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Letters to Afar at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Letters to Afar
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
May 18 – September 30, 2013

Video installation by Péter Forgács with music by The Klezmatics, commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York

The audiovisual installation Letters to Afar is based on home movies made by Jewish immigrants from the United States visiting their hometowns in Poland during the 1920s and 30s. Filming for their families back in America, they recorded relatives and friends in their daily surroundings, capturing unique moments that allow the viewer to be at once “there” and “now.” These films also provide a glimpse of the autonomy and richness of Jewish life in interwar Poland—a snapshot of the diversity of school, youth, self-help and cultural organizations that existed even in the smallest towns. This broad social panorama can be discerned best in the films made by members of American landsmanshaftn, organizations of immigrant Jews from the same locality that often tried to organize help for their former communities in Poland.

Returning to these amateur films by Jewish travelers several decades later, Hungarian artist Péter Forgács, who specializes in working with archival film material (found footage), rewrites these “visual postcards,” filtering them through his artistic sensibility and practice with a new addressee in mind: the 21st century museum visitor. Warsaw, Vilna, Lodz, Kaluszyn, Kamionka, Kolbuszowa, Nowogrodek, Osmiany, Krakow, and Kurow are all film landscapes from the past that become settings in which the action, although recorded long ago, is played out inside the gallery. Like the original filmmakers, who most eagerly recorded their kin, Forgács is above all interested in the behavior of people—their looks, gestures, and mutual interactions. From these films, he selectively cuts out frames that he then replays at different speeds (often in slow motion), breaking the images up into triptych and frieze compositions that are synchronized to a new soundtrack, the core of which is music specially composed for the installation by the New York band The Klezmatics. The music, which combines traditional Jewish motifs with an evocative, minimalist form, is also accompanied by captions (composed of quotes from memoirs, letters, and literature) that direct the viewer’s attention. Employing these devices, Forgács paraphrases the efforts of the original filmmakers, who often added their own oral commentary to the silent footage during private screenings of their films.

Inviting the visitor to a rereading of these “letters” from the past, Letters to Afar avoids constructing a great historical narrative, but instead tries to penetrate the private world of people from a different place and time. These films show prewar life, not only in its documentary and historical aspect, but also in its existential dimension, seeking to establish a connection between the world filmed and those to whom the films are addressed.

Letters to Afar will premiere at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw on May 18, 2013. Plans to travel the installation to other locations are now under discussion.

Click here to download the catalog.

Click here to view photos of the exhibition at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, May 18, 2013.


Péter Forgács is a Budapest based filmmaker and video artist. His films and installations are created from archival amateur films (found footage) shot in 20th-century Europe. His main interest is the tension between official and private history and between the historical and existential dimensions. The artist represented Hungary at the 53rd Venice Biennale, showing the work Col Tempo. The W Project, a piece that reviled the oppressive aspect of film and photography by using material from the private archives of a Nazi anthropologist.

The Klezmatics are a band founded in 1986, based in New York. They fuse klezmer music with elements of jazz, rock, gospel and other modern musical genres. Music in Letters to Afar was performed by Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals), Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals), Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals), Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), and Richie Barshay (percussion), with special guest, John Mettam (percussion).

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