working class Polish punk rockers

By on May 2, 2018

Award-winning filmmaker Lech Kowalski‘s The Boot Factory is a neo-realist portrait of Lukasz, Wojtek and Piotr, three working class Polish punk rockers-turned-entrepreneurs who make and sell handmade Doc Marten-style steel-toed boots in the suburbs of Kraków, Poland.

Watch the 80-minute Cinéma vérité-style documentary (“Imagine if the Sex Pistols made boots instead of music”) over on Night Flight Plus.

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The Boot Factory is part of Kowalski’s “The Wild Wild East” film trilogy — along with Hitler’s Highway (2002) and East of Paradise (2005) — in which the filmmaker explores his punk rock background and family roots in Kraków, the second largest city in Poland, situated along the Vistula River on the border of the Czech Republic.

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Kowalski — described by one film reviewer as the “American underground’s answer to Werner Herzog” — initially got the idea for The Boot Factory after meeting Lukasz Siska when he was visiting Kraków to promote his film D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage.

Once Siska, a fan of Kowalski’s Sex Pistols film, told him about starting up his Cockney Underground Boot Factory in his bedroom, Kowalski realized that Siska and his Polish punk rock compatriots might make for interesting subjects for a neo-realist style documentary.

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Kowalski’s camera whatever happened to the three Krakauers at critical moments in their young lives, following them to house parties, spying on their occasional heroin use — Piotr and his friend Mojtek both deal with their addictions — and their attempts at detoxing.

Imagine a neo-realist-style Trainspotting-style documentary set in Kraków, Poland, instead of Glasgow or Edinburgh, Scotland.

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The stark black & white footage at the film’s beginning — especially the frigid, unforgiving landscape Wojtek sees blurring from the window while taking the train to the boot factory — turns out to be symbolic of the real drudgery at the center of their lives in Silesia, an industrialized dead zone an hour-and-a-half from Kraków.

By the time The Boot Factory — shot in NTSC, PAL, Hi-8 and digital — switches over to color, the film’s sharpened visual acuity begins to reveal just how chaotic “sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll”-enhanced lives have truly become, swapping syringes for sewing machine needles.

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Read more about Lech Kowalski and The Boot Factory below.

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Kowalski was born in 1951 in London, England, to Polish immigrants who had fled from a Siberian concentration camp during World War II.

They eventually settled in the post-industrial Rust Belt town of Utica, NY, where Kowalski was given a Super-8 camera at age 14, making his first film about fellow high schoolers, called The Danger Halls, who were being hassled for smoking pot.

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Kowalski later fled for New York City in the early ’70s, enrolling in the School of Visual Arts (initially to study sculpture) while becoming ensconced in East Village’s visual arts-crazed music scene, regularly dropping in at CBGB’s.

By the age of twenty-five he’d shot more than a dozen pornographic film loops, shown at Times Square peep shows, and his first feature-length film, Sex Stars, documented the lives of some of NYC’s adult film actors.

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His interest in punk led to him directing D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage (1981), which featured rare footage of Sid & Nancy as well as the Sex Pistols’ aborted 1978 North-American tour.

Kowalski has said he clandestinely snuck his camera into venues because he wanted his film’s audience to see what the London underground punk world was really like.

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Kowalski’s real interest, however, seems to be documenting what happens on the margins of modern society, the aimless lives affected by poverty, homelessness and drug use.

Kowalski’s Gringo (1985) examined the life of an East Village junkie named John Spacely (nicknamed “Gringo”) as he chased down his next fix in a Latino neighborhood on NYC’s Lower East Side.

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Kowalski later lensed two more punk-themed films after D.O.A. for what he now calls his “Fabulous Art of Surviving” trilogy, beginning with Born to Lose: The Last Great Rock and Roll Movie (1999).

Kowalski spent several years chronicling the life of Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers fame, and this film led to his portrait of Dee Dee Ramone, Hey Is Dee Dee Home?, (2003), which is also currently streaming on Night Flight Plus (read more about it here).

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During the making of The Boot Factory, Kowalski followed the boot-makers to a massive music festival on the German-Polish border, where they were selling their boots.

That’s where he first learned the story behind “the oldest highway in Poland,” which Adolf Hilter’s armies had built to ferry Nazi supplies to the Soviet Union before using it as an eastern invasion route during the second World War.

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Kowalski became interested in the cultural history surrounding the destruction of the highway, which has since been replaced by an upgraded newer road except for small patches where the old route still exists.

His 2002 film Hitler’s Highway shows how the Polish vegetable vendors, gypsies, drunken manual laborers and prostitutes he interviewed over a three-month period didn’t even know its history.

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In 2005, Kowalski directed the award-winning East of Paradise, the third film in his Polish trilogy.

He stayed with his 83-year old mother for three months, filming her telling some of her tragic life stories, beginning with her escape from one of Stalin’s Soviet labor camps.

The Boot Factory was screened at a handful of festivals in 2002, including the Margaret Meade Film Festival and the London Independent Film Festival.

Watch Lech Kowalski’s The Boot Factory on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.