A full house gathered in the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium Wednesday evening to see a new film about the life of Poland's transformative pro-democracy leader Lech Walesa — and to hear from the man himself.
The night, as does the Andrzej Wajda film that mixes archival footage with recreated scenes and some dramatic license, focused on Walesa's rise from an electrician in the shipyard at Gdansk to the leader of the Solidarity Movement, through the fall of communism.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., told the audience about her own experience watching the events of early 1980s Poland unfold from her home in Baltimore, not long after the elation of the ascension of Poland's native son Karol Wojtyla to be Pope John Paul II.
"As the summer went on in 1980, all of a sudden we heard something dramatic had happened in Poland. There was a strike in Gdansk shipyard. Some guy named Walesa jumped over a wall. What was going on in Poland? My sisters and I talked to each other. My mother called me," the Maryland Democrat said. "Everybody was excited and everybody was frightened — what did this mean? Was this the beginning of a beginning, or was this an effort of gallantry, bravery and courage that could end in suppression and repression?"
"We were horrified when martial law was instituted, and I couldn't believe it. We all feared the Russian tanks — oh my gosh — we didn't want a Polish fall like there had been a Prague suppression," Mikulski said, in reference to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Before the event in the Capitol Visitor Center, Walesa met with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
Tasked with interviewing Walesa Wednesday night was former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who had visited Walesa in the summer of 1983, not long after the end of the period of martial law during which communist authorities had imprisoned Walesa.
"He and I met 30 years ago. I went to Poland as a freshman member of the Senate," Dodd said in an HOH interview before Wednesday's event. "I was impressed by him, and what he was doing, and we became good friends over the years."
During the program Walesa, speaking through a translator, said, "I remember regretting the whole day after that."
"I spoke at every public high school in Connecticut over the years ... and I'd be asked by people, 'Can one person change the world?' and I used to constantly cite Lech Walesa, Eunice Shriver, Nelson Mandela as people who clearly changed the world," Dodd said.
There was no shortage of dignitaries, including Democratic Reps. John D. Dingell of Michigan and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, as well as former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
"Walesa. Man of Hope" runs through highlights of the events that led up to Walesa becoming the leader of Solidarity, through his time confined during martial law up through an address to a joint meeting of Congress in November 1989.
Robert Wieckiewicz, the Polish actor who portrays Walesa, noted the chosen endpoint in an interview with HOH.
"The last scene in the movie actually shows where he's speaking to Congress," he said with the assistance of a translator. "We're really happy that this film is actually being shown here ... so we're counting on the film to reach the American public."
"It's needed in Poland, but not just in Poland, because as we can see in the Ukraine right now, we need to show some of these mechanisms and some of this history," Wieckiewicz said.
The filmmakers spent a considerable amount of time delving into Walesa's home life and the personal sacrifices his wife, Danuta, made to take care of the couple's many children, with the script clearly making an effort to insert information in historical context.
The film is Poland's candidate for potential nomination for the 2014 Academy Award for best foreign language film.
"What's also important ... is I get to vote on Oscar nominations," as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, Dodd said, referring to his current job.