In Papirosen, Gastón Solnicki traces back the genealogy of his family, Jews who fled Poland for Argentina in the ’40s, by putting together Super 8 and VHS-looking images from the past and slick HD footage from the present with the help of his grandmother’s oral account. There’s a bit of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell in this clashing of aesthetic qualities where home video is transformed into, or outed as, a kind of cryogenically preserved museum of unarticulated affection. But Solnicki’s film is much less calculated than Polley’s. Its logic and rhythm are much closer to a Pedro Costa film, where not all shots seem inevitable, some actually seem gratuitous, and the audience is asked to witness much more than it’s asked to feel.
Another obvious comparison would be Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, but whereas Caouette’s family history is etched through lots of textual explanation and visual-effects affectation, Solnicki’s title cards are more obscure than explanatory. He never calls attention to his authorial presence as he observes the drama of the everyday: Someone is always mad at someone else for the pettiest reasons. Kinship here is maintained by a constant, and loud, articulation of everyone’s unhappiness. Someone takes too long shopping, a child’s pacifier gets lost, someone’s marriage has failed. Whatever the reason, the people in Papirosen actually speak their dissatisfactions into being (the father describes her daughter’s relationship troubles as “an endless wake”). This isn’t true of Stories We Tell and Tarnation, for instance, where it’s as though Polley and Caouette were the only ones in their families willing to break their distinctly North American silence and force the repressed to return cinematically.
A filmmaker engaging in ethnographies of the self such as these can occupy a rather perverse position as he or she rummages through delicate stories never before told so publicly and, in many ways, hijacks their meaning away from the hands of other family members in order to make his or her movie. Solnicki avoids such gaucheness to be so evident in Papirosen by effacing his physical self from his own self-ethnography and by avoiding to choose protagonists. His mapping out his family’s narrative from within never feels exploitative or self-absorbed. While Polley tried to straighten out secrets and lies in Stories We Tell, and Tarnation somatized the schizophrenia of its very subject (Caouette’s mother), Parpirosen offers us simplicity and contemplation as a form of inquiry.