Wednesday, November 11, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: The Jump

It was called the U.S. Coast Guard's “Day of Shame,” but it brought out the best in America. Appalled by injustice, average people with no political experience mobilized to rescue Lithuanian sailor Simas Kudirka after his failed attempt to defect on the USCG Cutter Vigilant. Kudirka and the senior officers of the Vigilant look back on that fateful day and its aftermath in Giedre Zickyte’s The Jump, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

Kudirka was a sailor, who was not allowed a passport. He always identified as Lithuanian, rather than Soviet, especially since he had already been interrogated as a relative of a Lithuanian Partisan. He was serving on a Soviet fishing vessel that was scheduled to participate in a summit with American fishery authorities off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Kudirka felt greater camaraderie with the American seamen waving from the Vigilant, so he made the literal jump to the Vigilant and the proverbial jump to freedom.

Unfortunately, the officers were not prepared for such a development. Rather understandably, the captain requested guidance from his chain of command during the twelve-hour stand-off. When ordered by Rear Admiral William B. Ellis to return Kudirka to the Soviets, who had already savagely beaten him onboard the Cutter, the Captain obeyed—in tears. Much to the compliant Admiral’s chagrin, the nation exploded in outrage when the full story was reported.

In many ways,
The Jump is a testimonial to the average Americans who refused to forget about Kudirka, even after he was convicted of treason and condemned to some of the USSR’s harshest gulags. Doggedly, ordinary citizen activists like Barbara Koran and Ann Ingham kept protesting on his behalf. Sadly, Kudirka’s most prominent champion, U.S. Rep. Robert P. Hanrahan (R-IL) is no longer with us to discuss his efforts—but his example proves how much even a one-termer in the minority party can accomplish. Notably, Pres. Ford also gets credit (notably from Kissinger himself, in an on-camera interview), for pressing the Soviets for Kudirka’s release.

Kudirka’s case takes some intriguing twists and turns. It really was a real-life Cold War thriller (that was dramatized in a 1978 TV movie). Yet, what might be most surprising is the level of pre-internet celebrity Kudirka reached at the time, when he busy on the lecture circuit. It is a shame we need Zickyte’s doc to reintroduce him to the nation, especially since his message exposing life under socialist tyranny is suddenly timely again.

Although pushing 90, Kudirka is still an energetic and charismatic figure on-screen. At times, the film takes him to some very emotional places, but probably the saddest interview segments feature the Vigilant officers. They deeply regretted their actions, even though hands were tied by direct orders.

Throughout the film, Zickyte marries intimately personal reflections with an authoritative historical chronicle of the events in question. The facts of the incident and their consequences are faithfully preserved here, with Kudirka himself (among others) providing full context. Very highly recommended,
The Jump screens online, as part of this year’s DOC NYC, 11/11-11/19.