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“At the end of the world, there is a high mountain, and on that mountain, there is a huge rock, and from that huge rock a pure spring comes gushing out. And at the other end of the world, there is the heart of the world… And the heart of the world gazes and gazes at the pure spring and can never see enough of it, and it longs and yearns and thirsts for the pure spring, yet it cannot take even the smallest step toward it. For the moment the heart so much as stirs from its place, it loses sight of the mountain peak and the pure spring, and if the heart of the world ever loses sight of the pure spring for even an instant, it loses its life. And at the very same time, the world starts dying. Now the pure spring has no time of its own and so it lives on the time it receives from the heart of the world. And the heart of the world gives it only one day at a time.”
— From Peter Forgács’ ‘Letters to Afar’
Peter Forgács’s beautiful and heartbreaking video installation “Letters to Afar” at the Museum of the City of New York consists of several video projections accompanied by music and narration. The audio comes from speakers that hang from the ceiling inside transparent hoods. The large, darkened room is filled with hushed ambient sound — music and lists of names and bits of narrative — but the hoods focus the sound in places, and this mind-bending hasidic tale is the first thing you hear when you enter the room. As you’re trying to make sense of it, a boy’s face appears on a monitor. He looks about 10 years old. Dressed in hasidic garb, he is goofing around and grinning at the camera in stark sunlight. You see him in split-screen: sometimes in action — playing with his hat, shaking hands with a man in a suit (the filmmaker, perhaps?), and sometimes in freeze-frame, in close-up, stilled long enough for you to study and memorize his features. The boy was filmed in 1935, in Kazimierz — a Jewish neighborhood of Kraków, Poland.
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Using dramatically edited footage of interwar Poland, Forgács creates an immersive monument to a vanished world. “Monument” is not the right word actually, since it implies something grand, static, and permanent. Forgács’s installation, though massive — it consists of six hours of footage playing on multiple screens — is an intimate and deeply moving experience.
The films in the installation, from the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, are fascinating in themselves. Throughout the 1930s, well-to-do Jewish American immigrants who could afford home movie equipment traveled back to their hometowns, filming the daily life of their relatives and communities in Łódź and Kraków, Warsaw and Vilna, as well as in smaller places such as Nowogródek and Oszmiana, Kolbuszowa and Kurów. A few were made as purely personal family records. Others were marketing or fundraising tools. The footage of Łódź and Warsaw, taken by the travel agent Gustave Eisner, is heavy on monuments and landmarks, promoting travel to Poland. Several other films were made by landsmanschaften — New York-based hometown aid societies that raised money to help specific towns and villages in the “old country.” Stylistically, most of these are very much home movies, full of touchingly familiar tropes: abrupt shifts of the camera; people posing awkwardly, accustomed to still photography holding smiles, then remembering to wave; others shying away. There is a sense of visceral repeatability that we don’t expect from historical footage — perhaps because most history documentaries focus on public figures and important events, using films made by professionals, for public consumption that imply a certain distance. Watching these, I kept thinking, “I know these people; these could be my relatives.” Some scenes of Warsaw are shot on color film — don’t miss them, they’re the definition of uncanny.
Talking about “Letters to Afar,” Peter Forgács has likened his process to forensics, and compares these films to a record of a crime scene just before a crime. We don’t know much about the hasidic kid in Kraków — just that he was enjoying being filmed, and what his street looked like. But we know, with a nearly 90% certainty, that he didn’t live to be an adult. Forgács chooses to concentrate entirely on peacetime, and not to include any references to Shoah. The installation’s impact depends on our awareness of the tragedy yet to come.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/209560/a-monument-to-the-world-before-the-holocaust/?p=all#ixzz3KgMERvWo