Review: “Three Minutes: A Lengthening”

Note: this film played on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.

The first thing we see is three minutes of silent home-movie footage.

No voiceover, no music, no sound effects. Even if we know that what we are seeing is the Jewish inhabitants of a small pre-war Polish town jostling to see and be seen by a visitor’s movie camera, we’re not given any details yet. We just observe it, silently, in its entirety.

An mere hour and 10 minutes later, we feel like we know this village, and these people. And we viscerally feel their loss. Three Minutes: A Lengthening is profound, engaging, gripping, and heartbreaking.

The documentary,  draws incredible meaning and emotion out of the simplest details of daily life, and suspense and drama out of the process of discovering some of those precious details. Since these people were deliberately obliterated, their very identity depends on the fragile memories of scarce survivors (heard in voiceover) and on the detective-like analysis of small details within the frames of the film itself a la Antonioni’s Blow Up. Even the identity of the town itself rested on noticing a carved lion on a synagogue door. And the process of trying to identify the name of the owner of the little grocery store by studying the grainy, almost-impossible-to-read letters of their name on the store’s sign leads to a moment that, for me, was incredibly emotional: a formerly nameless person’s identity rescued from oblivion.

We never see anything other than the film itself – yet it is endlessly fascinating. The vibrant faces of eager and mischievous children, intrigued adults and elders. The little details not noticed at first but deeply significant once pointed out. Homing in on details and people, running the film backwards and forwards; culminating in the most solemn sequence,  as we hear the story of what happened to these people a year later, while the camera zooms slowly, relentlessly, deeper and deeper into a still frame of the town square. As it becomes an abstract pattern, the words describing what happened in that square chill us.

Deeply thoughtful, technically impeccable, emotionally powerful, and a testament to the vibrant lives and communities snuffed out by the Holocaust, Three Minutes: A Lengthening defies its cryptic title to reveal a brilliant film, and an experience more moving than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening is available for streaming on several online services.

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