Expanding Three Minutes of History
See NL talks to Bianca Stigter about her new documentary Three Minutes - A Lengthening that world premieres at Venice 2021
Three minutes of pre-WW2 home footage, showing the Jewish inhabitants of the Polish town of Nasielsk, are analysed, re-analysed and then analysed again in Bianca Stigter’s extraordinary debut documentary, world-premiering in Venice at Giornate Degli Autori as a Special Event. The film is produced by Family Affair Films and executive produced by Steve McQueen. Director Stigter talks to SEE NL.
Ok, Bianca Stigter has previous form in film production, having associate-produced Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and Widows, but she is not a filmmaker as such, or at least not until now, but on the basis of her debut film Three Minutes – A Lengthening, she really should consider it as a future calling.
Stigter is a former film critic, also possessing of a strong background in historical research, who, back in 2015, was asked to make a 20-minute video essay as part of Rotterdam IFFR’s Critics’ Choice program. She agreed to the suggestion as she already had the germ of an idea in her head.
“I had seen a post called 'Three Minutes in Poland’ on Facebook. It sounded intriguing and interesting, and I clicked on it,” she says of footage that was shot by US-based emigré David Kurtz in 1938. Kurtz was born in the town of Nasielsk and decided to take a major detour and visit his birthplace while on a grand tour of Europe that also included France, Switzerland and the UK. “So I watched it and had the idea, would not it be great if you could make it last longer to keep these people present for longer than just three minutes. For us really this was the starting point.” Needless to say, given that Poland was invaded by the Nazis the following year, the majority of the people seen in the Nasielsk footage would be dead within a few years.
By way of reference Stigter was able to access the meticulously researched ‘Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film,’ a book written by Kurtz’s grandson Glenn after he discovered the reel of film in the attic of the family home in Florida. She contacted him and he further contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to whom he had donated the film.
Stigter found the process of making the short film highly stimulating and always knew there was a feature documentary to be made from the material. So in 2016 she set about doing so.
Within Kurtz's footage, two minutes of which are in colour, we continuously see crowds of curious people filling the frame, quite often kids looking straight into the camera, and remaining in frame as the camera pans left and right. It seems obvious that the cameraman is really more interested in shooting the town’s buildings, hence the kids’ positioning low in the frame, but soon they are given the camera’s full attention. We see lots of exterior shots such as the doors of the bustling synagogue, outside which can be seen elders and Orthodox Jews who are not so enamoured of the camera’s presence.
Following a similar editorial line to the book, the film works as a piece of intricate detective work in which the answers to key questions are sought, most notably the actual locations within the footage and the identities of some of the characters we see.
Stigter undertakes additional research, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to plug gaps in her and our knowledge. She commissioned a lip-reader specializing in Polish-Yiddish to try and understand what was being said on screen, but to no avail. Likewise, botanists were unable to identify the fuzzy red flowers on the window sills. But after painstaking work undertaken by Polish researcher Katarzyna Kacprzakshe was able to identify the name on a sign above a shop, that of Mme Ratuwska, the grocer, thereby identifying one of the characters we see on screen.
All the time we are made aware of the terrible and brutal fate of the townsfolk, although we hear testimony from a handful of survivors, such as Maurice Chandler (whom we see as a boy in the film) who escaped the town and survives the rest of the war in Poland using false papers. The film was made very much with an international audience in mind, given the huge US and worldwide interest in the subject matter, and the fact that the footage is stored in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. The narration is therefore in English and delivered in crystal tones by British actress Helena Bonham Carter.
“The challenge of the film for me was not so much finding the information, because that had been done by Glenn [Kurtz] already, but how to connect the information to the images, and how can I make the images hold your attention for more than an hour of watching the same thing all the time,” says director Stigter of her production process.
“I am a historian by training, so I am always looking for different ways to tell history as more than just a monograph that stays on the shelf.”
Three Minutes – A Lengthening is produced by Family Affair Films (NL) in co-production with Lammas Park (UK) and has been supported by the Netherlands Film Fund. Sales are handled by Autlook.