(This review of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 3 July 2013.)
While the Russian-Jewish experience has long been reflected in mainstream film (think “Fiddler on the Roof”, Steven Spielberg’s animated “American Tail” and the more recent “Defiance”), films about the contemporary experience of Russian Jews rarely enter widespread popular consciousness. For this reason, the Russian Resurrection Film Festival provides a valuable reflection of the changing nature of the Russian Jewish experience.
And what an experience it has been. More than five million Jews lived in the “Pale of Settlement” at the end of the 19th century (an area that also included parts of what is now Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Belorussia) – including all eight of my great-grandparents and three of my four grandparents. Despite substantial emigration, the number of Jews living in greater Russia was still likely to be greater than five million at the beginning of the Second World War, but now has declined to less than 400,000, due to the Nazi Holocaust, and more latterly, assimilation, low birth rates, and emigration to the USA and Israel.
This year, two Festival films capture aspects of the new Russian life in the post-Communist era. If you had to choose one film-maker who represents the diversity, complexity and contradictions of Russian Jewish life, Pavel Lungin would likely be your pick. Coming from a Jewish background, he has made some of the most fascinating Jewish-themed films in recent years: “Lunar Park” (about a skinhead who discovers he is Jewish), “Taxi Blues” (a Jewish musician’s relationship with an antisemitic taxi driver) and “The Tycoon” (based on the life of Jewish entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky).
In “The Conductor”, a Russian chamber orchestra travels to Jerusalem to present a concert of the “St. Matthew Passion oratorio“. While none of the orchestra’s members appear to be Jewish, their lives intersect with Israelis in unusual ways. Vyacheslav Petrov (Vladas Bagdonas), the taciturn, widely feared and angry conductor of the orchestra, has some very unusual business to conduct. His estranged son, an aspiring artist, has been living in Jerusalem in a commune of a mixed young Russians and Israelis, and Petrov has important personal business to conduct there. Other members of the orchestra – all of them experiencing personal dilemmas of some sort – experience life in Israel in raw and even tragic ways. A few decades ago, these Russia-Israel connections would have been inconceivable, but they now constitute a rich source of drama, of which “The Conductor” is one. “The Conductor” is a bleak, dense and dark film (most scenes seem to take place at night or in gray light) with subtle Christian overtones; watch particularly for the scene where Petrov carries a life-size painting of a naked man through Jerusalem streets.
By contrast, the film “Hipsters” provides a bright, loud, colourful and crazily upbeat view of what surely was a very difficult time in Russia: the mid-1950s. If Baz Luhrmann were to be reincarnated as a Russian film director, this is the film that he would make – filled with singing, dancing, great costumes and lots of music. The Russian title of the film is “Stilyagi”, which means “obsessed with fashion”. And that’s just what most of the main characters are: young adults still living at home in Moscow who are fascinated by American dress and music, and model themselves on what appears to be Frankie Avalon, Elvis Presley and the mythical American “hip” fashions of that time.
The main character is a young man named “Mels”; and as the film opens he is part of a “komsomol” gang that pursues the “hipsters” unmercifully. His name speaks Russian Communist tradition, as it is an acronym for Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. He falls in love with a beautiful “hipster” woman and reinvents himself by dropping the “s” to become “Mel”. One of Mel’s closest hipster friends is Bob, and here is the Jewish sidebar: it becomes clear that Bob is Jewish, his father is a doctor and his parents live their whole lives in fear with their bags packed at the door in case they must flee. It’s an odd theme to throw in a film that sits mostly in fantasy, but underlines the marginal nature of Jews in Soviet society during that period.
Back in 2009, “Hipsters” swept the “Golden Eagles” and the “Nikas” – the Russian equivalents of the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and is an undeniably entertaining film. It’s light, frothy and features music from popular Soviet bands from the 1970s and 1980s: think “Hairspray”, Russian-style.
Other films of interest in this year’s festival include some major Russian box office successes – notably “Legend No. 17”, a true story about Russia’s successful 1972 ice hockey in Canada; the psychological thriller “For Marx” (labour unrest in a steel factor); and Russia’s big budget disaster film “Metro”, about passengers trapped in flooded Moscow subways.
The Festival opene in Melbourne at the Palace Cinema Como last week, followed by Canberra on 16 July, Sydney on 24 July, Brisbane on 26 July, Perth on 1 August and Byron Bay on 2 August.