by Ben Sachs
Urban Peasants is meant to be run at 18 frames per second—about three-quarters the speed of normal film projection—to the effect of giving the appropriated home-movie footage a dreamlike, underwater quality. It contains some other superb visual effects, such as when the film flares into frames of pure white or when Jacobs strings together several shaky handheld shots from different sources, making the 1930s Brooklyn settings seem galvanic and ever-evolving. Yet what registers most powerfully are the images themselves. Taken from the personal collection of Stella Weiss, the aunt of Jacobs's wife Flo, the footage centers on religious celebrations, regular family get-togethers, and exterior shots of the neighborhood where Weiss's extended family lived. The jittery motion renders the excavation of the past giddy, even exciting, yet Jacobs subverts these sentiments by emphasizing his distance from the material. The film is silent and structured in such a way that you can't relate to any of the faces as you would characters. One focuses on rituals, street corners, interior design; to watch it is to feel as much like an ethnographer as a movie spectator.
These images come from a crucial point in the history of American Jewry, when the first American-born generation began to work its way out of poverty and into the lower middle class. Their connection to old-world life remained strong, however, as Jacobs explained in his original notes for Urban Peasants: "The [film's] title is no put-down but a simple statement of fact, as I see it. Brooklyn was a place made up of many little villages; a near-shtetl is pictured here all in the space of a storefront."
By framing this milieu as old-world and rural—rather than American and urban, as the subjects probably would have—Jacobs acknowledges the feelings of alienation that come with assimilating into secular life. Adding to the movie's bittersweet tone are excerpts from an old record teaching practical Yiddish phrases, meant to be played over a blank screen, that bookend the silent images. Crucially, the record is an English-to-Yiddish translation, suggesting a return to the past. Also telling is that the section played at the start concerns phrases one would use when staying in a hotel, while the latter is titled "What to Do When You're in Trouble." The final sentences that Jacobs includes so perfectly encapsulate the movie's themes of discovery, nostalgia, and lost optimism that it would be a shame to give them away here.