(director/music: Yale Strom; screenwriter: Elizabeth Schwartz; cinematographer: Nils Kenaston; editor: Yefim Gribov; cast: Ron Perlman (Narrator), Doris Kaplan, Evelyn Olschweski, Mordechai Kul; Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Elizabeth Schwartz; The Cinema Guild; 2002-in English, Russian, and Yiddish, with English subtitles)

“Yale Strom does a good job in digging the most he can out of this interesting saga in Jewish history and presents a decent documentary, but the film can’t overcome its inherent blandness and its inability to reach outfor a wider audience than those already captivated by the subject-matter.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Yale Strom (“The Last Klezmer“) is a violinist-turned-filmmaker. He presents an informative, no-nonsense, historical documentary based on his accidental 7-day train trip via the Trans-Siberian Railroad in March of 2000 to Birobidzhan, the fabled capital of the J.A.R. (Jewish Autonomous Region), in Serbia, located closer to Seoul than it is to Moscow. If he wasn’t stopped by the authorities for carrying his violin and some of his luggage wasn’t routed correctly, he would not have had the opportunity to explore that region of snow and swamps. The documentary is based on interviews with current and past residents and the presentation of archival material (a rare propaganda film from 1936 “Seekers of Happiness” is also included). It questions what compelled intellectuals, middle and working class Jews, and IKOR members of that international Jewish Communist organization to move to such a forsaken region. It also explores Russia’s dark anti-Semitic feelings that still linger today. Strom is most concerned with the natives’ reactions to the “Jewish Question.” He uses a graphic of these two words written in large bold red letters repeatedly through the film as a leitmotif. Ron Perlman acts as the English speaking narrator, and it is scripted by Elizabeth Schwartz.

Joseph Stalin encouraged Jewish settlement to this barren faraway region in April of 1928 for various political and anti-Semitic reasons. Jews migrated here from all over the world (including America, Argentina, and Europe), with the region reaching its peak population of 45,000 in 1948, and some of the survivors and their children are probed as to why they came here. They seem to be either idealists eager to have their own Jewish homeland, or those who wanted to get away from the impoverished conditions in the Ukraine and central Russia, or those who were committed socialists or communists and saw this as a lifetime opportunity to work a collective farm and build a new society.

In the press guide, filmmaker Strom says the J.A.R. was the first Jewish state established in the world (and the only place in the world where Yiddish culture had its own homeland) since the destruction of Israel in 70 C.E.. It predated the establishment of the state of Israel by 20 years. What is surprising is how little is known about this settlement throughout the world, including among Jews. Strangely it still exists today, but with little of the ideals intact.

Accompanying Strom to Birobidzhan is Slava Andreovich, interpreter-bodyguard and former KGB agent. Slava is the grandson of Mikhail Kalinin, first president of the U.S.S.R. and the architect of the J.A.R.. Slava in his matter-of-fact diatribes proves to be an open anti-Semite who nevertheless likes the Jewish filmmaker and freely answers all questions in his sour way of looking at the “Jewish Question.” He claims the Jews were encouraged to go there because Stalin never trusted them and considered them as a “fifth column” and wanted them removed as faraway as possible from the Russian mainland, while the Russian people never liked Jews because they didn’t know how to behave and were therefore glad to have them isolated.

Strom’s introspective film immerses itself in visualizing the early Jewish pioneers and their hard life to just exist in such a hostile environment. He describes the small school classes in Yiddish, the chosen language of the citizens. He describes how Yiddish culture flourished: there was a Yiddish theater, clubs for writers, a Yiddish library and publishing house, and even a synagogue. Though, most who came there were atheists. Strom traces how this rare chapter in world history changed with the times, as Yiddish is no longer openly spoken (it’s a dying language) and how the Jews there lost contact with the meaning of their religious beliefs and about 70 percent of them assimilated into the gentile Russian population as a matter of convenience to avoid anti-Semitism. Some living there today didn’t even know about their high holy holiday of Rosh Hashanah, as one of the Yiddish teachers admitted to that on camera. Strom also mentions that with perestroika in 1986 there has been a modest cultural and religious resurgence among the J.A.R Jews. But it’s hard to be optimistic of what the future holds in store for that region as far as its Jewish dreams, especially since there are only 7,000 Jews left (about 5 percent of the population) since they were allowed to emigrate to Israel and the present Russian authorities don’t want to recognize any longer the J.A.R.. The area shows few signs of a Jewish culture existing, as a few older Jewish settlers relate how their daughters married gentiles because no Jewish men were available.

Yale Strom does a good job in digging the most he can out of this interesting saga in Jewish history and presents a decent documentary, but the film can’t overcome its inherent blandness and its inability to reach out for a wider audience than those already captivated by the subject-matter. The filmmaker does the best he can with the rare material gathered, but the narration and the interviews with the talking heads are not that stirring and the film itself is incoherent as it for no clear reason cuts away from Strom’s train ride video to the archive footage and interviews.

This true story was an official selection in the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 2/14/2003 GRADE: C +