Future Is Behind Us By Anita Piotrowska

in 51th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival

by Anita Piotrowska

At first sight The Future Is Behind You looks like a traditional documentary – especially set against other Oberhausen films that seemed conceived for art spaces rather than the movie theatre. Abigail Child, the director of the film, follows the stylistic precedent of such artists as Hungarian director Péter Forgács, who in his most famous film The Danube Exodus (1999) brilliantly edited old black-and-white footage to evoke the spirit of the past and show us the human dimension of history. But the similarity is only superficial. In Child’s film a fictional story composed of images from an anonymous family film archive shot during the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Austria, found years later in New York, brings a completely new quality to the issue. It would seem to refer to the turbulent history of millions Jewish families suffering through the hell of the Holocaust. But even the title itself is ambiguous, and provokes a search for additional meanings and contexts.

On the one hand the phrase The Future Is Behind You sounds fatalistic. All the plans and prospects, everything these individuals had dreamed of disappeared completely and irreversibly in the blink of time. But the film goes deeper, questioning the very concept of time – as the simple and logical sequence of past, present and future. The story of two half-Jewish sisters’ adolescence – their life captured in its beautiful and carefree moments – seems to be suspended in time, at once remote and familiar. The fictional dialogue laid over the ‘mute’ film material – the words sometimes ill-fitting the characters’ lips movement – is certainly jarring for the viewer, but prompts a deeper anxiety as well. The story put forward as one of the girl’s diary (made up by the director, but enriched with quotations from Victor Klemperer’s writings and the US Patriot Act) is in fact only one guess at a story whose truth we will never know. Everything seems to be possible. And the only thing we can be sure of is the ending: death, separation, exile. ‘Does the camera always invite goodbye?’ asks the narrator.

In this uneasy and hypnotic film, the gaze of the unknown filmmaker from the past focusses on the awakening of the girls’ sexuality, too. But the contemporary director uses this voyeuristic aspect of her found material not to show us the evident piquancy of the old images. She stresses the problem of femininity, lost innocence and gender. In a very subtle way she suggests the lesbian attitude between girls. And we know that the main victims of fascist killing machine were first of all Jews, but also homosexuals and other ‘strangers’.

What makes the film so exceptional is how it rethinks history through the multilayered and innovative narration and creative editing, taking us face to face with individuals trapped in and by history. What’s most surprising is how all the perfect elements of this film – its corrected footage, the fluent rhythm, the intriguing soundtrack with the haunting music written by John Zorn – make the film tragic but sometimes also very playful. But Abigail Child achieved something more. Watching The Future Is Behind You , the viewer may have a strong and strange impression that he is also being watched by the people from the screen. This suggested reversal of roles and permanent questioning of our comfortable role as the audience opens up some interesting discussions – on the role of film in understanding the nature of time, on our place in history, our attitude towards memory, on the secret communication between people of different generations. Finding all that in a documentary merely 18 minutes long is saying a lot.