Improving the archives

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In this audio file we interview Yael Hersonski, director of the groundbreaking new holocaust documentary A Film Unfinished. She talks a bit about her mission to look at wartime holocaust footage in an alternative way. Below is the transcript.

 

 

What was your first childhood memory?

My first childhood memory was me being one years old in what is now modern day Egypt, just before it was handed back by the Israelis in the post war peace treaty in 1977. I was on the beach standing and singing and humming an Israeli song. It was the last time that I was in that area..

Could you hum the song for us?

[laughs] No! Would it help? It was called a ‘Bedouic love song’. Though of course I was distorting the words as I didn’t understand the meaning. Trust me don’t ask me to sing it. It’s better for us both, I assure you.

This is a classic theme as far as the history of documentary is concerned. As a director exploring the exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Jews during World War II, what difficulties and challenges did you come across when conceiving your documentary?

The first challenge was to to show these images, in a way that they had never before been used. I wanted to make not only the image but also the frame of the image, something that the audience would be aware of. To give the audience a kind of double gaze; he will see what the image is about but also feel an image that doesn’t exist, the image of how it was produced, the presence of the cameraman. Only by doing so can you understand better what you see. I had the feeling that before we were not actually seeing the images, but just looking at them. Maybe the most important goal for me was to show some of this reality that was being documented in this footage. I think that because it was previously being used out of context, in bits and pieces, as if it were an objective historical document produced by history itself. We saw images of the Jews in the Ghetto, massive crowds of people with no names and no identity, titled under the term of victims. When you see individuals in this general way you cannot really understand anything of the reality your seeing. It’s all about having headlines and cliches. What I’m telling you here is quite an abstract thing to do. I had to find a way using cinematic expression to give this gaze, the viewers gaze.

And did it help people understand?

Yes. I think at least in Israel, because Israel might be the best place to test out the efficiency of the film. Because every year we have the Holocaust Memorial Day. We have the chance to see so many documentaries about the Holocaust. These films are one of the things that were not only used but also misused to excuse other things that were going on in Israel. Since I was a child I always had the intuition to resist this. Whether the educational system or museums or other special interest organisations took this subject and tried to communicate it to the audience, I felt that I was cheated. That they were using it as there own propaganda, in a way. I wanted to approach this footage not only propaganda, it wasn’t me who first revealed that, but also this footage was documenting specific moments in peoples lives. And if we know how to discern between the real footage and the propaganda only then can we approach something of the reality that was documented.

The thing is that previously, this footage was used mainly as an illustration, as a visual background to so many different stories. But it was always in the background, never in the foreground. What I wanted to establish here: I wanted to take it and bring it to the foreground and relate it as another form of witness. When you are not only showing, say, naked women entering into a ritual bath, but also understand that these women were kidnapped and forced to enter the baths, and then you start to realise that they were surrounded by cameras, with cameras pointed at them. This is the real horror of the images being produced. Not like how I saw it in a Polish museum once, as a document of Jewish ritual life in the ghetto. The footage was used as if authentic documentation of life in the ghetto, but it wasn’t. When we know to define what is not authentic can we approach what is authentic, because it’s all in the frame. Israeli people go into the film sure that they weren’t going to feel anything. That’s how its usually been accepted. We’ve seen so much footage and films that we don’t care to see anymore. People were surprised when they watched it they felt like they had received time travel into the past. It was a relief for me to hear these comments.

Since Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah was shown to the world, an argument emerged against the use of historical footage as evidence of the Jewish Holocaust. However, in his Histoire(s) du Cinema, Godard completely opposed this viewpoint, stating that historical footage is indispensable. How does your documentary deal with these two opposing viewpoints?

This whole film began after I translated from English to Hebrew an essay about the debate between Jean Luc Godard and Claude Lanzmann (not a real debate, but one in the media) about the ability of cinema to show something in unprecedented events. Until the day my grandmother died I didn’t see how anyone could add something to Lanzmann’s Shoah. I understood what he meant about foregrounding the witnesses over the footage. When my grandmother died I started thinking about when there would be no witnesses left to remember and what would be left of the film archives. How could the footage be used in a way that would be better witness than the way it had been used up until now. And I am sure that it bares witness to that reality in a way that no other form of reality can bear. If we are passing merely telling the audience that this was propaganda, there is something that is extremely real about something in this footage – the people, they were living, they were prisoners, all the while being documented on film. For me these moments on camera were an expression of their identity. OK, there is a cameraman and he is telling us to go left or right or to dress or undress. But the fact of their existence is more real in this footage than anywhere else.

This is when they were gazing into the camera. This is the most direct contact a viewer can have with the past through the eyes with someone who was captured on film. That’s what I was trying to do.We are facing a time when we will be left with only archives and no witnesses. It was urgent for me to examine this form of witness and to look at it in a critical way not just the way we were educated to look at it.

You seem to have a strong connection with your memory. From your memory of when you were one years old in Egypt, to your quest to improve the archives of collective memory of the holocaust; how did you got into documentary making? Is it all interrelated?

Mostly by chance, because I was a philosophy student and it was mainly coincidence that made me depart my studies and focus on film. I realised that what was interesting for me is to understand this form of expression which is mainly images and the way they function on the viewers mind. What is the psychology behind the viewing of a film and how do we perceive reality through images. They think that today we are living in an age where reality becomes images, we can’t understand anything about reality without having the mediation of images broadcast to us from all over. In the digital age where images can be easily changed, manipulated, distorted in such a highly technical way, it’s important to reflect on our own way of doing things. They think in film that I’m raising more questions than giving answers of course. But I think that merely that awareness of how relative our perception is, is something that I wanted to emphasize.

If there was one question you would like your documentary to raise, what would it be?

The gap between the image and reality. I’m asking about the nature of this gap. There is something that is extremely real and something else that is extremely manipulated. How should documentaries be watched?

 

Last modified on Friday, 18 April 2014 17:11
Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.

出生於英國西南部,海邊的天堂為Torbay。目前在台灣的街上,公園,廢墟尋找世界之荒謬與世界之美,努力盡量在各方面跳脫框框。透過我們的游牧空間「洞」我們不斷地用藝術與行動來挑戰早已僵化的體制。

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