Nepali Times
Critical Cinema
Dreaming of home


Michale Boganim's Odessa.Odessa! is a documentary of transnational identity told in three chapters, elegiacally depicting the lives of Ukrainian Jews first in the Post-Soviet Ukrainian city of Odessa, then in New York City's Brighton Beach and finally in Israel's Ashdod. It is a meditation on the experience of aging, of displacement, of nostalgia and memory. With the film's bold photography, each chapter has its own visual character: Odessa awash in hues of blue, Brighton Beach lightly sepia-tinted and Ashdod brightly sun-saturated. But the film maintains a certain continuity defined by the subjects' dislocation and yearning for a home: the ?migr?s' connection with Odessa remains palpable and alive.

Beginning in Odessa, Boganim's subjects, all clearly elderly, seem to inhabit the past just as much as the present, the accumulated weight of history and memory bearing down on their lives. One moment they debate whether the Soviet Red Army was the Messiah, a quaint but seemingly genuine pondering. The next they reminisce about personal past glories in the theatre, the story so delightful its veracity seems beside the point. Amplifying the sense of place and history is the music, providing a perfect counterpoint to the images on the screen: the mournful violin, the radio from past and present, the snatches of conversation in Russian and Yiddish.

Notably absent from their homes are younger people, and in that absence their lives have the character of abandoned children that is at once both charming and aching. They banter childishly with each other, or dress up in pearls to pose before a mirror. The camera softly backs away from its subject to bring into focus the environment they inhabit-homes that are blemished with the accumulated junk of ageing mementos. That movement, and the kind of access the subjects allow Boganim, create a kind of ghostly witness to the activity in the Odessa chapter of the film.

Shifting to Brighton Beach and Ashdod, her subjects seem twice-exiled, pulled away from a deteriorating and abandoned Odessa to greener pastures in Israel and the US. But once there, they find themselves unable to either divest their identity or be accepted. In glimpses that digress from its main subjects, the film captures the ambivalence of those two immigrant-nations towards their more recent and tenaciously unassimilating citizens. The informal narrator of the Israel chapter crosses a playground bemoaning the ethnic segregation he sees, and as if to make his point, the path he takes starkly separates the Ethiopian Jewish children from the apparently European ones. And on a sand-swept boardwalk at Brighton Beach, Boganim captures a racist and xenophobic rant by beach goers and residents.

The fantasy of a glorious homeland is sustained by the immigrants' failed expectations upon arrival, and Boganim's relocated subjects often treat their condition with a bemused sanguineness. They engage in a wistful, mournful re-imagining of Odessa. Clearly, something that they bring from there is the penchant for melancholic aphorisms and storytelling. Much like the first chapter in Odessa, we are treated to darkly humorous and compelling stories.

It is only in the last chapter, with a few scenes that seem staged, that the film falters, threatening to lose its delicious and intimate subjectivity. And it is a resilient cin?aste who won't feel a tad fatigued towards the end of the film. But that is easily compensated for by the richly rewarding experience this stirring and tender piece of cinema offers. l

Director: Michale Boganim
2005, 96 min

Candid Society is screening "Odessa.Odessa!" at Alliance Fran?aise in Tripureshwore this Sunday, 27 January at 6pm

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)