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SUNDANCE 2022 Spotlight

Review: Three Minutes – A Lengthening

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- Bianca Stigter's documentary sheds light on the tragic destiny of Nasielsk's Jewish community through a short 16 mm home movie accidentally found in a closet

Review: Three Minutes – A Lengthening

Premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and co-produced by Steve McQueen, Bianca Stigter's documentary Three Minutes – A Lengthening [+see also:
trailer
interview: Bianca Stigter
film profile
]
has finally landed in the Spotlight strand of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

A complex film object difficult to define, this feature opens with a three-minute 16 mm home movie. The images are crumbling and the colours are pale throughout, but we can see some people of all ages gathering, glimpses of a small town landscape that could be anywhere in Europe, with some faces smiling, some leaving a synagogue, some other minding their own business, and that's all. As the voice-over narration tunes in – here entrusted to English star Helena Bonham Carter, who plays her part tactfully – we find out that in 2009, a man called Glenn Kurtz discovered the three minutes reel in his parent's closet in Florida. The footage was apparently shot by his grandfather David back in 1938, when on vacation in Europe. The city depicted in the home movies is Nasielsk, a Polish community predominantly inhabited by Jewish people and David’s birthplace. It's a rare document showing how the town looked like prior to Nazi occupation, which left fewer than 100 survivors following the Holocaust years.

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Audaciously, Stigter and her editor Katharina Wartena decide to play exclusively with the footage contained in the three minutes reel. Overall, the duo accomplishes the task, even though the film features creative solutions that are less successful than others. Displaying over 150 portraits one after another, giving viewers a moment to look at each one of them, and gradually placing them across nine rows is surely an elegant choice, which gives great dignity to these people's existences. It also makes justice of the film's claims, namely that "faces are traces." Keeping the blurry still picture of an unidentifiable pattern for a few minutes while the voice-over narration moves on, however, proves way less powerful and gives the film a podcast feel which may easily compromise spectators' attention threshold.

The documentary is further enriched by the presence of several direct testimonies presented by a few survivors, who also speak languages other than English, such as Polish, Yiddish and German. Their touching stories help us build a stronger empathic bond and are all worth listening to – in one of them, for example, a man explains how he managed to save his girlfriend by pretending to be a Nazi officer thanks to the coat borrowed by his anti-Hitlerian neighbour.

Towards the end, Bonham Carter and Glenn engage in a fascinating philosophical conversation about the role of images in keeping memories and identities alive, and wonder whether reels and other historic artefacts can help us to remember those who preceded us and the struggles they went through. On the whole, Stigter's documentary is a commendable creative effort and a good example of how the usage of micro-history in film – switching from general to particular – can be effective in unpacking realities behind global events – in this case, the Jewish diaspora, post-war traumas, the concentration camps, and many others.

Three Minutes – A Lengthening is a co-production between Dutch firm Family Affair Films and the UK's Lammas Park. Vienna-based outfit Autlook Film Sales is in charge of its world sales.

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