Scattered among the wheat fields and forests of southern Poland are the unmarked mass graves of Roma families killed during the Nazi era.
This is History (After All) interweaves the previously unheard testimony of witnesses to these mass killings with a detailed exploration of landscape to create a deeply affecting film that oscillates between the present day and the remembered past, giving visual and aural form to the disruptive nature of traumatic memory.
Mortimer’s subjective camera probes these traumatic landscapes, forensically examining memory and place, finding a tension and resonance between the natural world and contemporary life as it rushes by. Her witnesses are unable to forget, yet have chosen until now not to talk of what they had seen. Their testimony slips between their detailed and traumatic recollection and the voices of Polish Roma children who Mortimer worked with in London, thus collapsing further the gap between past and present.
Mortimer set out to make a film about forgetting, but was confronted with a group of elderly people who could do nothing but remember, unable to move on and confronted with their traumatic memories every day. So this has become a film about memory and the impossibility of forgetting.
My intention was to make a film about forgetting. I travelled across Central Europe tracking down sites of atrocity that were unmarked and unmemorialised, interested in why society chooses to memorialise some events, but not others. I thought that the systematic lack of memorialisation of the Roma Holocaust was probably linked to the continued persecution of Roma in contemporary Europe today.
I found myself in a small area of southern Poland where Roma families had been killed by Nazi soldiers in the 1940s. Many of these families had been settled and integrated into the rural communities there. There were mass graves in forests and cemeteries, some marked, others long forgotten. I began filming and one day was approached by Janina – 70 years earlier she had witnessed the murder and burial of a group of Roma and had never told anyone. She took me to a patchy wheat field and pointed to the place where the bodies were buried. She was tormented by the memory of what she had witnessed and was desperate to tell me, feeling that a burden would be lifted from her. I went on to meet Zofia, Józef, Anna and Krystyna who had all witnessed or survived similar massacres within a ten-mile radius.
Jozef said: ‘It stuck with us for the rest of our lives… for me, this is for the rest of my life, before my eyes, that moment, everything’
So, instead of a film about forgetting, I was now confronted with a group of elderly people who could do nothing but remember. They still live next door to the mass graves that are the sites of massacres they witnessed 70 years earlier: unable to move on and confronted with their traumatic memories every day. So this has become a film about memory and the impossibility of forgetting.
CGP gallery, London. ‘Sites of Collective Memory’ Curated by Animate Projects
8th July – 10th August 2014. (continuous loop version).
Cube Gallery, Phoenix Gallery, Leicester, UK. ‘Sites of Collective Memory’ Curated by Animate Projects
5th September – 3rd October 2014
Visible Evidence XXIII, MSU, Bozeman, Montana, USA. 13th August 2016
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, UK. June 2017
Animate Projects interview with Roz
You explore the memorialised and forgotten sites of mass graves in Southern Poland. How did you come to discover their existence?
I was working on a wider project about unmemorialised sites of atrocity from the Roma Holocaust and had spent a few weeks travelling to sites in Hungary and then through Slovakia to Poland. I was aware of this cluster of villages in Poland and their history as I had been communicating with the director of the local museum, but I hadn’t planned to go there on that trip. A series of events led me there on the day before I was due to travel back to the UK. The museum director drew me maps of cemeteries on post-it-notes and I spent the day driving around photographing them. In one village I met Zofia and she took me by the hand and led me into the forest beside her house to show me the indentation in the ground that was the site of a mass grave from 1942. She was distressed and desperate to talk to me. I came back a few months later to record her story and then proceeded to meet the other people that appear in the film.
What led you to interview the five elderly villagers about their memories? How key is testimony to your work?
I’ve been working with testimony for a long time, and interviewing people is generally the starting point in my research process, although I don’t always use the testimony in the final work. Going through the process of interviewing people is about paying attention, not only to what people say, but how and why they say things. When the people I interviewed in Poland started to talk, the emotion was evident in their words and gestures. Four of them were telling their stories for the first time. They felt a responsibility to the people who had been killed, and it was literally as if they were handing that responsibility to me. I didn’t go out to Central Europe to meet people, I went to film landscapes. But I did meet people and they told me things that I wasn’t expecting to hear and for some of them, telling me had an impact on their lives.
How did you employ animation in the film to add to the atmosphere of the piece?
I used digital interventions to suggest a both a sense of the uncanny in these places and to create temporal disruptions. I wanted to quite literally stretch the skin of the film – stretching time and also stretching the reliability of the image. The manipulations I’ve made to the landscapes are quite subtle. Its about giving the resonant emotion of the events and their traumatic legacy a visual and aural form and it became about communicating something of the emotional and bodily experience at those sites – for the witnesses, for me and for the viewer.
Why did you decide to incorporate the written word into sections of the work?
Each person’s narrative has three voices: their present-day voice where they are mainly telling how they feel now; the voice describing what they witnessed as children which I re-voiced with Polish Roma children; and the voice that is in text form. This last voice-as-text is used in two ways – it allowed me to present a more internalised, spectral and thoughtful voice, but I also used it to pull us as viewers out of our objective engagement with the interviewees – to give some breathing space.
You worked with young Roma people in the UK on the voiceover. What inspired this?
I worked with Roma children and young people in London to re-voice the sections of testimony where the witnesses describe what they had actually seen 70 years ago. I wanted to create a temporal shift – to not only visually place the memory at the exact location, but to also place them there at the age they were when they witnessed. It helps us as viewers too, to understand the impact witnessing these violent events has had on them. As part of the process of making the film we held a public event in London last year where I showed some of the interviews I had recorded. Lots of London-based Roma turned up and participated. It was through this event and their engagement with what I was doing that working with the Roma children became possible. It was important to me that the film wasn’t just about the past – similar things are still happening today across Central Europe – so involving the young people was a way of bringing the conversation into the present.