Images from Meanwhile Somewhere...

Skaters on the foggy Zuiderzee open the film.

Another shot of skaters following the opening titles.

Husband and wife playfully wresting in the Govaert family’s home movies.

Villagers in occupied Poland awaiting the humiliation of lovers Maria and Georg.

From the crowd Maria and Georg appear with signs hung around their necks: “I am a Polish Pig” and “I am the traitor of the German People.”

Riding tricycles in Mons, Belgium, from the Drugman family’s home movies.

From the second installment of the “racist punishment” of Maria and Georg.

Newborn Maria Olga Kubisková and her mother in a hospital in Czechoslovakia.

Father and son bathing in a backyard in Vienna.

“How it was then”:
home movies as history in
Péter Forgács’
Meanwhile Somewhere...

by William C. Wees

 “These amateur films are full of faults. The majority—let’s say 99% of these home movies are boring. Boring. And bad. So one has to dig a lot of sand before you find one ounce of gold. But suddenly, you see all the sand is like gold. It’s also a paradox.”
Péter Forgács[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Home movies usually appear in documentaries for what Patricia Zimmermann has called their “nostalgic qualities, a time frozen outside history.”[2] More adventurous and experimental filmmakers have used recycled home movies for other more interesting purposes. A prime example is Meanwhile Somewhere... (1994), one of a number of films in which the Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács uses home movies to explore the history of Europe circa 1930-1960. This history is lived—and filmed—by ordinary people going about their daily lives while the developments that occupy professional historians—social unrest, the rise of Fascism, the war in Europe, the Holocaust, the imposition of Soviet-style Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe—take place, for the most part, “off screen.” While our awareness of these events strongly influences our response to the footage in Forgacs’ films, we can also vicariously share the kind of naive pleasure the amateur filmmakers and their family and friends must have felt when watching the films at the time they were made. (As will become apparent, Meanwhile Somewhere... offers some notable exceptions to that generalization.)

Forgacs is not the only filmmaker to exploit the complex process of reception involved in watching recycled home-movies. As a preface to an examination of Forgács’ method of turning home movies into visual history, I will briefly review five other films made with material comparable to that used in Meanwhile Somewhere... but with significantly different results. The subsequent discussion of Forgács’ film should clarify the significance of those differences, without, I hope, taking anything away from the accomplishments of other filmmakers who have chosen to recycle home movie footage for their own political and aesthetic purposes.

Relations of form and content
in recycled home movies

For Urban Peasants (1975), the U.S. experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs spliced together one-hundred-foot rolls of 16mm home moves shot by his wife’s aunt in a Jewish section of Brooklyn during the 1930s and 40s. Other than giving the film a title and opening and closing the film with several minutes of black leader accompanied by extracts from a language-learning tape called “Instant Yiddish,” Jacobs offers nothing in the way of interpretation of, or comment on, the original home movie footage. Nevertheless, as Jeffrey Skoller has argued,

“In an ironic and affectionate way, Urban Peasants shows not only what was lost of the traditional Jewish life through assimilation but also the ways Jewish life continued elsewhere despite what was occurring in Europe.”

Drawing upon the concept of “sideshadowing,” a term coined by Michael André Berstein in Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (1994) to characterize events related to, but not incorporated within a dominant historical narrative, Skoller says Jacobs’ film

“is a sideshadow on the narrative of annihilation [of Europe’s Jewish population] and its claims of inevitability by showing the prosaics of other Jewish lives.... These artifacts of everyday Jewish life speak to the idea of a quotidian existence in the mist of catastrophe.”[3]

Skoller’s reading of the film may or may not accord with Jacob’s intentions, but it seems to support Jacobs’ contention:

“A lot of film is perfect left alone, perfectly revealing in its un- or semi-conscious form.”[4]

That statement could apply to Abraham Ravett’s short film In Memory (USA, 1993), in which unedited home movies of everyday life in the wintery streets of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, end with footage of the hanging of nearly a dozen men on a large scaffold in a village square. Like Jacobs, Ravett provides no explanatory titles, no voice-over commentary, in fact no sound at all while the images are on the screen. Instead, at the beginning and end of the film, while the screen is totally dark, we hear a prayer for the dead sung in Hebrew, with an English translation on the screen in the concluding sequence. The archival footage is shown "as is," as if to suggest that nothing can be said about it, and that to manipulate it through montage or other formal devices would be a disservice, perhaps even a desecration. As unpretentious and impersonal in form as it is graphically precise in content, the archival footage becomes a cinematic memorial to the dead, framed by darkness and prayer.

To make Günther 1939 (Heil Hitler) (1994), the Austrian filmmaker Johannes Rosenberger re-filmed home movie footage so that frame lines and part of the sprocket holes are visible on the screen. By emphasizing the film as film, Rosenberger distances himself from his source, as if to say the original footage is a separate, distinct document for which he bears no responsibility other than choosing to show it to us. As in most home movies, the separate shots appear to have no particular order or necessary relationship to each other. A shot of a woman nursing a baby is followed by a shot of the woman holding the baby, which is followed by a few seconds of black. Then we see a high angle shot of a crowd-lined street taken from a second story window or balcony. Police move the crowd back. Two men in the crowd look up and wave at the camera. A cavalcade approaches. In an open limousine sits Adolf Hitler and some aids. Then a second limousine passes by. In the next shot a woman and man sit in a small sailboat; this is followed by a shot of two men; then the camera closes in on a blurry, shadowy face. And that's it. Rosenberger emphasizes Hitler's presence among these typical home movie images by step printing the footage so that it appears in slow motion, but otherwise it is no more remarkable than any of the other images. Rosenberger lets the juxtaposition of historically significant and ordinary home movie images speak for itself—or rather he lets us recognize and contemplate the ironies of that juxtaposition and the historical consequences it implies.[5]

Of other films made with home movies, two by U.S. experimental filmmakers provide a particularly useful entrée to a discussion of Forgacs’ Meanwhile Somewhere.... For The Future Is Behind You (2004), Abigail Child re-edited anonymous home movies and added a fictional narrative about a Jewish family living in Austria in the 1930s. Through visual text, she “identifies” the family members and presents the younger daughter as the film’s “narrator.” Also through text on the screen, the daughter supplies information about family activities, comments on her thoughts and feelings, and recounts the fate of family members, some of whom perish during the Holocaust while others emigrate to Palestine and the United States. The soundtrack includes synchronized sound effects and music, and some of the footage is looped, slowed down, and momentarily held motionless in freeze frames. The narrative places as much emphasis on gender and social roles as on “the historical moment which remains as text trace,” as Child has put it.[6] Fact (the actual home movie footage) and fiction (the narrative superimposed on the footage) merge in a critical/creative reading that is historically and psychologically plausible but is, nevertheless, an imaginative recreation of a family history illustrated with home movies. The result, Child has tentatively suggested, is “a documentary with fiction intruding.”[7]

Alan Berliner’s The Family Album (1987) is composed of anonymous footage from a large number of American home movies shot between the 1920s and 1950s. Beginning with shots of new-born infants, the film progresses to young children learning to walk, to older children playing, to teenagers and young adults partying, to marriage ceremonies, to the appearance of another generation of children, to elderly people and funerals. Like Child, he adds a soundtrack with music and some sound effects. The film is intended to be, in Berliner’s words,

“a universal yet intimate portrait of American family life, not scripted, not rehearsed, not immune to the conflicts and contradictions underlying family life and its rituals.”[8]

To call this collective family portrait “universal” is questionable. It is essentially an evocation of white, middle-class American family life in the first half of the twentieth century. Berliner’s characterization of it as “an intimate portrait” correctly emphasizes its lack of references to public events and the larger historical contexts within which these families lived and recorded their lives on film.

“Shovelers Brigade”—an introductory homemade title. The Shovelers Brigade put to work.
The young Drugman daughter relieving herself in public. At the Moulin Rouge.

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