Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dances With Films ’14: Karaganda (short)

If you want to know why Russia held the Winter Olympics in a town without snow and spent so much money on sub-standard construction, you might ask the Ganavim ba Hok or Thieves By Law, but that probably would not be a good idea. They survived the Czars and would survive the Communists, often plying their criminal trades behind bars. Given their power, one Jewish gulag prisoner is convinced joining the “Vors” represents his best chance to save his wife in Max Weissberg’s short film Karaganda (trailer here), which screens during the seventeenth edition of Dances With Films.

During Stalin’s reign of terror, approximately 18 million Soviet citizens were condemned to the gulag system of prison work camps. Like Siberia, Kazakhstan was a prime location, because of its harsh climate and forbidding landscape. Smuggler Vladimir Bershstein has been sentenced to such a gulag somewhere in the vicinity of Karaganda, but it might as well be the dark side of the moon. At least he is not a political prisoner, like work detail partner Aleksei, but his Jewish heritage is nearly as reviled. Yet, knowing his wife Elena was also condemned to a women’s camp not far from his own, torments Bershstein even more than his Soviet jailers.

In spite of Aleksei’s warnings, Bershstein is convinced he can only save Elena by earning an invitation to join the so-called Vors. Of course, it is easier said than done. After all, the guards themselves are afraid to cross the heavily tattooed gang, for good reason. To be considered for membership, Bershstein will need a killing to his name, but that will be the easy part.

The Thieves By Law are definitely a scary bunch, but Weissberg does not let the Soviets off the hook either. What comes to pass in Karaganda is truly Russian style tragedy, portending future repercussions that could be explored in a future feature length version. Still, in just under half an hour, Weissberg covers more plot than a lot of slow cinema indulgences, without skimping on characterization or atmosphere.

He also has the benefit of a strong cast and crew. As the intense Bershstein, Konstantin Lavysh is clearly a gold medal contender for brooding. While his character is more outgoing, Nikita Bogolyubov really centers the film as the decent but somewhat unpredictable Aleksei. Both have strong presences that never wilt under the existential weight of Terrence Laron Burke’s striking black-and-white cinematography and the bleak, forbidding backdrops.

There is more ambitious filmmaking in Karaganda than a festival full of precious navel-gazing indies. Recommended both as a self-contained film and as the start of a potential saga, Karaganda screens this Saturday (5/31) as part of Competition Shorts Group 2 at this year’s Dances With Films.