November 10, 2003
I want to begin by noting that yesterday, November 9, is a date that’s marked by the superimposed history of two events that should not be thought of as unrelated, since both occurred in Germany, and both helped to determine the course of German history... the first is the Reichskristallnacht of 1938, and the second, the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In recent years, after an initial resistance to commemorate both events on the same day, Nov. 9 has been celebrated as a conjoined remembrance... once again reminding us that historical consciousness is inscribed in ways far beyond simple intentions...
In 1981 I began what would eventually become a three-part series of films that engaged the issues of documents and documented history, authority and authorship, and identity. DISPLACED PERSON, the first of these films, would set most of the parameters for the rest of the series, and mark the central concern of all: the relation between individual experience and the historical record.
Displaced Person (1981), Cooperation of Parts (1987), and Persistence (1997) all engage this constellation of themes in differing ways and from different perspectives, but all attempt to question the authority of historical narrative, and the hermetic nature of conventional cinematic forms.
The films require an active engagement, both esthetically and politically, and attempt a shift in the relationship between maker, viewer, and subject, by giving a measure of responsibility and agency back to the viewer.
I’m hesitant to say too much before your viewing, since I believe that your experience shouldn’t be over-contextualized by my own desires, readings, or biography.
So let’s take a look and then I’ll continue...
It would be disingenuous of me to speak about "Displaced Person," twenty-two years after having made it, with the certainty of intention that comes after having just completed a film.
And it’s doubly difficult to speak after such a long passage of time without acknowledging the huge changes in consciousness that have rippled through cultural and historical practice over the last two decades.
Instead, I’ll try to describe a movement from original conditions, and recollections about my initial intentions, towards the film’s reception and the historical changes that the film has traveled through.
For me, someone who's dealt with both the strict parameters of what I call, "Standard Documentary Practice" as an editor and researcher, and the parallel activity of questioning those very procedures through my more individual film work, the problem of historical representation; the cinematic constructs of event, evidence, and narrative are the most important issues.
As I’ve found out, both in making work and in presenting it, its in the definitions of memory and authority that our concept of the "historical" is invested and where that conception is grounded.
Be it the authority of original witness and testimony, the authority of documentary evidence, the authority of the site of an event, or on a more formal level, the narrow-band of narrative and visual styles which have been authorized for public presentation, these forms and images have achieved an "auratic" status of their own through accepted usage.
But these uses of the image, and procedures for the making of history and documents have come under serious attack by filmmakers, writers, even historians and critics.
What if no images of one’s experience are available, what if the narratives or testimonies are in conflict with authorized histories, or if documents are destroyed, what then?
Even more, what challenges to the predominant formal procedures are necessary to break the power that history has over the construction of our current present and future, in other words, what other kinds of formal structures are possible to replace our linear, logo-centric paradigms?
When I began making "Displaced Person" the impulses that were driving me were much more intuitive than theoretical, and it was only over a long period of time that I understood what those forces were.
The destruction of Europe's Jews, the Holocaust, has for me, and I’m sure for many of you here, a resonance both public and private. As a historical event in the more general sense, the Holocaust has tested the limits of narrative and artistic representation, of testimonial authority, of our widely held belief in the forms and procedures of cinema.
As the son of survivors, someone with specific narratives and sites to refer, I must attempt historical, personal, and formal resolutions to seemingly irresoluble questions using a cinema that was never meant to render the absent or the unimaginable.
Without getting too involved in the intricacies of biography, I want to turn your attention to the problem of documents. For most survivors of the Holocaust and their families, little survived of documentary significance. The occasional photograph, piece of jewelry or letter, which remained after the war, could hardly begin to describe the vibrant cultural and political life in Poland, the Soviet Union, or the more assimilated communities of Western Europe. For sons and daughters of these survivors like myself, there were no grandparents, no photographs, no hand-me-downs and certainly no home movies.
On a more practical level, every story that was told, led towards catastrophe or some unspeakable end. For the most part even these were rare, and so one was often left to invent one's own history.
Whenever I asked my parents questions about their past I would get extraordinarily complex, often incomprehensible answers, partially because of the great care they took to protect me, and partially from the incomprehensibility of the events themselves. As you can imagine, it’s very hard for a parent to describe the experiences of going through a concentration camp and not worry about its affect. But the responses were unsatisfying, so I kept asking the questions over and over again, and eventually I received different responses. This process of accretion, of building my history through an accumulation of repeated details and narratives was essential to me.
What I found on a personal level in my family: fragmented narratives, repeated details of some stories, other stories and details omitted or forgotten, the inability to express certain
experiences, was duplicated on a much larger scale in the historical documentation that existed when I first came to the subject.
What I found in the historical record, this being the early seventies, did not acknowledge my family's very real experience, or for that matter, even attempt to describe it. Without any guidance, as a teenager I began a rather systematic survey of historical materials and documents. Sadly, at the time, there was only the usual fare of biography, wartime reportage, and strategic/political analyses. As for accounts from victims and survivors - from my admittedly limited perspective - there were none to be seen. The fact that they did not yet exist disturbed me, and I felt that the history that I had come to know, however difficult or problematic, was unavailable, absent, repressed.
With the appearance of the paperback version of Raul Hilberg's “The Destruction of the European Jews,” I found for the first time, my mother's home town cited in print, and learned in great detail about the planning, execution, and philosophical bases of the Nazi extermination policies. Until that time the precise chronology of events and their rationale were completely and utterly opaque to me. I searched for a reason for more years than I care to admit, and the utter incomprehensibility of it forced me to return to it over and over again, attempting numerous explanations that never quite made sense.
It was only much later, at some conscious time, that I realized that both these personal and social responses were symptomatic of a larger condition of history itself, and that the Holocaust was paradigmatic of the irresolution attendant to certain large-scale historical events that were, and continue to be, the battlegrounds for historical and social meaning.
As Hayden White points out in his essay "The Modernist Event":
Some "holocaustal" events – such as the two World Wars, the Great Depression, a growth in world population hitherto unimaginable, poverty and hunger on a scale never before experienced, pollution of the ecosphere by nuclear explosions and the indiscriminate disposal of contaminants, programs of genocide undertaken by societies utilizing scientific technology and rationalized procedures of governance and warfare (of which the German genocide of 6,000,000 European Jews is paradigmatic)- function in the consciousness of certain social groups exactly as infantile traumas are conceived to function in the psyche of neurotic individuals. This means that they cannot be simply forgotten and put out of mind, but neither can they be adequately remembered: which is to say, clearly and unambiguously identified as to their meaning and contextualized in the group memory in such a way as to reduce the shadow they cast over the group's capacities to go into its present and envision a future free of their debilitating effects. The suggestion that the meanings of these events, for the groups most immediately affected by or fixated upon them, remain ambiguous and their consignment to "the past" difficult to effectuate should not be taken to imply in any way that such events never happened. On the contrary, not only are their occurrences amply attested to, their continuing effects on current societies and generations which had no direct experience of them are readily documentable. But among those effects must be listed the difficulty felt by present generations of arriving at some agreement as to their meaning – by which I mean, what the facts established about such events can possibly tell us about the nature of our own current social and cultural endowment and what attitude we ought to take with respect to them as we make plans for our own future. In other words, what is at issue here is not the facts of the matter regarding such events but the different possible meanings that such events can be construed as bearing.
As White mentions, Holocausts of one kind or another remain traumatic in public and private memory because they are still sites of contention. And it’s because present generations can’t agree on the meaning of such events that these historical "sites of contention" become active construction zones for artists, writers, and filmmakers.
Intuitively and by example, I understood that the scale of Holocaust prevented adequate resolution by simple narrative means, and that the constructs of cinema that I took for granted were insufficient for the task. I was initially drawn to experimental film practice, precisely because it gave me the license to try new formal approaches.
DISPLACED PERSON distills a number of these tendencies that I've just described. As a film ostensibly in the form of a documentary from the forties or fifties, it is created from newsreels, with music and voice-over narration.
Very shortly after it begins however, the film goes awry, with its logic of association located, or perhaps dislocated, outside any known rules of historical narrative. The fragments of spoken and written texts work literally, allegorically, and formally, and the viewer is displaced, required to come up with a way to read the film, or in other words, to re-read history.
I wanted to make a work that had a structure that was open enough for multiple readings, for readings that were contrary to each other, for dead ends, for finding oneself in a situation where there were too many choices sometimes. It was a way of mirroring my own experience, and at the same time ceding to the viewer the position of authority that was more or less equivalent to that of the maker. This proved to be an essential element for me.
Open forms require active participation and a kind of responsibility on the part of the viewer to engage in the real making of the work. So that the film itself becomes the meeting point of maker and viewer, a place Paul Celan called "the Meridian."
Chris suggested to me that the haunting and insistent images from the film, ripped from their original context, underlined their fragmentary character, and my “punctum” response, in the Barthesian sense, spoke to the condition of images always being, “In a state of becoming.” In that “state of becoming” they are forever fragmentary, and will always point to the viewer, to the active possibilities in reception, and in the Benjaminian sense, for their redemption in the present or the future.
DISPLACED PERSON is, of course, implicitly critical of historical practice, from its forms, to the allegorical and unconscious encoding of the documentary images. In DISPLACED PERSON Paris becomes a theme park of Western culture, and the archival image an archaeological excavation site for the deeply embedded logic of cultural, sexual, and political power.
My obsession here with the archival images comes from the lack of available images in my own history. As there were no images from my parent’s life before the war, the maps, historical images, newsreels and films that constituted the official record of the war were my only visual links to their stories, and I was inescapably drawn towards them. By using these images I could signal that absence. Replacing a non-existent photo with an archival substitute, which required some conscious analysis while it was being viewed, recapitulated my own process: how does this image relate to me? What am I looking for? What does it mean?
So the film registers first and foremost the absence of experience, and uses the materials of history to signal a process of understanding that will forever remain outside of experience.
The elements that are used in the film, the image, text, and music, are all drawn from the public domain, and it was essentially important that these residual documents had the signature of prior usage.
The narration is taken from a radio lecture by Claude Levi-Strauss entitled, "The Meeting of Myth and Science," the images from the Deutsches Wochenshau of June 25, 1940 that recorded Hitler’s dawn visit to Paris, here quoted from Marcel Ophuls’ film, "The Sorrow and the Pity," and some images from American newsreels. The musical accompaniment is the andante from Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet Opus 59, no. 3.
The secondary usage of the subtitles, and third-generation usage of the original newsreel materials states much more simply than I can here our impossible paradox: History is received through others.
So then the film presents itself as a third-hand statement in a second-hand world, a world of received knowledge, encoded consciously and unconsciously by the spoken word, the framed image, and the interpreted musical phrase.
You may ask why these images?
In DISPLACED PERSON, there is an image early in the film, of Hitler's entry into Paris in June1940, when he steps out of his limousine and passes the gates of La Madeleine. He momentarily stops and looks up before going forward. When I first saw that image in "THE SORROW AND THE PITY" in a classroom in 1972, a shudder went through me. Not for any remarkable reason, but for the simple fact that just a few months prior to seeing the image I had stopped at that very spot, on my first trip to Europe, and I remembered sitting there thinking about the impossible task of trying to make sense of a history so vast and distant, so unable to resolve my relation to it. Seeing that image in the classroom jolted me into a realization of the ghostliness of that European landscape, a place where so many traumatic and historical events occurred that neither the landscape nor the calendar could sufficiently narrativize them without superimposing them, conflating them, or compressing them into an assemblage of ironic details and fragments... and In some strange way Hitler and I had crossed paths in time. At that moment, I knew I wanted to work with those images. I did not know how I would work with them, just that I would.
Over the last twenty years, the means to investigate and reproduce filmic documents with such tools as optical printers, video, and now digital manipulation with computers, has allowed filmmakers to engage in free-ranging, subjective investigations of history such as DISPLACED PERSON. Either as a redress to official histories or as a means of producing documentary histories for marginalized or de-historicized groups; the archive and library, the family home movie, even the trash heap, have been raided for images and raw material. The point of this immense body of activity, far from the goals of the formal experiments of the seventies, is to directly counter authorized histories, to recuperate lost or subjugated history, or to provide new working historical documents for political purposes.
The films have also widely expanded our notions of social and personal memory, and contextualized "history" as just one of its manifold forms. It is in fact this explosive interest in memory, in its multiple manifestations, that has redefined historical practice over the last decade.
Filmmakers such as Craig Baldwin, Abigail Child, Bruce Conner, Rea Tajiri, Alan Berliner, Su Friedrich, Jay Rosenblatt, Issac Julien, Marlon Riggs, and countless others, have mined these sources and worked new compositional strategies that destabilize readings widely held in order to reach significations deeply embedded in the image, and critique the mechanics of history itself.
Media artists address the subconscious desire to forget by sublimating the trauma into form. That form, implicitly or explicitly, stands as an obstacle to forgetting – and to a passive acquiescence of historical authority - by placing direct responsibility on the viewer to reconfigure the past. This zone of disturbance, using destabilizing forms in order to bring the viewer to attention, underlines, as Benjamin would say, our state of emergency.
As for the subject of narration, I would like to at least raise the issue of how memory may be articulated in either continuous or discontinuous forms, because this too has become an enormously contentious area of argument.
The discontinuities of narrative that I experienced growing up were not unusual. In Lawrence Langer's study of videotaped oral histories, "Holocaust Testimonies", the memory of witnesses are shown to be historical in a special sense. The testimonies can and should be analyzed for their traditional historical contributions, but they convey much more clearly the effects of traumatic experience on memory and the psyche, and in doing so become an even more important set of documents. To vest these complicated, disrupted narratives with traditional testimonial authority, to try and wrest a chronological narrative from them, would be to miss the point of these documents. They speak to us twice, through content, and through form. In the post-traumatic work of repair that these witnesses and victims undergo in the telling of their stories, in their own need to narrativize experience, we must look beyond traditional documentary parameters.
The need for narrative, and the need for people to have their own historical experience validated by the acceptance of these narratives, is evidenced quite clearly in the response to SCHINDLER ́S LIST. My own mother, marginally conscious as she is of the artifice of film, liked the film firstly, because it showed her own experience more naturally depicted in certain scenes than she had ever seen before and secondly, because it was a mass media vehicle for validating her experience. The larger truths may be casualties in the process, but it doesn't seem to be of primary importance. I myself learned first-hand, when editing the TV series "Eyes On The Prize"/ a documentary television series on the American Civil Rights movement, the overwhelming power a validated narrative visual history maintains, how it empowers communities in our visually oriented culture.
Let me cite Hayden White again,
"According to Eric Santner, the danger of yielding to the impulse to "tell the story" of the Holocaust – and by extension any other "traumatic" event – opens the investigator of it to the danger of engaging in "narrative fetishism," which is, in his view a "strategy of undoing, in fantasy, the need for mourning by simulating a condition of intactness, typically by situating the site and origin of loss elsewhere." In short, the threat posed by the representation of such events as the Holocaust, the Nazi Final Solution, is nothing other than the threat of turning these events into the subject matter of a narrative. Telling a story, however truthful, about such traumatic events might very well provide a kind of "intellectual mastery" of the anxiety which memory of their occurrence may incite in an individual or a community. But precisely insofar as the story is identifiable as a story, it can provide no lasting "psychic mastery" of such events.
This is why the kinds of anti-narrative non-stories produced by literary modernism offer the only prospect for adequate representations of the kind of "unnatural" events – including the Holocaust – that mark our era and distinguish it absolutely from all the "history" that has come before it.”
Artists, filmmakers, and writers come to this understanding by these means: what is necessary for the representation of traumatic events are formal structures replete with fragmentation, rupture, irresolution, ellipsis, conditions of absence and ruin, narrative dead ends... even fantasy. These counter-strategies, speak not only to the unresolved issues of memory and history, but perhaps equally important, they can more precisely approximate a contemporary experience of history itself, allowing us the capacity to shuttle between past and present, between the present and a projection of some future, determined through consciousness and agency. Ultimately, these works bring us closer to that integration which has been up to now elusive and impossible for us.
One final qualification to White’s remarks... although modernism has provided the formal strategies necessary to render events that defy simple narration, it is clear that the artists, filmmakers, and writers using these strategies do not subscribe to a programmatic modernism or to any positivist, utopian, or universalist belief in the methods themselves. These strategies merely provide a sufficient set of procedures from which to begin the difficult task of making sense, of making meaning, and of reforming the relations of historiography.
Let me leave you with two final images:
The first is my return in 2001 to Krakow and to Auschwitz/Birkenau, where I first visited in 1983. The scene of the crime has now been internationalized for the tourism industry, in what we can perhaps call modern-day pilgrimages. In 1983, the decaying, stark site was not even marked, today a museum in the style, albeit far smaller, of the Holocaust museum in Washington, is now on site.
And in Krakow’s Kasimierz neighborhood, a theme park of pre-war Jewish culture with Jewish cafes and restaurants with Klezmer music has been restored in part with money for the sets for Schindler’s List. The former experience of anti-Semitism without Jews has been supplanted by an even more uncanny celebration of Jewish culture in its total absence.
The second image is darker, more familiar, more disturbing.
The events of September 11, 2001 are of course signaled by a single metaphoric trope... the image of two airplanes plowing into the towers of the World Trade Center. That day unfolded as a rupture of historic proportion. Setting aside for a moment the catastrophe of the events themselves, one must retain a critical perspective and note that the image arrives as a metaphor complete with its attached meanings. It’s not necessary to dig deep... it couldn’t be a clearer expression of the fragility of our structures: of our massive power, of our huge capital accumulations, of the hold we have over the course of events themselves. And of course, it’s a performative expression of the seething anger of much of the rest of the world at this obscene imbalance.
What we are witnessing right now is the inverse of the process that I was talking about earlier: our government wishes not to read the image simply, but counter-intuitively, wants to pack the meaning of the event with its own interpretation: “ these people despise our freedom,” we are told.
The image marks something else:
Events are no longer separate from their reception... they occur simultaneously. Moreover, landscapes, events, visual notations are inscribed into image and sound in most urban centers at every moment; the historical records of our own time are being inscribed into moving images in anticipation of the events they document. Is it any accident that the images of both airplanes entering the facades of Tower 1 and Tower 2 (Tower 2 from manifold perspectives) are widely known, and were widely known almost within minutes of their inscription? Could it have been intentional that the terrorists that commandeered the second plane entered the Tower with the assumption that cameras and crews would already be on the scene? Is it at all strange to us that we witnessed the collapse of these iconic towers from the visual perspective of helicopters hovering in the air or at the equivalent height atop the Empire State Building? Is the act of watching it live all over the world, repeated, again and again, in my case with a class of students studying contemporary media practices ironic, or tragic, or superfluous? This compression/collapsing of time, space, and power, a problem we were already keenly aware of, is disorienting daily life in precisely the ways that the increasing speed of modernity disoriented daily life one hundred years before. And so everyone turns and returns to the image as if to answer some deep secret mystery...
It’s the image, once again, that’s mobilized for the larger task of making sense of the given world. The question is not so much "moving past" or "getting over" historical trauma, but how to properly integrate it. That’s our only responsibility to the history into which we are borne. Its requirements are vigilance, intellectual honesty, and a continuing self-critique.