In 1928, in a gesture of dubious accommodation, Russian leader Joseph Stalin oversaw the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region of the Soviet Union, 14,000 square miles on the Siberian border, “closer,” as someone points out in this new documentary, “to Seoul than Moscow.” For beleaguered Jews around the world — eventually 45,000 of them from various countries, including America — this was seen as an opportunity; only hindsight makes it seem like an altogether suspicious concept.
L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin! is documentary filmmaker Yale Strom’s tribute to the Jews who converted the swamps and forests of the region into a settlement and who turned the JAR’s capital city, Birobidzhan, into a center of Yiddish culture.
The film combines talking-head footage of a handful of people who, as children, were around for the initial migration with an interesting array of archival material. Included is a large chunk of some intriguing (though, unfortunately, seriously damaged) footage from a 1936 propaganda movie about the venture called Seekers of Happiness.
The immigrants’ stories have the kind of fascination that attaches itself to any tale of self-reinvention and perseverance. Strom’s encounters with the twisty nonlogic of some present-day anti-Semites as he travels to modern Birobidzhan (whose current Jewish population is only 5 percent of its total) are bizarrely amusing, but overall the film suffers from a lack of clarity. Strom’s good with the visuals, but a few pointed footnotes or even some maps would have been helpful, as well as a little more annotation to the stories told, which come at you in bits and pieces.
Still, the overall tale emerges, being one of initial optimism, long-suffering and, for many of the Jews once perestroika commences, eventual escape.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.