When the Motion Picture Association of America gave the Holocaust documentary “A Film Unfinished” an R-rating, Adam Yauch, Beastie Boy and founder of the film’s North American distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories, called the MPAA’s decision “bullshit.” But the film’s director, young Israeli Yael Hersonski, sees things a little bit differently.
“This MPAA thing has made many people talk about this film,” she said, in Oscilloscope’s funky West Village offices. “Eventually, I don’t think it will harm the theatrical life of this movie.”
She’s probably right. After picking up an award for editing at Sundance and winning best international film at the 2010 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, “A Film Unfinished” has been generating buzz for its unorthodox approach to a familiar non-fiction subject: the Holocaust. “A Film Unfinished” is structured around footage from a quasi-documentary propaganda film called “The Ghetto,” shot by Nazi authorities in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1942. “The Ghetto” is a mix of candid and staged scenes of Jewish life, some of the staged scenes intended to demonstrate the callousness of rich Jews to the plight of their poor and starving Jewish neighbors. By weaving the footage together with Nazi bureaucratic records, outtakes, diaries of Ghetto residents, unauthorized footage from Nazi cameramen and recreations of Nuremberg Trial transcripts, Hersonski attempts to salvage the highly flawed but valuable “The Ghetto” as a historical document.
“There was a time when [the Germans] thought they were going to win this war. The documentation was intended to commemorate this victory and also to educate future generations about this race they had to annihilate to create a Third Reich,” said Hersonski. “Gradually it became evidence against them, so they tried to destroy it. The irony is that they were so good at documenting, they didn’t have the time to destroy everything.”
“A Film Unfinished” sprang from Hersonski’s theoretical interest in film archives, and her sense that our relationship to film, and images in general, changed after the Holocaust.
“Film enabled viewers for the first time to see people who were dying–who are actually between life and death,” said Hersonski. “The realism of the images, the way they bleed–whenever you see them, it’s as if you’re replaying the time [the events] happened again.”
Hersonski shared her ideas on film archives and Holocaust imagery with Naomi Schory, one of Israel’s most prominent producers, who directed her to the visual center at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum. It was here that Schory saw “The Ghetto” for the first time. While watching the 62-minute rough cut of “The Ghetto,” Hersonski immediately recognized some of its images from their use as fragments in other Holocaust documentaries.
To provide a counterweight to “The Ghetto”‘s illusory realism, Hersonski invited ghetto survivors to watch the film, and filmed them. Their responses give “A Film Unfinished” its emotional power. It is in these “intersections” between different kinds of documentation–memory, image and emotional affect–where Hersonski said, “you can find something real.”
Hersonski twice shows us footage of a dancing man in rags surrounded by a small crowd of onlookers. The second time, one of the survivors recognizes the man.
“Suddenly, somebody who was there says, this man, I know his name! At that moment something in our perception of the past is changing. We become closer to reality, physically closer in a way,” said Hersonski. “The images, with the sound of the survivors, become more than a two-dimensional flat image with no identity.”
At the same time, the film’s multi-layered, and foregrounded, use of different kinds of documentation demonstrates the limits of any kind of historical account to recreate the past.
“Certainly the film is about the nature of documentation itself and the inability to capture reality as such,” said Hersonski. “Always capturing one aspect, or more than one aspect, but never the thing itself…It’s something beyond language and image.”
While she treads lightly on the ratings issue, Hersonski hopes young viewers will get a chance to see the film because of the attention it gives to the process of writing history.
“I’m a guest here. I’m coming from a different culture. I personally grew up with these images. At the age of 17, I was exposed to so many images and stories that I can really not judge other educational systems and cultural surroundings,” she said. “I trust that for a 17-year-old boy or girl who seeks to know more, this film will help them become better viewers. … It doesn’t merely show atrocities, it discusses the very documentation of these atrocities.”