Friday, February 22, 2008

One Night Out of a Fort

The MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight series is well under way, and if you enjoy environmental handwringing, welcome to Nirvana. To say most selections sound a tad PC should not be a controversial statement. The most ridiculous description is given to the short film “Checkpoint/Paso,” which according to the bulletin: “symbolically juxtaposes the former border between East and West Berlin with the new fortification wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.” Just for the record, there happened to be a very real “fortification wall” between East and West Berlin. Evidently, there is no moral distinction for the filmmaker between a democracy trying to keep illegal aliens out and a dictatorship trying to keep its oppressed citizens from escaping to freedom. At least the Fortnight featured one film of serious insight and merit last night.

Both the Communists and the National Socialists tried to kill Garri Urban, but he survived to tell his tale, in a fashion. His son, British filmmaker Stuart Urban was clearly always in awe of his charismatic father, but he never knew the early drama of his father’s life until he wrote his memoirs late in life. With the fall of Communism, the Urbans traveled to scenes from the senior Urban’s past, footage of which became the foundation of Tovarisch: I Am Not Dead (trailer here), the filmmaker son’s documentary about his mysterious father.

Tovarisch means comrade. “No Tovarisch, I am not dead,” were Urban’s words to the Soviet soldier who had shot him in the water as he tried to swim to the then free Romania. He then took a swing at the comrade. It is a great title once you understand the significance.

Urban holds the distinction of being one of the few successful escapees from the Siberian Gulags. He actually made his way to Moscow where he met and romanced the love of his life. Indeed, his life story seems to have been equal parts Great Escape and Doctor Zhivago. Seeing Urban reunited with his great love fifty years later is pretty heavy stuff.

Yet in many ways, Urban’s life remains a mystery. Following his father’s death, filmmaker Urban set out to discover the contents of Garri Urban’s KGB file. He knew his father had been given the file at the former Ukrainian KGB station, because he filmed it happening. However, his father evidently destroyed the documents, and the Ukrainian authorities denied it ever existed. What little he is able to piece together only raises more questions.

Garri Urban’s story might ultimately be unknowable, but it is a fascinating mystery. Along the way, Stuart Urban includes some valuable insight into the realities of the Gulag system in an intriguing blend of family and world history. Tovarisch is a rewarding film that deserves a theatrical release in America. After all, it single-handedly redeemed Documentary Fortnight. At least the MoMA has something cool to look forward to in April: a jazz soundtrack film series.