"Letters to Afar"

Fot. ze zbiorów YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

A video installation by Péter Forgács with music by The Klezmatics commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

The audiovisual installation Letters to Afar is based on home movies made by Jewish immigrants from the United States and who visited their hometowns in Poland during the 1920s and 30s, These are now included in the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Filming for their families back in America, these amateur filmmakers recorded relatives and friends in their daily surroundings, capturing unique moments that allowed the viewer to be at once “there” and “now.” These films also provided a glimpse of the autonomy and richness of Jewish life in interwar Poland – a snapshot of the diversity of school, youth, self-help, and cultural organizations that existed even in the smallest towns. This broad social panorama can be discerned best in the films made by members of American landsmanshafts,  organizations of immigrant Jews from the same locality that often tried to organize help for their former communities in Poland.

Returning to these amateur films by Jewish travelers several decades later, Budapest-based filmmaker and video-artist Péter Forgács, along with the New York-based band, The Klezmatics, rewrote these “visual postcards”, filtering them through their artistic sensibilities and practices with a new addressee in mind – the 21st century museum visitor. Warsaw, Vilna, Łódź, Kałuszyn, Kamionka, Kolbuszowa, Nowogródek, Oszmiana, Krakow, Kurów, and Zaręby Kościelne – film locations from the past – became settings where the action, although recorded long ago, was reanimated inside the gallery.

Rather than an attempt at creating a grand historical narrative, the artists tried to penetrate the private world of people from a different space and time. Like the original filmmakers, who were most interested in recording the everyday lives of their kin, Peter Forgács, in authoring a new narration from these old movies, was above all interested in the mundane behavior of people – their looks, gestures, and mutual interactions. He selectively cut out frames that he then replayed at different speeds, breaking the images up into frieze compositions. Paraphrasing the original filmmakers, who often added their own oral commentary to the silent footage during private screenings of their films, Forgács set the images to a new soundtrack. Its core music was by The Klezmatics, specially composed for the installation, which combined traditional Jewish motifs with an evocative, minimalist form. It was also accompanied by captions, composed of quotes from memoirs and literature that directed the viewer’s attention. Employing these devices served to show prewar life not only from a documentary and historical perspective, but also in its existential dimension, thus making us not only witnesses of history, but also a party to these events.

Read Marjorie Backman’s article about the exhibition in the Wall Street Journal.