Vintage home movies from Poland at CJM 

click to enlarge Views of Poland in the 1920s and 1930s are the subject of “Letters to Afar,” a multimedia installation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through May 24. - COURTESY YIVO INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH RESEARCH, NEW YORK
  • Views of Poland in the 1920s and 1930s are the subject of “Letters to Afar,” a multimedia installation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through May 24.
Filmmaker Peter Forgacs revisits the Jewish communities of 20th-century interwar Poland, capturing both their everyday mundanities and a timeless humanity, in his latest project featuring archival home movies and his own creative stamp.

The exhibition, “Letters to Afar,” continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through May 24.

Forgacs, who lives in Budapest and is known for his “Private Hungary” series, is interested in under-the-radar lives. He crafts artistic new films from nonprofessionally made old ones to take contemporary viewers on informative, accessible journeys into pockets of time and place.

“Letters” is an immersing multimedia installation that includes 13 works containing home movies shot in Jewish areas of 1920s and 1930s Poland by American immigrants visiting their hometowns there.

Forgacs’ process involves selecting frames from the original material, freezing them, replaying them at different speeds, and presenting the images in frieze form, often as triptychs. The installation shows a diversity of period styles and ways of life in sites ranging from large cities such as Krakow and Lodz to shetls.

We see marketplace attractions, town-square gatherings, bustling streets, park leisure, family outings, synagogue worshippers, bakers, tailors, water carriers and numerous others. A woman wearing pearls, a man with a pipe, and a hatted, bearded man posing with a young boy appear in close-up. In crowd scenes, people mug, wave, and otherwise exhibit the corny qualities for which the then-new form of documentation called the home movie has become known.

Clips from the 1930s films “The Banner of Freedom” and “The Dubbuk” enhance the picture, as does text supplied by Forgacs. The latter includes remarks from the original moviemakers, paraphrased in English and sometimes delivered in voiceover, and onscreen captions identifying some of the subjects.

Also a powerful aural experience, the installation features a soundtrack by the Klezmatics, the Grammy-winning klezmer band. The score contains Jewish music styles while maintaining a minimalist tone to avoid manipulating viewers emotionally. The music connects the individual works into a cohesive portrait of culture and community.

There’s an underlying humanity to the installation, along with what Forgacs has described as a Hitchcockian element: the tragic hand that history will deal Poland and most of its Jewish population. The people we see don’t know what will befall them, but we do, and, on one level, Forgacs’ installation is a memorial to those killed by the Nazis.

Some of the featured vintage films were made by members of American landsmanshaftn, groups of immigrant Jews that tried to organize aid for the communities in Poland.

“Letters to Afar” was originally commissioned by the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. The footage comes from the YIVO collection.


Letters to Afar

Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and to 8 p.m. Thursdays; show closes May 24

Admission: $10 to $12

Contact: (415) 655-7800,

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Anita Katz

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