The Cockney Underground Boot Factory

Directors Notes. Lech Kowalski.

This was my first trip to my parents homeland. I came to screen several films at a film festival in Krakow, Poland. One of them is DOA a cult film I made with the Sex Pistols twenty years ago. On a cold Sunday night, DOA played for a second time to a sold out audience. This is when I met Lukasz Siska a mohican cut lad with a gleam in his eye. He came with an entourage of similar types. Their enthusiasm for the film outstripped our generation barrier. After the screening Siska showed me the pair of boots he was wearing. He told me he made them by hand. I realized that everyone in his group wore a similar pair. After a brief conversation in Polish I sensed that something about these people. was as special as what I thought was special with the Sex Pistols, twenty years earlier when I was about Siska's age. It occurred to me that a certain kind of underground was still alive and thriving far away from New York where I live. There was an air of freshness and desire.

The Cockney Underground Boot Factory began in a squat where some members of this loosely structured group still live. Stealing leather and supplies to get the enterprise off the ground they began by making boots for friends. It was a business born out of economic necessity.. There are few jobs for unskilled labor. Certainly no jobs for red and green haired girls and leather clad, body pierced young men. Gradually the orders increased. The self taught shoemakers hit on a style and price that made them competitive with the Doc Martins that are prohibitively priced. Now they make 40 to 80 pair of boots a week, all to be picked up and/or delivered COD.

Next to a train stop where years ago trains would run non stop hauling coal to the Lenin Steel works, a run down concrete bunker stands behind a two story home. Inside the bunker a group of self proclaimed outcasts work to loud rock. Most of the music they play is Polish protest rock peppered with English and American punk, ska, heavy metal, occasional reggae and techno revisions. Wojtek, the oldest of an expanding and contracting group of mostly young men, pushes a long thick needle through black leather. The sticky wax coated thread joins the lower part of a boot to the upper ankle high skin that already looks cool and sexy in the way it’s cut. Each stitch is an effort. On three fingers leather rings protect his skin. At twenty seven Wojtek already has curved and bent fingers. He is singing loudly to Analogs, a bitingly clean, cool, Polish rock/ska/punk band. Somehow the music sounds more commercial than it should. You get the feeling that if the lyrics were in English, the group could easily get a shot at American MTV, but because these guys are playing this tape, I instinctively know that the lyrics would not pass the sensors nor appeal to the taste and sensibility of the most common denominator factor which dominates almost everything in western pop culture. Suddenly Wojtek throws the unfinished boot he’s threading across the room. It lands near Gemba who looks up and mumbles something. You can’t hear what he says because he is wearing a mask to dilute the heavy air from the glue he is smearing on the rubber soles. This is the first coat. He will apply a second coat, but by that time the gas mask will be so cumbersome that he will discard it and I know by the look in his eyes that he has spent more than a little time whacked out on the same fumes that sixteen year old kids are getting high on a few kilometers away. Woytek picks the boot up and continues to thread. Meanwhile Sowa, pale and quiet, works a one man assembly line cutting patterns in leather on the floor. He is lost deep inside his mind. Occasionally he glances up and shyly smiles. He looks sickly and should probably be sleeping somewhere getting healthy. Kaska a dyed red head, comes in from the cold and sits down on a unexpectedly comfortable couch. She is drinking a beer and wears a pair of boots that look like the ones that Monica is stitching on the same couch next to the door. A red plaid stripe up the front of the boots looks like it was designed and printed in Scotland. The cassette grinds to a halt. Suddenly there is silence. Jokes start to fly across the room - mostly caustic and fiery insults that would make even a rapper blush - but the work continues and the pile of boots grows under a desk.

The air is unbreathably thick. The smell of glue, leather, shoe polish, cigarette smoke, stale beer, mixes with heavily leadened coal colored air sweeping in from behind the door whenever it opens. I choke, just can’t take it anymore and make for the toilet. The smell in there is even worse. Holding my breath I piss as quickly as I can, but you can do these kind of things only so fast. The last bit of piss dribbles down my pant leg as I escape outside. It’s raining, but not so hard that I can’t stand in the dim late afternoon light. As I wait for the effects of the fumes to wear off, I wonder how high I really am. Lukasz, who is slightly taller than I, walks over and looks at me. He has a ring in his nose and many more in his left ear. He wears a kind of short mohawk. Suspenders pull his pants high up into his ass. He’s dressed all in black like almost everyone here. I’m looking closely to see what he looks like more, a rock and roller or a shoemaker? After all that’s what he is. This is his operation. His inspiration. His boots are famous in certain scenes all over Poland. Lukasz was a rock and roll singer. His group EVOLUTIONAL THERAPY metamorphisized into THE COCKNEY UNDERGROUND BOOT FACTORY.

I follow Lucas across the yard to a red door. We enter. Ormo a skin head type is painting a wall white. This is the fifth coat because a yellow stain cannot be painted out. The skin head is not of the racist/fascist type but a ska skin. The cool kind. Lukasz tells him he wants to move in as soon as possible, before the winter sets in. He is waiting for the electricity to be turned on. There is a problem with the electrical authorities because the building has never been officially registered as a residence. The wait can take months. For now they are stealing electricity from the factory but at a premium commercial rate. Paula, Lukasz’s wife and their year old son are living in Lukasz’s grandmother’s apartment in the first housing units built in Poland by the communists after the second world war. It's one hour away and the three of them have lived there in a tiny room for over a year.

Lukasz searches out the raw materials. Leather, rubber soles, good glue. He travels great distances to get the best quality and good prices. The prison by the Russian border criminals manufacture the steel toes that go into each boot. His enthusiasm and charisma carry the entire operation Many of the members have struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism. Drinking is a daily activity and threat. One of Lukasz’s objectives is to make each of the co-workers self-sufficient enough so that the need to obliterate themselves with substance abuse will not have to be a necessary escape mechanism. He wants to instill confidence in them. The going is not easy. Most of the time they wait for the shoes to be picked up and paid for, so that the cash can be used to purchase more raw materials to make more boots. There is no real credit line. They don’t want one. Interest rates are over twenty percent.

At some point Czarny (Blackie), a door to door encyclopedia salesman and enigmatic figure known all over the country will drop in for a few days to see what is going on. There will be a drunken all night party. These orgies of inebriation seem to be of necessity to drain the pressure off the hard long hours they work. Some of the guys will be drunk for days, sleep it off and begin again. As unpleasant as it is, it is hard to hold them at fault.

Ormo plans to leave for Spain. He wants to work where he can earn a decent days wages. He is a skilled carpenter. His girl friend Anka is pressuring him to go. How long he will be away is hard to tell. Depends on the work. They will live in a squat. Woytek would not go to another country to work as hired help. His pride is more important than making more money. Woytek wants to buy a trailer and move onto the factory property to live closer to his work station. Lukasz is in favor.

Gemba and Goska are getting married in the winter. They plan a huge wedding. Analogs a well know underground band will play. Their fee will be transportation, food and lodging. Gemba is renting out a hall big enough for one hundred people. Goska is pregnant. They are part of a new generation, coming of age in a time and place, and at such a pace that the West is still very unaware of. They remember the communist times as a distant memory but it’s one their parents can never forget, moreover, they are acutely aware that they must forge in some new and as yet, unknown direction. This is where the danger lies and this is the element that shadows all of their activities. Can their passion overwhelm the odds they face. Where is the country heading? In this predominately catholic country will the church support a growing youth movement? Who’s against it? If they fail, will they become junkies and winos?

Woytek alone in the unheated squat battles with the monkey on his back.. He has sweats at night trying to not go out to cop bad Polish heroin. Gemba and Goska are living with her parents waiting for the baby. Kaska is studying agricultural science at the university to kill time. On the trip to Spain Ormo and Anka look to fulfill their dreams and aspirations. Have they left for good.? This question is what all of the other members of The Cockney Underground Boot Factory face. Is one of the core members abandoning ship? Why? How does this affect their moral? What questions are raised, not just about the group but about Poland and the expansion of the hope of capitalism as well? Lucasz will have moved into his new home to be close to the factory. Will the business expand and be a success for everyone, or will it just be his own dream fulfilled?

Most of the customers are part of an extensive underground culture that flourishes all around Poland. On some delivery runs Master the traveling salesman stays in a well known squat in Pozņan whose members carry on their own alternative trades. Some customers are students, others musicians and artists. Some live abroad. All are linked by an underground sensibility and esthetic that is manifesting itself around the world.

I began to shoot the film at the theater the night of the DOA screening. The story follows the core boot workers, their families, several customers, one of the salesmen who delivers the boots around the country, several students who help out and seventy year old Stefan whose brother owns the property where the boot factory now exists. Stefan is constantly around. He remembers when not too long ago the air was even more polluted by the steel works built by the Russians. His memories like his presence are appreciated by the boot workers. Many times Lucas will spend much more time than he can spare listening to Stefans history lesson out of respect for the old man.

In times of economic expansion and development, in the most successful country of the former Soviet satellite countries, these guys are trying to make something work for themselves outside the system that is rebuilding itself. These guys are the undergrounders, they do not believe in western style capitalism nor in the old communist ways. They want something different. In the face of capitalism, catholic roots, extreme nationalism and the shadow of communism the twelve or so face a long cold winter.

The story will take place over a period of one year. Fall has already been filmed with over twenty hours of footage shot.. The winter shooting will begin with Gemba and Goskas wedding. We will travel through Europe to Spain with Ormo and Anka and back. then resume in the spring when Woytek hopes to have enough money saved to buy the trailer. We will end the shot in the summer with a big Woodstock like concert. This year two babies will be born and lots of shoes delivered. Moods and situations will change as will the rapidly evolving social and economic realities in Poland.

The film will be in 35mm black & white. Feature length. Many concerts will be filmed and a sound track will be released including a book in the form of a photographic essay on the making of the film.. The release date will be close to the year two thousand. The theme is sex, drugs, rock & roll and .............?. ... there’s no doubt about it, the old will be left in the wind.


Effects of Solvents on the Human Body

Prolonged exposure to solvents - either in the form of glue or oil-based paints or thinners - leads to permanent damage of both the liver and the brain cells. Short term exposure induces a sense of euphoria, followed by an inexplicable depression and the strong desire for sugar and alcohol. In fact solvents and alcohol seem to complement each other. In the days when oil-based paint was the rule, housepainters were notorious for their alcoholism. One can only imagine what effect a couple of decades of exposure - without respirators, without even adequate ventilation - had on their minds and bodies.

One becomes accustomed to the smell and heavy deadening feeling of working with solvents - one can even become addicted to it. But the damage takes place all the same. Even with ventilation, and respirators, the light-headedness and subsequent depression and craving for both sweets and alcohol are apparent (On certain Indian reserves in northern Canada where solvent abuse is rampant, shops stock heavily in candy bars, pop, etc.).

Because of it’s extreme toxicity, both to the people using it and the enviroment, oil-based paints have almost completely been phased out of use.