The faces look out at you, some shy, some defiant, some amused, some even downright playful. They are men and women, children and the elderly. It’s the late-1920s, the 1930s, these are Jews living in the Poland of the late-1920s and ’30, and although neither they nor the American citizens filming them know it, they are doomed. The images bespeak a flourishing culture, but by the end of the Second World War, 90 percent of Polish Jews will have been murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.
“The challenge is a Hitchcockian challenge,” says filmmaker Péter Forgács, who has re-orchestrated this footage into a dazzling installation, “Letters to Afar,” currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. He refers to Hitchcock’s distinction between shock (a bomb goes off without warning in a roomful of people) and suspense (we know that a bomb is ticking in a roomful of people, but when will it explode?).
“I don’t have to show the anti-Semites,” he continues, saying what he doesn’t have to tell the exhibitgoer. “I don’t have to show the f***ing Nazis. The visitor knows. I rely on your knowledge.” Forgács is a 64-year-old Hungarian filmmaker who for over 30 years has been working with found footage composed primarily of home movies taken in the interwar period in Central Europe. In 2012 he was invited by Frank London and the Klezmatics to collaborate on a project drawing on the archives of YIVO, specifically the many hours of films taken by Polish-American Jews who returned to the Old Country to document the life they had left behind. They were filming partly for their American kin, partly to help raise money for the impoverished communities they had escaped.
The key word in the previous sentence, Forgács insists, is “life.”
“While I was working on the project, I didn’t want to hear the word ‘Shoah,’ I can’t stand it,” he says. “This is about the life of these people, about how rich this culture was. The old ladies in the shtetl, the young boys playing in the streets of the cities.”
The physical layout of the installation deftly underlines that statement. There are nine screens in a medium-sized gallery space, displaying 13 different “orchestrations,” as Forgács calls his reworkings of the original footage. Anywhere a viewer sits to watch one screen, she can hear the music and voice-overs from the others, not as a cacophony, but as a gentle murmuring that suggests the ongoing daily existence of an entire community. If a viewer turns his head, he can see other orchestrations unspooling around the room or the back of a screen on which the play of light and shadow is dimly perceptible as movement, as living.
Forgács peers at an interviewer through the ovals of his steel-rimmed glasses, his dark brown eyes intense with emotion as he speaks. He is an imposing figure, over six feet tall with a shaved head and ironic smile, dressed in a black suit and shirt and black-and-white checkerboard tie. In both his physical presence and his speech, he is forceful — a perfect counterpoint to his filmmaking practice, which is profoundly self-effacing.
“To me this work has an essential message that comes from recontextualizing [the home movies],” he explains, leaning forward intently. “It’s a very open message beyond the personal little things. I suppose that is the paradox: home movies have a banality, they were not created as information or as propaganda, but that banality has a call on me. The result is a new language, between fine arts and straight documentary.”
Forgács’ work in both film and museum installations has a complexity, a density that derives from these juxtapositions. It speaks eloquently to the underlying tensions we all experience but seldom articulate, the conflict between the personal and the social, between the ordinary routine and the exceptional, between individual and family, family and community, community and nation, community and world.
With “Letters to Afar” those rich dialectical relationships are amplified by the seemingly endless choices available to the viewer.
Forgács says, “When you enter, you have a lot of surprises. The visitor has to figure out his or her own [place] in a realm in which many things are happening. If you sat through all the footage in the exhibit, it would take six hours, but they’re running in constant parallel. You have to make your own choices. It’s an invitation, it’s a gift.”
“Letters to Afar: Installation by Péter Forgács and The Klezmatics” will run at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Ave.) through March 22, 2015. The Museum of the City of New York and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research will be offering numerous public programs in conjunction with the installation. Perhaps the most exciting of these is a daylong retrospective of Forgács’ films, Sunday, Nov. 2, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at YIVO (15 W. 16th St.). For more information on these programs, go to www.yivoinstitute.org and www.mcny.org.