Monday, August 16, 2010

Deconstructing Propaganda: A Film Unfinished

In any documentary film, each and every visual and sound-bite has been carefully chosen. Consideration of what might have been left out is just as important as what is included. Unfortunately, the ability to actively scrutinize and parse images on-screen has atrophied in the general film-going public. If it is in a documentary, it must be true, is the too common, too passive assumption many make. That is why Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (trailer here) is important, both as a historical documentary in its own right and an object lesson in critically dissecting propaganda, which opens this Wednesday at the Film Forum.

Innocuously labeled “Ghetto,” for years the film inside a dusty can discovered in an East German vault was taken at face value as an accurate representation of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, slowly creeping into many documentaries of the Holocaust. A strange artifact, the never-completed film included scenes of both extreme suffering as well as images of wealthy Jews living ostensibly happy and prosperous lives in the Ghetto. However, the extent to which the entire so-called Warsaw Ghetto film, particularly the episodes designed to stoke class envy, was deliberately staged by its film crew only became apparent with the discovery of nearly half an hour of outtakes. In Unfinished, Hersonski shows the audience the entire surviving Warsaw Ghetto footage, with the help of a handful of surviving residents of the Warsaw Ghetto, who provide crucial context to understand just what really happened while the cameras were rolling.

Not so much a deconstruction in the contemporary academic sense, Unfinished is more a forensic inquiry into Warsaw's production. Viewers see nearly all the extant footage, including many retakes and the occasional stray cameraman. We see the Potemkin footage as well, but with the additional knowledge of whom and what were outside of the camera’s chosen field of vision. As a result, it is clear Warsaw is not an accurate portrayal of how things were. Just what their propaganda plans were for the film remains somewhat murky, despite the discovery of a surviving cameraman, who not surprisingly tries to present their filming in the best possible light.

In addition to methodically analyzing the film and providing much needed context, Unfinished also acts as a corrective to notions (which Warsaw not coincidentally contributed to) that the Jewish Ghettos created by the National Socialists might have been uncomfortably cramped, but were not deadly per se. However, as Hersonski and her interview subjects make vividly clear, the Ghetto was indeed an environment intended to cause death and suffering, lacking only the fearful efficiency of the camps.

Recently, Unfinished has been at the center of a small controversy when the MPAA bestowed an R rating on the film for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities including graphic nudity.” While there are indeed such images in the film, they are never presented in a titillating or lurid manner. It is a problematic ruling because Unfinished is an educational film on multiple levels. Yet, in an odd way, it underscores the film’s point that images on film can have an insidious power on people’s perceptions. Meticulously assembled and scrupulously responsible in its treatment of admittedly “disturbing” imagery, Unfinished is a challenging but highly recommended work of nonfiction filmmaking. It opens this Wednesday (8/18) in New York at Film Forum.