Babi Yar. Context
A reconstruction based entirely on archive footage of the mass execution in 1941 of some 33,000 Jews, in a ravine near the then German-occupied city of Kiev. From the lead up to the massacre to its aftermath.More info
The first of the IDFA Dialogues, the new format of talks established this year, entitled "WWII: Cinematic Excavations," dealt with films about the Second World War in this year's IDFA program by Sergei Loznitsa (Babi Yar. Context), Aliona van der Horst (Turn Your Body to the Sun), and Susana de Sousa Dias and Ansgar Schaefer (Journey to the Sun).
The talk was moderated by film critic Pamela Cohn, who opened the session with an inspired introduction.
"Watching these films, which mostly consist of archive footage, you have an expectation of what you might see, but in fact all these works are full of surprises, questions and investigations that we thought we understood and knew, but they are looking at them in fresh, new and very imaginative ways, pushing the cinematic form," she started.
Cohn decided to steer the conversation in the direction of what in these stories pulled the filmmakers in to "reinterpret and reinvigorate the archive footage."
Van der Horst, who already elaborated on her film at the talk "Visual language in storytelling," said she was interested in the faces of the soldiers in the footage and not on some horrible images from Auschwitz, and that was her starting point. Because she has a live protagonist in the film as well, it was a challenge to balance her approach.
"These are basically two separate films, and it took me a while to reconcile them," she said. "I wanted the archive footage to speak, it needed to be more important."
Cohn then turned to filmmakers of Journey to the Sun, an archive footage film composed of images from right after the Second World War, when 5,000 young children were sent from Austria to stay with host families in Portugal, where they could recover from the violence of war.
"This was really propaganda," said Schaefer. "You have the Portuguese fascists and you have Austria, a Catholic country, and these are Catholic children - they go to church in Portugal, they receive their baptism in Portugal. So the challenge was to find an angle to take back this propaganda action. And it was the memory of separation and the memory of coming back to the cold Austrian society that we recognized when we were talking to these people."
De Sousa Dias added: "We realized that we can portray the Portuguese dictatorship with a different gaze. We decided to take away everything that was an adult reflection and focus on memories of children. Even if they were children 70 years ago, the memories stay."
Cohn then asked Loznitsa about the motivation for his film, which reconstructs one of the largest mass executions in history, building from the lead up to the aftermath of the two days in September 1941, when Nazis shot dead 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar, a ravine at the edge Kiev.
Loznitsa went straight to the point and explained how in 1941, Kiev had had 800,000 inhabitants, out of which 250,000 were Jewish. In all Ukrainian cities, Jewish population accounted for between 20% and 50%, in some places even 80%. After the Second World War, they were all gone.
"I was born in Kiev, in a place near Babi Yar," the director said. "From 1941 until 1991, it was forbidden to talk about it. This is why I made this film."
A few years ago, the art director of the Babi Yar memorial complex asked him to do an installation about Holocaust in Ukraine, and he started researching for footage.
"I only found one photo before the execution, and one after execution, both of which are in my film," he said. "The Soviet government wanted to remove this from the memory of society, but it was not only people in power who wanted to hide it, it was everybody."
He added that now the film is screening in Ukraine, a part of the society is criticizing it. "It's a painful memory, and it was my intention to make the first step to tell the truth. The next step is a feature film where I will tell what happened inside. Babi Yar. Context is about what was around."
Loznitsa reflected on parallels with today's global geopolitical situation. "Things have not changed. We are still in the same situation. 80 years since this event, we don't know what to do when someone is getting lynched on the street. Nobody taught us. We have to study that.
"You can see it on the border of Belarus and Poland now. The whole European society doesn't know what to do about it, they don't know how to define it. The same situation was on the German-Polish border in 1930s, there is a group people between two borders, one country pushes them out and the other is not letting them in."
"It took me a long time to realize that I don't agree with the fracture that exists between history and memory," de Sousa Dias said. "Actually, chronology is not important in telling a historical story. All my films are historical but they never follow chronology. By dealing with images from different times not organized through chronology, we can bring to the surface a new view and new interpretations of the facts of the past. And what is a fact of the past? It is always a construct."
Loznitsa, known for his erudition, recognized that this is the definition of history as Herodotus put it. "It is the most correction definition of history," he said. "For historians, chronology is important but for filmmakers it isn't. In film you have to deal with other rules, like structure, dramaturgy and rhythm. This is storytelling."
The director also offered many fascinating insights on the Second World War in Ukraine and in Europe in general, especially about how many soldiers deserted from each army and why, and the panel also touched upon topics including difficulties in finding the right archive materials and the dangers of misinterpretation of such footage, and the importance of recognizing the repetitiveness of history.