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Yael Hersonski: Unraveling the truth

Women's Impact Report: Femme Filmmakers

By invigorating a familiar film genre, Tel Aviv-based documentary helmer Yael Hersonski accomplished the seemingly impossible with her feature debut, “A Film Unfinished.” The documentary examines life in the Warsaw Ghetto using contemporary footage shot by the Nazis in 1942, most likely for propaganda purposes. Since WWII, the silent B&W imagery has been seen in countless docus and presented as reality. But Hersonski delves into the significance of these so-called historical images to reveal greater truths, awakening viewers and, in some ways, bringing them closer to the horror behind these staged scenes.

The 34-year-old Hersonski began the project initially as an essay; her intent was to discuss the footage, long considered as objective reality but in fact made from the point-of-view of the German captors.

“These images have entered our collective memory as truth,” contends Hersonski. “I felt it was important to understand our limits as viewers and to understand what kind of reality we can view from images,” she explains. Spurring on her work was the eventual prospect that no living survivors of the Holocaust will remain.

In “A Film Unfinished,” Hersonski uses commentary of Jewish Warsaw Ghetto survivors as counterpoint to the staged Nazi-shot footage. Glimpses of the camera crew directing action, as well as a reel of outtakes, confirms the fraud. In peeling away the film’s superficiality, Hersonski was struck by the combination of lies and truth in the 1942 images. “The people filmed were real people,” she says. “Prisoners inside the Warsaw Ghetto, they were manipulated into these events by filmmakers, and their gazes are their testimony.”

A graduate of Israel’s Sam Spiegel Film & TV School, Hersonski has worked as a TV editor since 2003. Among “A Film Unfinished’s” 2010 festival awards: the World Cinema doc editing prize at Sundance, the international feature nod at Hot Docs and the WGA screenplay kudo at Silverdocs, plus two at the Jerusalem Intl. Film Festival, which she considered her toughest audience. Gotham’s Oscilloscope Laboratories is distributing.

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