Friday, January 13, 2012

NYJFF ’12: My Father Evgeni

Evidently, during the Stalinist era the term “Cosmopolitan” served as a euphemism for Jewish. It might sound relatively benign, but its usage was far from polite. It was an ugly fact of Soviet life Ukrainian documentarian Andrei Zagdansky’s parents were all too aware of. The letters of his state filmmaker father provide a window into the history of his family and his country in My Father Evgeni (teaser here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

Born two years after the Russian Revolution, Evgeni Zagdansky would outlive Communism as the official state ideology, only to bemoan Russia remaining under the rule of “criminal mediocrities.” The great Zagdansky family secret was his mother’s Jewish heritage, a dangerous inheritance during the time of Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot anti-Semitic show trials. It would be even worse for the Zagdansky family, considering his father’s bourgeoisie roots. Scandalously, Zagdansky’s grandfather Peter made women’s shoes in a modest storefront before the new regime confiscated his property and exiled him to the provinces.

Somehow during the war, Evgeni Zagdansky cleared his record to the extent he could work with the state system. For eighteen years, Zagdansky père served as editor-in-chief of the Kiev Popular Science Film Studio, where he earned his spurs producing propaganda pictures about the triumph of scientific materialism over superstitious notions of God.

Clearly, filmmaking is a generation-bridging bond for Evgeni and Andrei Zagdansky. Drawing on home movies and film archives, the junior Zagdansky captures the sweep of Russian and Ukrainian history as well as documenting the ebb and flow of his family’s standing. Particularly valuable are the topics of furtive family conversations in each successive era. Oftentimes, these are well known figures and events, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and celebrated dissidents like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. However, he also includes important figures now largely faded from short-term Western memories, like dissident Ukrainian poet Vasil Stus and oppressed Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov in the honor role of discussion subjects.

Father is a bit slow and unfocused out of the blocks, but once Zagdansky gets into the rhythm of it, the film is a parade of striking images. War, famine, and propaganda campaigns all factor prominently, but sometimes the little details are the most telling, like the frequently changing street names, ever reflecting the political tenor of the times. For film programmers, it would be a fitting companion film to either Mikhail Zheleznikov’s short For Home Viewing or Sergei Loznitsa’s Revue. Recommended for Cold War students and scholars, it screens this coming Tuesday (1/17) at the Francesca Beale Theater and Wednesday (1/18) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2012 NYJFF.