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The Silent Village

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Planet Issue 198
Ffotogallery’s recent exhibition and publication The Silent Village presented a fascinating exploration of atrocity, memory and place. Curated by Russell Roberts of the University of Wales, Newport, The Silent Village not only offered an opportunity to revisit the work of filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, but also provided a rich platform for contemporary responses from artists Peter Finnemore and Paulo Ventura, and writer Rachel Trezise.

When Humphrey Jennings went to Cwmgïedd in the Upper Swansea Valley in 1942 to make a short wartime film, there can be no doubt that he wanted to make one that would move its audience and forcibly highlight the plight of the Czechoslovakian mining village of Lidice. Following the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the German Deputy Reichprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia by the Czech resistance, the Nazis obliterated the village. The production of Jennings’ film The Silent Village was underway within weeks of the tragedy in which 173 men and boys were shot, 196 women were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, and 105 children were deported for ‘racial review’. This film, which had been supported by the Ministry of Information, is the core around which Ffotogallery’s exhibition and publication unfolded.

For twenty-first century viewers the film provides both a reconstruction of the tragedy at Lidice and a portrait of life in Wales in the early 1940s. By projecting the unfolding events of the Czech village onto the fabric of a Welsh one, the film drew the British imagination to consider the potential loss of liberty and death during wartime. In establishing a sense of place and community, Jennings’ film initially deployed familiar images of industrial Welsh life including chapel, colliery and pub. The villagers enact aspects of everyday life establishing theirs as a community that is hard working, family-centred, thoughtful and proud of its distinctive culture. The inclusion of the Welsh language as a core feature of village life is later used through its suppression to signify how the Nazis sought to impose cultural dominance. In his essay for the exhibition ‘In the Wake of Lidice’, film historian David Berry suggests the film was “propaganda with a velvet glove”. He points out that Jennings’ surrealist use of metaphor allowed the suggestion of a looming menace, whilst keeping the Nazis at “arms length” [1]. The notion of an invisible enemy that seeks to control through terror will be familiar to current viewers – no doubt the film’s wartime audience would have been moved by the projection of a faceless tyranny on its homeland.

Peter Finnemore’s black and white photographic series ‘Everyday’ resonates with the film’s sense of place, memory and loss. Taken at his family home in the Gwendraeth Valley, the photographs also add the dimension of extended time, sometimes literally through pets blurred by the use of slow shutter speeds, most often through the documentation of patina on walls, carpets and furniture. As in the film, such glimpses suggest collective memories, only here they are punctuated by highly personal ones such old shirts neatly hanging on a clothes rail, or a mattress in a bedroom no longer used. There is also another pointed layer here, which is less overt in the Jennings film, which deals with the ability of imagery to trigger memory. Finnemore’s photograph of an old camera sitting on the mantelpiece conjures up the notion of captured birthdays and holiday trips embodying the warm glow around which a family gathers. This romance is shattered in his accompanying video piece ‘Shadow Maker’ in which archival footage of Reinhard Heydrich squinting through the viewfinder of a stills camera is looped and slowed down. In his essay ‘Spectral Images’, Russell Roberts remarks, “we are not sure what he is recording… a fraction of a second expanded to become a ranging narrative on the literal and the symbolic power of photography as social ritual and as a corollary of the gun” [2]. Those familiar with Peter Finnemore’s work over the last decade or so may be inclined to feel that his work for this exhibition is his strongest yet. In comparison, ‘Dead Village’ by Paulo Ventura, with its photographs of model constructions, seems less compelling and somehow adrift from the corpus of the exhibition. Roberts comments that Ventura’s contribution, “deliberately treads the fine line between history, horror and kitsch” [3]. Whilst not without value, it arguably strays too close the latter.

In ‘A Child called Lidice’, Rhondda born Rachel Trezise uses her wryly humorous short story set in the 1960s to examine constructs of memory and belonging. Belia Bevan, a pregnant daughter of German refugees, joins her Welsh husband at The Plaza cinema and watches The Silent Village. The film triggers a suppressed childhood memory of a time before her family fled Germany for Britain. This striking story of Belia’s realisation that she is a child of Lidice, concludes with the revelation that her refugee father was a former SS officer who had taken her into his family as part of an assimilation programme. She subsequently rejects her ‘parents’ for the tyranny they represent and names her newborn daughter Lidice. For many of us who grew up in Wales as sons or daughters of Second World War refugees this story can be both poignant and troubling. It is a fascinating contemporary response to the film and splendidly cross-references issues developed in other contributions to the exhibition.

Ffotogallery’s The Silent Village provided an intelligent and nuanced exploration of the events at Lidice and the acts of commemoration that followed it. The richness of rendering and layering in the exhibition offered a pertinent reconsideration of how authenticity can reside in the spaces between reality and construction. The Silent Village publication (three volumes in a slip case) is a noteworthy index to this multifaceted exhibition. Russell Roberts’ overview eloquently guides the reader through the contemporary work without imposition, whilst David Berry’s essay fully contextualises the earlier film and its importance in prolonging the ‘historical moment’ of Lidice. The sense of loss emanating from The Silent Village is made all the more tangible in light of deaths of both David Berry and Peter Finnemore’s father during the period leading up to its presentation.

[1] BERRY, D. 2010. In the Wake of Lidice In: The Silent Village. Cardiff: Ffotogallery (p47)
[2] ROBERTS, R. 2010. Spectral Images In: The Silent Village. Cardiff: Ffotogallery (p20)
[3] Ibid. (p19)

© Paul Cabuts 2010