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Jewish Journal

Home movies reveal cultural history of SoCal Jews

by Jonathan Maseng

April 4, 2012 | 2:39 pm

Sol Kreisler with his fiancée, Winifred, on a date in the wildflowers in the California desert near Bakersfield, 1941. Photo courtesy of the Labyrinth Project

Sol Kreisler with his fiancée, Winifred, on a date in the wildflowers in the California desert near Bakersfield, 1941. Photo courtesy of the Labyrinth Project

Home movies have long played an important role in the lives of American Jews. Backyard barbecues, baby namings, bar mitzvahs — few are the events that haven’t been captured on film by the Jewish parent or grandparent. Home movies contain our memories, our inside jokes, our first steps, but for the people behind a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center, they contain something far grander: history.

For Marsha Kinder, the director of USC’s Labyrinth Project, home movies offer a glimpse into the world of our past, both personal and communal. “The idea that you participate in making history, and that history is an ongoing process, that’s what we really hope to emphasize,” said Kinder, sitting in the lobby of the Skirball on a recent Monday morning. 

When Kinder started the Labyrinth Project in 1997, she hoped to use new media and technology to help bring history alive. Among her collaborators was the noted Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács, who was known for his use of home movies in his work. Together, they created an exhibition for the Getty in 2002, called “Danube Exodus,” incorporating amateur footage from a captain who helped ferry Jewish refugees down the Danube to the Black Sea in the 1930s.

“We were influenced by Péter in terms of the value of home movies, because that’s what he specializes in,” Kinder said. Fogács’ use of amateur footage intrigued Kinder. If home movies could be used to illuminate the history of European Jews, how could they help shine light on the lives of Jews in California? 

“We actually started talking about and planning this in 2006,” Kinder said of the project that would become “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage.” “We had a really good board, and any plan we made, we ran it through them.” 

But turning the idea into reality took time. First, there was the problem of getting funding. Once that was accomplished, the real work needed to be done. They needed home movies, and so they advertised. They put notices in The Jewish Journal and other places, asking people to bring their home movies in for a special selection day. “We had it at USC, and we had all the projectors there, and you could just come and show whatever you had,” Kinder said. Some of the movies were good, and some were blurry and boring, but in the end they found the material that became “Homegrown History.”

The main films in the exhibit are projected on three screens, which work in concert to deliver an immersive experience. While one screen displays images from a home movie, another might show a quote from one of the film’s subjects, or an entirely different image from the sequence.  The topics of the films range from intermarriage to growing up in a Hollywood family, to vacationing at Murrieta Hot Springs.

“Increasingly ... our generations ... we’re relying so much on the visual as a mode of history,” Kinder said. “We’ve been very interested in how we use multimedia and archival materials to dramatize these projects.”

For Kinder, the idea of showing the interaction of Jews and other ethnic minorities in Southern California through home videos was very appealing. Included are home movies from a family that was part Mexican and part Jewish, and a piece on the melting pot of Boyle Heights. “A lot of these films documented the relationship between the Jewish community and other ethnic communities,” Kinder said.

The idea of cross-cultural experience definitely appealed to Skirball director Robert Kirschner. “It speaks to the larger audience that the Skirball engages,” Kirschner said, “because we have for many years now realized that the Jewish story we tell here is also a broader story of the American experience of a pluralistic society, one that values equality and freedom and dignifies the various ethnicities and ancestries and faith communities that make America the flourishing society it is.”

And while Kirschner likes the exhibition’s use of touch screens and interactive media as an interface, he’s also aware that museums are merely catching up to the world at large in that regard. “Tablets and laptops are ubiquitous these days. ... I think, for us, it’s the content that’s compelling,” Kirschner said. “The Skirball Cultural Center is all about the American-Jewish experience ... because this project speaks so directly to that experience and also grounds it locally ... that makes a very obvious and significant connection to our purposes as an institution.”

It all boils down to building a stronger connection between us and our very real, now visible, past, Kinder explained. Like many Jews, she says she regrets never having asked her grandparents more questions. Many of the contributors to the exhibition had never even seen their home movies before bringing them in to USC for the collection day. “That’s the thing; they’re in a box,” hidden away. Now the Labyrinth Project is bringing them into the light.

But the work is far from done. “We hope to add others of these, what we call homegrown movies ... for example [from] the Jewish and the Korean community,” said Kinder. “We also haven’t found the Iranian-Jewish home movies.”

More than anything, Kinder hopes people will “walk away with a sense that their own heritage is really important.” And if “Homegrown History” proves anything, it’s that one person’s home movies are another person’s treasure.

“Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage” continues at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 2. “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage” continues at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 2. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.skirball.org/exhibitions/jewish-homegrown-history.

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