The film A search for home, an experimental documentary directed by Gillian Greenfeld, tells the story of a young woman traveling to Russia to find out about her family history. There are many aspect of the film that give it a very personal touch. As the viewer, one feels that one is traveling in and out of private and public realms along with the filmmaker. There is little sense of distance between myself as the audience and the world I am entering through the screen.
The film begins with a serious of shots that include classical art, classical music scores and views of an old city. In the background classical music is playing. The rapid transition from one image to another creates a vivid sense of movement and speed. There are also a few shots of people dancing together on a street at night. Together these shots convey the cultural flavour of another place, and the sense of traveling and distancing one’s self from home or familiarity. As the audience we adopt the filmmaker’s gaze that looks onto these events as a foreigner.
The opening sequence of scenes comes to an abrupt stop when we are introduced to the filmmaker. The shot is close-up, informal and personal and it takes place in what seems to be the kitchen of someone’s home. The way in which the filmmaker speaks to the camera is much like a visual diary or a homemade video. The quality of the image indicates that the camera is handheld. Later there is a shot of the filmmaker at the airport commenting on her trip to Moscow. The opening sequence of shots introduces the film’s subject for the audience. We know that we are watching a film about a young woman who travels to Moscow to explore her family history. However, this initial sequence is also telling because it establishes the characteristic style of the film.
The narrative style of the film is more expressive than didactic. The filmmaker doesn’t reveal for the viewer exactly where she is going, whom she is speaking to or why she is doing it. Rather, we learn about what is happening by simply watching a succession of events unfold. Some scenes are not very clearly filmed and yet they successfully evoke a sense of place, the people that are present and the time. For example, there is a scene filmed during a family dinner. At one point the image becomes blurred, the speech is almost inaudible, the movements of the camera are sweeping. Although we can’t recollect exactly what we’ve seen or what has been said the sense of being in someone’s private space, in their home, while they are having a meal, is well communicated.
Much of the story of the film is told in this manner. The viewer is left with a superficial and brief account of the filmmaker’s experience. Although shots of the music concerts, subway tunnels and trains aid in providing a cultural context, the transitions from one event to another are too scattered and spontaneous. It is difficult to discern the filmmaker’s intention because it lacks clarity. Sub-headings are used to introduce some historical contexts but they are vague and brief. The use of maps would have been helpful for the audience to relate the location of the filmmaker at the beginning of the film and her movement within Russia.
The use of flashbacks and music, such as traditional Yiddish songs, effectively situate the story in a particular time and space. But it was interesting to note that although many of the shots are taken in a personal manner (close-ups, in people’s homes), I felt very little emotional relation to the people presented in the film, including the filmmaker. This may have been because the camera only spends a short time with each person and therefore does not allow the viewer to relate at a deeper level with the people on film. The viewer isn’t exposed to the complexities of the lives of the people in the film that are necessary for emotional attachment.