Friday, May 07, 2010

A Film Unfinished
A Film Unfinished, a documentary written and directed by female Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski, had its Canadian premiere at the Canadian International Documentary Festival this week.
The 89-minute film is the first to use almost all 62 minutes of unedited, silent footage shot over four reels by Germans in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland in May 1942 and not discovered until after World War II.
The ghetto's population was estimated to be 440,000. Disease and starvation were rampant and more than 100,000 people died before some 250,000 were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp from July to September 1942. 
Excerpts from these films have since been used as objective illustrations of what the ghetto was like shortly before the Jews were shipped off to Treblinka, but Hersonski's documentary reveals that they were propaganda tools and that many of the scenes were staged. 
Participants co-operated out of fear of the repercussions if they refused. Nazis used the ghetto as a film set, the inhabitants as actors, and dead and decaying bodies lying on the streets as exhibits.
The historic, heartbreaking and frequently disturbing footage is interweaved with readings from diary entries written during the period and testimonies from ghetto survivors and a German cameraman who took part in the filming. This helps contextualize things, but still leaves the viewer with questions that will likely never be answered. Documents revealing who initiated the project and why it was never completed have yet to be found.
Hersonski's aim was to examine both the potential and limitations of images to bear witness to the truth. She wasn't completely successful in coming up with answers, but A Film Unfinished certainly makes you think about the complex subject. And with modern photo, film and video-editing technology, it's becoming more complicated all the time.
A Film Unfinished is in English, Hebrew, German, Polish and Yiddish, and uses English subtitles. It won the editing award in the World Doc Competition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

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