The plan was simple: Take a kayak trip in South America. Things did not go according to plan.
Consider the context and you’ll see why. Three university students from Krakow, Poland—Andrzej Pietowski, Jurek Majcherczyk, and Piotr Chmielinski—got the inspiration to travel overseas and paddle whitewater outside of their home country. But this was the late ’70s, the Cold War, and leaving the Eastern Bloc was next to impossible. They found a way. Then, with little money, they had to secure food, kayaks, equipment, a truck and more. They found a way. Then, when they finally got to the West, now with a group of 10 people, they had to make money, vastly improve their kayaking skills, survive stickups in Central America, navigate political unrest and closed borders in South America, and decide what to do when their visas expired and their country called them back. Then too, they found a way.
All this adventure and they hadn’t even started the expedition they had set out to take.
The story of the canoandes, as they called themselves, is the subject of the documentary Godspeed, Los Polacos!, from New Jersey filmmakers Adam Nawrot and Sonia Szczesna. Since premiering in 2021, the film has racked up a handful of accolades, including Best Feature Film at Banff Film Festival and both Best Adventure Film and the People’s Choice Award at the Boulder International Film Festival.
What gives Godspeed, Los Polacos! legs is the story beyond the adventure at the center of the film—the first descent of the world’s deepest canyon, Colca Canyon in Peru. Though the expedition is what drives the canoandes, a cadre of explorers that eventually whittled down to five people, and is a remarkable feat in its own right, the story of how they navigated political unrest, bureaucracy and used their platform to shine a spotlight on the Solidarity movement in Poland is arguably more incredible.
With the current war in Ukraine, the film has renewed relevance; though for Nawrot and Szczesna, whose families are both of Polish descent, it was fulfilling to share the story of the Polish anti-authoritarian, pro-worker Solidarity movement with a new audience.
“Initially their goals were not political. They just wanted to go on an expedition and it spiraled into something more intense,” Szczesna says. “Something I’m really happy about is not everyone has had an education on the Solidarity movement and its impact in the world. I’m happy our film generally gets people to feel like this is something I want to learn more about and dig deeper into that history and legacy.
“When it first came out, there wasn’t a war in Ukraine, but … this is history repeating itself. I think our film can shed a lot of light on what’s happening there with Russian aggression, and we really think about that on a daily basis. The same thing was happening in Poland; our families out there are feeling they’re going to get invaded.”
Nawrot and Szczesna’s connection to the Polish community in New Jersey not only made them aware of the canoandes’ journey, but allowed them, after some convincing, to get them to participate in the film. Jurek Majcherczyk has since settled in Wallington, NJ, and the two filmmakers had crossed paths with him throughout their lives: “If you’re engaged in the Polish scene in NJ, there’s a high likelihood you’ve come across this guy,” Szczesna says.
Whatever convincing they had to do—of the three original kayakers and the two documentarians that descended Colca with them, Zbigniew Bzdak and Jacek Bogucki—was justified. Nawrot and Szczesna, who are married, were relatively green filmmakers—Nawrot had gone through a documentary program at Rutgers, while Szczesna was in grad school for urban planning. Though the plan was to craft a short documentary with only Majcherczyk’s involvement, it soon became clear that only a feature-length film would suffice. It was their first long-form documentary venture from their Sourland Studios production company.
The film, of course, comes to life with the involvement of all the canoandes, who recall on camera their wild journey. They vividly detail just how they worked the system in Poland to secure the necessary permissions and equipment to begin the adventure, how they navigated everywhere between Casper, Wyoming, and the southern tip of Argentina while exploring 26 rivers and making 13 first descents. The canoandes regale with tales of fortuitous run-ins with Polish ex-pats in Las Vegas and rubbing elbows with Latin American aristocrats as they figured out how to return to their country with something impressive. Charm, it turns out, went a long way for the young Polish adventurers.
“Piotr Chmielinski always likes to say people took them seriously when it came to it because they always had in their giant expedition vehicle well-ironed suits. They always had suits ready to go if they met an official,” Szczesna says. “They are completely the same [today]. We’ve gone to multiple film festivals with them and they’re party people. They’re stopping, chatting everyone up. They’re still these charmers that are outrageous.”
A strong current that moves Godspeed, Los Polacos! along is what motivated them to continue on despite their many obstacles: Pride in their country, and belief in their countrymen, instilled a dedication to complete the expedition come hell or high water.
In a telling scene, the canoandes recount being held at the border of Guatemala and Honduras; in several countries, communism-intolerant government officials were reluctant to engage with people from a supposedly communist country. So they get out and point to the picture of Pope John Paul II, who was Polish, they had affixed to the back of their truck shortly after news came that he was shot. The guard accepted that if the Pope wasn’t communist, then they weren’t necessarily either, and they were allowed to cross the border.
As the canoandes recall their journey in Godspeed, Los Polacos!, it’s clear they were driven to succeed, to make their countrymen proud, even as death stared them in the face. In the Colca Canyon, they faced slow-burning existential threats like severe hunger as well as more acute ones, like a triple waterfall that capsized the raft they used to traverse it and sent them crashing toward the rocky shore. A triumph of Godspeed is that the canoandes recall these moments with vivid clarity, and their motivations to succeed.
“They still can transport to that very moment, which is a really interesting moment,” Szczesna says. “Their hopes and dreams were tied up into this trip. So when the Pope is shot, they literally are like, ‘We must do this expedition for the Pope.’ I wouldn’t say everyone in the expedition felt that way, but a good number were like, ‘We need to be successful because our country will fall apart if we don’t.’ I fully believe they were prepared to die during this expedition.”
Eventually they succeed in Colca, but with unrest at home, the canoandes stay in South America. They turn the attention they gained along the way into action by organizing rallies in support of Polish Solidarity. That irks the Soviets, and so they’re told, “Come home to Poland. But make a stop first in Moscow.” The canoandes aren’t blind. They don’t go.
Look, the film brings you through the twists and turns thereafter in a much more engaging way than I can here, so we’ll skip to the end, as the canoandes briefly reflect on the meaning and legacy of their expedition. There are bittersweet tones; after all, how does one reintegrate into normal life after such an adventure (though to be, clear, each continued traveling and adventuring, and Chmielinski would go on to be the first person to paddle the Amazon River source to sea)? What’s even normal anymore after six years of adventuring and no path home?
“[They had] at least three years in preparation, at least three years on the expedition. Six years thinking about this one thing. And then their whole lives are uprooted and they have to move back to Casper, Wyoming, and they have to figure out what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives,” Szczesna says. “The first few years of them living in the U.S., no one knew what they were going to do, they just spent all their time thinking about this. Everyone anticipated they’d go aback to Poland and their lives would resume. Everyone had their periods of adjustment.”
Godspeed, Los Polacos! does well to extend the story beyond the sensational bits, as fun as they are, and so its legacy, like the canoandes’ adventure, is likely to endure. And more than anything, you might finish watching and think about where your next adventure might take you.
For more on Godspeed, Los Polacos! and updates on Nawrot and Szczesna’s next projects—including a look at unique makers in Trenton—go to sourlandstudios.com.