Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jewish Film Festival, etc.

This morning I took myself and my gift of a ticket over to the last film in the Jewish film festival. It was a film from Kazakastan that I never would have seen otherwise; I think it was called Stalin's Gift. Strictly speaking, it wasn't really about a Jewish theme, but the main character was a Jewish child about 5 or 6 years old whose parents were sent to the gulag by Stalin. Obviously, it was set in the late 40s, and followed the events around the celebration of Stalin's birthday that year, 1949. The boy was shipped via cattle train to the far north, and his grandfather, his only guardian at that point, died, leaving him in a state of shock. The others on the train saved him by passing him off as corpse in his state of catatonia, where he was unloaded and saved by an old Khazak nomad, a brain-injured war veteran, who brought him back to life with love and care.
There was an arresting scene where the Moslem railroad worker and his friend take the boy to a shaman, who changes the boy's name to confuse the demons. Interestingly, this is the same custom familiar to Eastern European Jewish peasants. The shaman blows the freshly laid egg of a black hen into the boy's mouth, as he lies half conscious, and brings him back to life.
The interesting thing about the film was that it used Soviet Realist storytelling techniques to tell an anti-Soviet story, with the bad guys being the Stalinist officials. There were all the stock characters familiar to us from 19th century Russian lit (Dostoevski, for instance), the holy simpleton, the "loose woman" with a heart of gold, who actually had no choice but to save herself by using her body, in this instance, yet the film was actually very moving, mostly because of the first rate casting and acting in the major parts. I found the film-making spotty though. There were gorgeous images--the sight of the golden hillsides of the region and a tree under which the boy's grandfather and the other dead were buried, covered with shreds of torn fabric like strange flowers, and rather effective symbolic motifs--the lost goat kid wandering the streets of Jerusalem and then the same image in Kazakistan. But the film cut back and forth from present to past in such confusing ways that some people didn't realize the older man returning to the scene many years later was the boy, all grown up. It turned out that Stalin's gift of the title was the explosion of a nuclear bomb as part of an unannounced test, destroying, one gathers, the people we had gotten to know. The only reason the boy survives is that the elderly war veteran sends him away before this happens to live with his relatives in Odessa.
Overall, it is worth renting, if you ever get a chance to see it.

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