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The Visual Center

Films and the Holocaust

Memory in Motion: The Holocaust, Memory and Video Dance
by Liat Benhabib

Scene from Sarah (1999) Scene from Sarah (1999)

When words are inadequate, the human body and the language of dance may be employed to tell stories and to transmit emotional content. American avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist Maya Deren referred to dance on film as “choreography for the camera.” The Toronto-based Kaeja d’Dance company uses both the stage and video dance to investigate the representation of the Holocaust and the how it is remembered.   Two of their video dance productions, Zummel  (7 minutes, 1999) and Sarah (6 minutes, 1999), were screened in May 2006 at Vdance, Israel’s first video dance festival, held at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, and at a seminar at Yad Vashem’s Visual Center.

Kaeja d’Dance director and choreographer Allen Kaeja and his partner, dancer–choreographer Karen Kaeja, collaborated with film director Mark Adam on seven video dance productions based on the life story of Allen Kaeja’s father, a Holocaust survivor from Kutno, Poland.  “The dances captured on film can preserve the integrity of both art forms — dance and film — and imbue them with historical significance,” explains Karen Kaeja. Allen Kaeja adds: “There is an enormous responsibility and challenge in expressing Holocaust remembrance: to represent images of loss, betrayal, uncertainty, desperation, determination and necessity without becoming melodramatic or falling into recognized patterns of expression or clichés.”

The screening at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque generated a discussion about the use of images from the Holocaust embedded in collective memory, but re-processed through the languages of dance and film.  Dr. Gideon Ofrat pointed out the relationship between Kaeja d’Dance’s films and Yad Vashem’s purpose:  “Yad Vashem’s mission is to document, to remember, to educate… but also to mourn through symbols.  A monument is a metaphor.  But the greatness of a metaphor lies in its openness to the viewer’s interpretation. Zummel can be seen as a reflection of the human condition.  Zummels context is the Holocaust, but at the same time, by use of metaphor, it is art that transcends its context, thereby moving into the existential domain.”

Yad Vashem Directorate Chairman Avner Shalev reviewed the change that took place at the end of the twentieth century in Holocaust representation, historical research and visual documentation: “Documentation of the atrocities at Bergen-Belsen began immediately after the camp’s liberation. The American miniseries Holocaust and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List also exemplify the great influence the visual medium has had on efforts to document the Holocaust and to perpetuate its memory.  Today we stand at a crossroads, where nothing is certain, and we cannot know how the Holocaust will be remembered in another fifty years. Will it continue to live within us, as the 'raw material' of our personal and collective identities? Monumental historical narratives and visual clichés cannot shape consciousness by themselves. In the postmodern era, it is art that has the power to connect people to meaningful personal experiences that enable us to cope with the Holocaust and its memory.”

The author is Director of Yad Vashem’s Visual Center. The program was prepared with the assistance of Vdance Festival Director Avi Feldman, and the Visual Center’s Coordinator of Acquisitions & Special Projects, Mimi Ash.
English: Mimi Ash

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