Wednesday, December 30, 2015

'Letters to Afar' - my top pick for SF shows in 2015

This is my top pick for 2015: a montage/installation of rediscovered home moves from the 1920's and 1930's films, restored and rearranged by Hungarian documentary filmmaker Peter Forgacs. The show is devastating, transcending, unspeakably poetic – a visual Kaddish for a vanished, murdered people.

Letters to Afar: Entering the darkened upstairs gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum where “Letters to Afar” is showing is like entering an old fashioned movie house showing only your grandfather’s home-made movies. Young girls with 20’s bobbed hair smile at the camera, another young woman applies makeup. Young men pose in front of a car, children tumble out of school, full of life and mischief. Other films portray the traditional world of the Hassidim and the Shtetl – men wearing the top hats and the forelocks of Orthodox Jews. The clips recall the tumbledown wooden houses and synagogues of impoverished shtetls and their threadbare residents.
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These amateur movies, made in the 1920’s and 1930’s, were shot by American Jews returning to their Polish homeland to visit friends and family. What makes the images almost too painful to watch is the knowledge that a decade or two later, those who remained in Poland would be dead.


“And when the day has faded, the pure spring begins to sing to the heart of the world,” says the narrator of Forgács’ film. “And the heart of the world sings to the pure spring. And their singing spreads all over the world, and radiant threads emerge from the singing and they reach the hearts of all things in the world and they reach from one heart to the next… And there is a righteous and gracious man who wanders about the world and gathers the radiant threads of the hearts and weaves them into time. And as soon as he finishes weaving an entire day, he passes it on to the heart of the world, and the heart of the world passes it into the pure spring. And the pure spring lives for another day.”

Ninety percent of Polish Jews were murdered in like Treblinka and Chelmno and Auschwitz, the killing fields of Nazi-occupied Poland. That sweet-faced child, those sisters dancing in front of the camera, that elderly woman – dead, perished in a holocaust of unmanageable horror.

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