Monuments are built to honour, memorials to remember and museums to conserve. In the Upper New York Bay, the Statue of Liberty stands just a stone’s throw away from Ellis Island. At the first site, the freedom of the United States of America is honoured; at the second, the history of its immigrants is conserved. In 1978, director Robert Bober and writer Georges Perec ventured into the bay to shoot a short film about Ellis Island, which, between 1892 and 1954, acted as a gateway for 12 million immigrants travelling to the US. While the resulting documentary, Ellis Island Revisited: Tales of Vagrancy and Hope, was broadcast on French television two years later, it was not until many years after Perec’s death that the distinctive literary qualities of the film script were discovered.
Authored by Perec and titled Ellis Island (1995), the script combines poetry with prose and literary quotation with empirical fact, employing the hybridity of text to reflect upon the very concept of integration. While exploring the island – its history, its buildings, its leftovers – Perec pays particularly close attention to the absence: ‘How to understand what is not shown, what has not been photographed, archived, exhibited?’ He identifies Ellis Island as a non-place, an isle of tears, and reveals Emma Lazarus’s metaphor of America’s ‘golden door’, which is emblazoned upon the Statue of Liberty, to be little but a false promise.
First published in Issue 200