Friday, July 23, 2010

SFJFF30 2010—Michael Hawley Reviews the USSR Sidebar

The 30th anniversary edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) launches this Saturday and runs until August 9 throughout the Bay Area. It's an extensive and inspired line-up (my overview is here) and among the highlights you'll find three sidebars: Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, People of the Book (exploring Jewish and Israeli writers) and Voices of the Former Soviet Union. This last one is comprised of two documentaries and one narrative feature, all of which I've previewed on DVD screener and hereby recommend.

Between 1986 and 1992, I made four trips to the USSR and befriended several young people who were finding their way through the societal upheaval known as glasnost and perestroika. Nearly two decades later, their generation is the subject of Robin Hessman's intimate and revealing film
My Perestroika, which won accolades at Sundance and New Directors/New Films earlier this year. The film has only a tangential relationship with Judaism, so many thanks to the SFJFF for programming it.

My Perestroika is the true story of five classmates from Moscow School #57 who experienced, as they tell it, happy childhoods of blissful conformity. "I can't say I wanted to be like everyone else—I simply was like everyone else," one remarks. They graduated as radical changes began taking place in the USSR, and discovered the world wasn't what they thought it was. Now adults in their early forties, we see the niche each has found in this uncharted society. Borya and Lyuba are married history teachers who live in the apartment where Borya grew up. They find it almost impossible to explain the Soviet way of life to their incredulous students. Borya's friends Ruslan and Andrei took completely divergent paths. The former is a subway busker and ex-guitarist for Moscow's popular punk band, NAIV, while the latter owns the Moscow franchise for upscale French shirt retailer, Café Coton. The fifth friend, Olga, is a struggling single mother who services commercial pool tables. What the five now share—besides a penchant for chain-smoking—is a cynicism for politics and wariness for Russia's swing towards hard line patriotism. In casual interviews, they reflect clearly on the events that shaped their lives—the end of the Cold War, the radical act of quitting Komsomol, the dissolution of the USSR, religion, the 1991 coup and the turmoil of the Yeltsin years.

Curiously, the director of this film is American, albeit one who studied filmmaking in Russia. She produced the Russian version of Sesame Street during her 10 years living there, and My Perestroika benefits from her perspective as both outsider and insider. Eschewing narration or voiceover, Hessman poetically—almost giddily—interfolds her five stories with news footage, propaganda films and pop music, as well as home movies of the five classmates shot by Borya's Jewish father. As Mary Anderson Casavant writes in her review for Filmmaker Magazine, this is "a documentary so good at breaking the rules of historical docs that it makes you question why anyone would follow them."

The sidebar's other documentary is directed by a second American who studied filmmaking in Russia. While Kevin McNeer's Stalin Thought of You is more traditional in form, it is nonetheless a fascinating portrait of one man's relationship with "history's most prolific mass murderer." The titular "you" Stalin thought of is Boris Efimov, a Ukrainian-born Jew who was the USSR's top political cartoonist for 70 years. The meat of this story, as well as the element which connects these two men, is Efimov's beloved brother Mikhail Koltsov, whom Stalin had murdered in 1939. Koltsov was well placed in Soviet hierarchy—a pallbearer for Lenin, editor-in-chief at Pravda, and a military advisor during the Spanish Civil War. The character Karkov in Hemmingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is entirely based upon him. Following Koltsov's death, Efimov was branded a "brother of an enemy of the people" and was unable to work. Most amazingly, he wasn't killed as well, or exiled at the very least. Stalin brought him back to lampoon Hitler in his notorious political cartoons, earning him a place on the Gestapo's black list. Efimov would go on to cover the Nuremberg Trials and win the Stalin Prize twice before the despot's death in 1953. It's an astonishing tale, recounted in the film by a clear-minded grand raconteur in the years leading up to his passing at age 108. The film's only drawbacks are a few awkward English-language interjections by the filmmaker, and a scene where he tries to reproach Efimov for his "respect" of Stalin. Efimov rightly accuses him of being naïve.

The third Russian film in the sidebar is of all things, directed by a Russian. Celebrated animator / documentarian Andrei Khrzhanovsky's A Room and a Half, or A Sentimental Journey Back Home is a fanciful meditation on the life and work of Russian-Jewish, Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky. Like Stalin Thought of You, this screened at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival and it's fortunate that the SFJFF has brought it back. Khrzhanovsky's narrative feature debut begins with an older, exiled Brodsky setting off on a return trip to his beloved St. Petersburg, which he hasn't seen since being "invited" to leave the USSR in 1972. In fact, this trip never happened in real life and Brodsky died in 1996 without ever seeing his family again. Brief scenes of this imagined journey are surrounded by extended, nostalgic flashbacks to Brodsky's bittersweet youth and young adulthood in Leningrad. I was particularly tickled by the film's portrayal of young, Western-emulating Russian bohemians who would transform medical x-rays into forbidden copies of jazz and rock 'n' roll records (a similar milieu is portrayed in the 2008 Russian film musical Hipsters). To aid his storytelling, the director employs animation (cat and bird lovers will be especially charmed), a bit of surrealism (musical instruments fly through a snowy Leningrad night) and at one point he even inserts his characters Zelig-like into archival footage. Throughout it all, excerpts from Brodsky's writings are given voice. The nostalgia-inducing art direction and cinematography, as well as the acting, are impeccable. I envy those who'll get to experience it all in glorious 35mm on the Castro's big screen.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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