Tales from the Former USSR: Our Review of ‘Shtetlers’

Posted in What's Streaming? by - February 02, 2023
Tales from the Former USSR: Our Review of ‘Shtetlers’

Vladimir Gorbulsky has his hands on his face, saying a Jewish prayer before eating. He lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank (um….). He’s one of the members of a complex diaspora of people who now live in three different continents. The most straightforward way to be a member is to be an ethnically Jewish person with roots in either central-west Ukraine or Moldova. But in Gorbulsky’s case, he’s the son of a Righteous Person who eventually converts to Judaism. Or in the case of Volodya Malishevsky, they are Christian Ukrainians who eat Jewish food and take up ‘Jewish’ craftsman professions. Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Ustinova captures their real stories in Shtetlers. The documentary records their experiences throughout the tumultuous 20th century. And since it’s history we’re discussing here, emotion and subjectivity come into play.

Shtetlers uses the good old storytelling methods of interviews and archives. Emilia Kessler lies down on her couch, her eyes watery. The next shot is either an old picture of herself or of the woman who saved her life. The film eventually reminds its viewers of what most of them already known, that half of the Jewish people who died from the Holocaust came from the former USSR. These people were Gorbulsky and Malishevsky and Kessler’s friends. As Righteous people, the former two worked with Jewish people and hid them. Despite of the woman who saved Kessler and her child, her version is the one that most people in my circle nowadays accept. That most Ukrainians feared the Germans and gave up their Jewish friends to save themselves and their families from dying.

The only gripe anyone can really have with Shtetlers is how it takes its time to interrogate some of the stories it tells, although is is probably more of a me problem than it is the film’s. It’s also probably not a good idea to cancel a nonagenarian for converting to Judaism. The film, nonetheless, is commendable both for its active storytelling and its more subtle techniques. Malishevsky goes to a cemetery where generations of Jewish people rest. He trims the weeds covering up the headstones even if no one is paying him to do chores like this. Actions like this show that community is not who you are but it’s what people do. And the film’s observational moments have splashes of colour in it as a way of showing the vibrancy of these stories.

Shtetlers is available on On Demand platforms.

  • Release Date: 2/3/2023
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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