When Archive Material and Memories Come Alive: Every Face Has a Name

in 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Kirsten Kieninger

April 28th 1945: a ship arrives in the harbour of Malmö. March 15th 1943: a train leaves Thessaloniki. On the train leaving are Jews being deported to Auschwitz; on the ship arriving are survivors liberated from concentration camps.

March 15h 2015: a silent march commemorating the 72nd anniversary of the first forced deportations to Auschwitz takes place in Thessaloniki. March 18th 2015: the film Every Face Has a Name has its international premiere at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. March 21st 2015: a peaceful demonstration against racism and neo-Nazis moves through Aristotelous Square in the afternoon. On the same evening in Olympion Cinema on Aristotelous Square the closing ceremony of the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival takes place and the FIPRESCI Prize for best international picture among the films which premiered at the festival is awarded to Every Face Has a Name. And in a way the festival in Thessaloniki, with the commemoration of historic moments happening in the streets, really felt like the perfect place and time for a film like this. But of course that wasn’t the reason why the FIPRESCI jury decided to bestow the award upon that film.

Every Face Has a Name, by Swedish director Magnus Gertten, succeeds in bringing archival material to life, and at the same time manages to record and share memories that otherwise would vanish unnoticed. The director already worked with the archive material used in Every Face Has a Name (e.g.: the ship arriving at Malmö harbour) in a previous movie called Harbour of Hope (Hoppets Hamn), which was released in 2011. At one of the screenings an old lady recognized herself on the screen. From that experience, work on Every Face Has a Name began. Gertten managed to track down several people whose names were on the passenger lists. He visited them and showed them the archival material. The moments when they discover themselves or their mothers in the crowd at the harbour are truly touching.

The film succeeds in bringing old archival material to life, the kind of black-and-white film clips that we’ve seen a lot and never paid much attention to, some people from the past, moving around in silent shots. But here it is, on the big screen, in 4K high resolution, delivered with a complex but subtle sound design, and suddenly the pictures from the past feel vivid. This effect, combined with the stories the protagonists tell about their experiences and how they felt back then, makes all the difference. Anonymous faces become individuals that have a story to tell.

Another time, another place, another boat: refugees reaching Sicily. Gertten and editor Jesper Osmund use these contemporary shots interspersed in the film to make a deeply human statement. At first one might think, “How dare you compare Holocaust survivors with refugees from civil war and conflict areas?” But on second thought, these people, these anonymous faces that we see in the evening news, are also individuals. They also have names–and a story to tell which might be worth listening to.

Edited by José Teodoro