Wednesday, January 15, 2014

NYJFF ’14: Pur (short)

Soviet Jewry faced systematic discrimination and religious persecution.  Yet, policies of segregation inadvertently facilitated an organized form of Jewish celebration and resistance.  Naturally, none of the large state universities would admit Jewish students, but Meit College would.  It was there a core group of students met and began staging underground productions of the traditional Purim Spiel pageant.  Anat Vovnoboy captures the oral history of the Purim Spiel veterans as they watch surviving footage of their Purim Spiel performances in her short documentary Pur, which screens during the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Frankly, recording the Purim Spiel shows on amateur home video was a potentially dangerous practice, but history is much richer as a result.  As one of the participants notes, many of the early Communist leaders were Jewish, yet the revolution was followed by a pogrom that never really abated.  Few of Vovnoboy’s interview subjects were raised with any sense of what their Judaic heritage meant.  They more or less learned together as a loose group of constructively rebellious college students.

While they were not all necessarily Refuseniks per se, the Purim Spiel celebrants’ rediscovery of Judaic tradition largely coincided with the Refusenik movement addressed in NYJFF’s excellent opening night film, Friends from France.  Indeed, there were real risks involved for the Purim celebrants, several of whom would see the insides of Soviet prisons and interrogation rooms.  As a result, many of the lyrics of the program, such as “How did they let such a blood thirsty tyrant put a crown on his head” take on perilous political dimensions.  In fact, the Purim Spiel rather forthrightly addressed topical issues, even lampooning Saddam Hussein its final installment.

More than just talking heads, Vovnoboy is blessed with a cast of insightful and often witty interviewees.  Listening to their reminiscences is a pleasure.  She also displays a keen eye for telling archival footage.  There is no question this material could be expanded into a feature treatment, but for now it is a very good short doc.  Highly recommended, Pur screens with the intriguing Before the Revolution this coming Monday (1/20) and Tuesday (1/21) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.