Judge Jonathan Weiss says that this is not just another Holocaust documentary.
A history of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust.
Image Before My Eyes is a respected documentary that was originally released in 1981. This DVD is the 25th Anniversary Special Edition, and without seeing any other editions (most likely on VHS or even Beta) it's hard to know exactly what makes this edition so special other than a filmmaker's commentary. Still, that's nitpicking. This is not a documentary that's going to stand out and be judged on all the bells and whistles—instead, it has to be judged on its content, its heart, and the stories it tells. Especially when you consider that the generation it should be trying to connect with, namely secular Jewish high school and maybe even junior high school aged kids, are so removed from these events, and so assimilated into the melting pot that is North America, that the mere thought of being recognized, segregated, and even vilified for being Jewish is a completely foreign paranoid induced concept.
Will Image Before My Eyes resonate with them in the same way it would their grandparents? Of course not. However, if it manages to capture their attention long enough to consider their heritage as well as their connection to it, whether it be a religion-based connection or otherwise, then Image Before My Eyes stops being a relic of some long ago forgotten time and instead becomes a living and breathing legacy of a people and a place that no longer exist.
Facts of the Case
Using a combination of old footage, photography and current (as of 1980) interviews, Image Before My Eyes explores all facets of Jewish life throughout Poland between the First and Second World Wars.
The experience of watching Image Before My Eyes is one of familiarity. It feels very much like the kind of filmstrip students would watch in grade school—from the style of narration used all the way down to its chapter headings. Maybe a progressive thinking teacher brings it in and with the help of the one TV and the one VCR available to be signed out from the AV Department, shows it as some kind of precursor to a larger lesson. Or maybe the school calls for a special day (the kind that needed a parent's note) and presents it on a larger scale in the auditorium. This isn't mentioned as a slight—if anything, it adds an even more nostalgic note to an already nostalgic film.
Going into it, one has the tendency to expect the worst. Not of the film, but of the subject matter. Maybe it's the tagline: A History of Jewish Life Before the Holocaust. You see that word "Holocaust" and instantly certain kinds of imagery, emotions, and expectations bubble up to the surface. However, in this case, the emphasis should be placed on the word before as opposed to Holocaust. Sure there's documentation dealing with the prevailing face of anti-Semitism as it begins to build to its boiling point, but that's where the story ends. In fact, what was most surprising about Image Before My Eyes was just how not depressing it is.
This is a documentary that is intent on celebrating life, not mourning it. Jewish life in Poland between the two World Wars was very much like Jewish life anywhere else—in other words, people, who happen to be Jewish, living their lives as best they could. Their traditions and beliefs were different, as was their food, their music, and for some of the older generation, their language, but otherwise they were just "regular folks" trying to get by. Some were orthodox; some were complete atheists; most were somewhere in between.
The most enlightening element of this documentary is just how completely and utterly different a group of supposedly homogeneous people can be. This probably wouldn't be much of a revelation if this film was about any other group of people—but when it comes to the Jews, especially the European Jews from the early part of the twentieth century, the image that many people conjure up in their mind's eye (both Jews and non-Jews alike), is a white beard, a black fur hat, and a black ankle-length frock coat.
Where Image Before My Eyes excels is in changing that perception without hitting you over the head with it. It doesn't have to. By showing the footage it does and by relaying the stories of those interviewed therein, you can't help but have your eyes opened to not just a specific time and place but also to the myriad of differing experiences and opinions among a divergent group of people all placed under the exact same label of Judaism.
The sheer quantity of such quality film footage and still photography makes Image Before My Eyes truly remarkable. Without it, it's doubtful this film would ever have been made. The interviews appear to be shot on video and now look extremely dated (and not in a good way, like the rest of the footage). The content of those interviews, however, are timeless. Director and editor Joshua Walensky provides the included commentary track. Though there are plenty of quiet moments, there's enough interesting background information into both the interview subjects as well as the process through which this documentary was made to make it worthwhile listening. The only criticism that can be levied against Image Before My Eyes goes towards the aforementioned narrator. Her reading of the text is calm and perfectly enunciated but it just sounds too much like a public service announcement for saving the wetlands.
The fact that the DVD also includes an extensive study guide makes it pretty clear that the filmmaker hopes Image Before My Eyes can be used as a learning tool. After watching it, there's no question that it can. However, unless it is part of an established curriculum or its subject matter is of a particular interest, it's doubtful that it would catch the attention of a young student browsing the aisles of his or her local movie rental place. And that is really a shame because unless a documentary like this is seen, heard, and witnessed, then this incredible footage and these forthcoming interviews might as well have been lost and forgotten to the annals of time.
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