Babyn Yar in Kyiv is the infamous site of the massacre of 33,771 Jews, murdered over two days in 1941, during Nazi occupation. In February, 2022, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Fund announced an open competition for a new “masterplan”, calling for a radical rethinking of the site, including designs for new memorials, a museum dedicated to the Holocaust, and landscape design for the surrounding park. Two weeks later, Russia invaded and Babyn Yar was bombed. The destruction of Kyiv forced the organizers to indefinitely suspend the competition.

Initially, we began working on an application to the open competition because, as artists and humanities scholars, we are interested in interrogating acts of representation in relation to history, race, and memory. But Ari also has a personal connection to Babyn Yar. Jewish Ukrainian members of his family were murdered near Babyn Yar during yet another heinous chapter in the history of the site: the pogroms that accompanied the Russian revolution and subsequent Civil War, a rash of violence in 1919-1920 that left over one hundred thousand Jews dead.

When the competition closed and it became impossible to visit the site in person, we realized there is an opportunity to make a documentary film, one in which a critical engagement with the history of Babyn Yar that can reach a far wider audience. The thesis of Memorial’s Undoing is that memorializing spaces evoke remembrance through a sacralization that, while extremely powerful, draws power from hard delineations between past and present, the tragic and the mundane, victims and monsters, unthinkable horror and our quotidian experiences. The event memorialized is distanced from our present experience, when in fact, not only the trauma, but the conditions of possibility that enabled the Holocaust are still with us. The film poses several critical questions: what would memorializing space look like without sacralization, without an impermeable barrier separating the then and now? Indeed, could a space for remembrance be centered around precisely the transgression of that barrier? Could a memorial instead act as a corridor that brings past to present, undoing the conditions of memorialization? Ultimately, the film envisions forms of memorial that would be, paradoxically, a kind of anti-memorial: mobile rather than fixed, ephemeral rather than permanent; prosaic rather than monumental.

The film explores these questions via dialogue between ourselves, artists, memorial designers, architects, historians, judges from the original competition, scholars, and rabbis. What makes Memorial’s Undoing unique as a documentary is that the film makes use of some of the work that has already been done by Ukrainian artists who produced a virtual rendering of the Babyn Yar site in Unreal Engine, a hyper-realistic three-dimensional computer graphic mapping application. Unreal Engine is typically used in gaming but it is increasingly being used in film production, although rarely in documentary. This CGI virtual Babyn Yar will not merely feature as a backdrop to the dialogues in the film, but also as an active participant. Since at least the 1960s, there have been numerous attempts to memorialize Babyn Yar; very few have been realized in the form of stand alone memorials. Many others have never materialized, despite international funding and state support. These ghost memorials join the long procession of erasures that paradoxically define and leave no trace upon Babyn Yar. Presenting Babyn Yar in its virtual form within the film gives me an opportunity to resurrect some of these earlier attempts at memorialization and bring them into dialogue with contemporary events, most notably Putin’s war, with its own set of erasures and ellipses. This is an unique opportunity to produce thoughtful inquiry and discussion about the ideology behind the Holocaust even as it plays out on a contemporary global scale.

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