Saturday, January 24, 2009

NYJFF: The Gift to Stalin

One of the scarier aspects of Stalin’s reign of terror was the effectiveness of his cult of personality. His image was omnipresent, investing his iron-fisted rule with a secular idolatry which brooked no criticism. (Thankfully, nothing like that could ever happen here, right?) In fact, reverence for his personality cult was so deeply ingrained in the Soviet people, many of those who suffered personal persecution under his regime reportedly still wept when news of Stalin’s death was released to the public. That emotional dichotomy is dramatized in Rustem Abdrashev’s The Gift to Stalin (Kazakh trailer here), which screens tonight at the NYJFF.

Under Stalinism, Kazakhstan became the dumping ground for massive deportations of Soviet ethnic minorities (including a surprisingly large Korean community). As Gift opens in 1949, young Sashka’s Jewish family is on one such cramped transport making its way through the Eurasian steppe, in a scene that bears an obvious similarity to recent European history. The train stops at each provincial station just long enough to dump the freshly deceased. However, Sashka’s family takes advantage of that time to smuggle him off the train in the company of corpses, where he is discovered and essentially adopted by Kasym, a fearsome looking, but gentle track worker.

Given the risks inherent in sheltering Sashka, the Muslim Kasym has the village spiritualist rename him something less suspicious and more Kazakh sounding: Sabyr, meaning humble. Though still physically powerful, Kasym is old enough to be his grand-father, so he gets welcome help from his neighbor Verka, the exiled widow of an alleged traitor. Unfortunately, the village cannot simply come together to raise Sashka/Sabyr. Even on the lonely steppe, the Party apparatus, represented by a venal policeman and the sadistic regional military commander, maintain the Stalinist atmosphere of fear.

In addition to victimizing the local women, the party leaders are also preparing for the town’s commemoration of Stalin’s big seven-o. Gifts from children across the USSR are being collected for the nationwide birthday celebration. The child offering the best sacrifice wins the privilege of giving their gift to Stalin personally. It might sound like a questionable honor, but Sashka covets it as an opportunity to petition Stalin for the release of his parents. However, the gift Stalin really wanted was the first successful Soviet test of an atomic bomb, which will soon literally rock Kazkhstan.

Abdrashev dramatically employs the vastness of the steppe to express the alienation of his exiled characters and deftly handles his many young actors. The physically imposing Nurjuman Ikhtimbayev turns in a legitimately touching performance as Kasym, the gentle giant. Dalen Shintemirov comes across quite naturally on-screen, neither cloying nor affected in the role of young Sashka.

Told in flashbacks by the adult Sashka, now safely residing in Israel, Gift is an unabashedly sentimental story of sacrifice and thanksgiving, but honestly earns its emotional pay-off. To its credit, the film does not whitewash the realities of life under Stalinism, particularly for the ethnic minorities banished to the Eurasian republics. One of the best films of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, Gift screens once tonight and twice on Monday (1/26) at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.