The first three minutes and 33 seconds of “Three Minutes – A Lengthening” are presented without comment, with only the whirring sound of celluloid being unspooled as accompaniment, leaving the eye to wander around the frame without guidance. The black-and-white images of a town aren’t particularly striking at first glance with people talking to one another and generally going about their daily lives, but without context, why something is of interest becomes as curious as what attracts your interest and not a second sooner than when that intrigue could fade, director Bianca Stigter provides that background to what you’re seeing — footage from 1938 shot by David Kurtz, a resident of Nasielsk, a small town in Poland where the predominantly Jewish community were threatened to be wiped off the map during the impending Nazi Occupation.
Inspired in part by the book written by Kurtz’s son Glenn, who first learned of the footage sitting in Palm Beach, Florida in 2009, the film uses only the 3:33 of film stock in something of a loop for its 69-minute duration, but Stigter roams about the frames, pushing in and pulling back and slowing down and speeding up, considering what the collection of images mean on a granular level, but never at the expense of seeing the larger picture. Although the importance of the footage now is made immediately clear, “Three Minutes – A Lengthening” is revelatory in terms of pointing audiences to look for things that might typically go unnoticed, drawing on Glenn’s own investigation to confirm the film’s provenance as various clues in the footage from the position of the clouds in the sky, ascertained by the Meteorological Institute of Warsaw, and a sign above a local grocery were all that was left to locate a place that otherwise had been lost to the sands of time.
The history itself is devastating, but Stigter recognizes a tragedy still unfolding in how fragile the stock it’s printed on is, threatened by erosion due to vinegar syndrome and the lack of places willing and able to preserve it. No less than Helena Bonham Carter is on hand to ask pointed questions about what the loss of original source material will mean for generations to come, considering the ability to alter the basis for accepted fact or even letting it slip from the record completely and as the footage in “Three Minutes” asks audiences to look deeper into the frame as it repeats itself, the film deepens when to have a greater understanding of everything that it holds is to comprehend what could be lost. Rather than grow wearisome, the dogged interrogation of seeing the same frames over and over again, taking into account what colors fade from them first and how the accumulation of details makes them more vivid even after the print itself starts to lose its luster, yields an appreciation for how close one can still get to the past and yet so perilously close to losing our connection to it.
“Three Minutes: A Lengthening” will screen at the Venice Film Festival as part of the Giornate Degli Autori on September 4th at 11:30 am at Sala Perla.