has a harder time adjusting to the capitalist system: a former Soviet republic
or a documentary filmmaker? Needless to
say, it is the latter, but he still has his mind set on importing Ukrainian
vodka into the British marketplace. He
feels a special connection to the distillery, because his family used to own
it, up until the 1917 Revolution.
Soviet, Ukrainian, and even Northern Irish history are explored from a
decidedly personal perspective in Dan Edelstyn & Hilary Powell’s How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire (trailer here), which screens
during the 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish
Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
knew little of his father’s side of the family, because he died when the
filmmaker was quite young. His first
real introduction to his Ukrainian heritage came through the letters and
journals of his grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich, shunted away in his mother’s
attic. He discovered his grandmother was
the progressive daughter of a well-to-do land-owning family. Regrettably, all her efforts teaching the
local peasantry to read and write meant little to the conquering Bolsheviks.
story is truly remarkable, including stints entertaining the White resistance
forces as a dancer, which is how she met Edelstyn’s grandfather. From her diaries, Edelstyn gleaned a sense of
the family’s house and sugar factory. Drawn
to his roots, Edelstyn was disappointed to find them in a state of disrepair
and off-limits. However, he discovered
another family holding that was still up and running—a vodka distillery.
never mentioned the family vodka empire, but with good reason Edelstyn
presumes. Communist propaganda often
demonized Jewish Russians as predatory purveyors of alcohol, constantly
tempting the stolid peasants into drunkenness.
It would be a lot easier for the Jewish Zorokoviches to identify
themselves with the sugar plant rather than a booze pipeline.
by the town’s economic stagnation in the wake of the sugar factory’s closure,
Edelstyn takes it upon himself to become the vodka company’s British
agent. Of course, he knows nothing about
importing spirits, but how hard can it be?
might be ridiculously naïve throughout Empire,
but his instincts on how to help his ancestral Ukrainian home are surprisingly
on-target. It is too bad he and his wife
Powell were the ones behind the camera though, because there was probably
considerably more comedy to be mined from his attempts to navigate British customs
a result, probably the strongest sequences involve Grandmother Zorokovich. Blending various styles of animation with
family heirloom photos, Edelstyn & Powell craft some Guy Maddinesque
dramatic recreations of Zorokovich’s life.
To their credit, they bring home the fear and arbitrary violence of
Lenin’s reign of terror (that is Lenin, not the subsequent tyrant, Stalin) with
full force, as well as chronicle the Zorokovich’s complicated years in
Belfast. It is an epic story that they
Edelstyn undeniably went out on a limb on behalf of the former family vodka
company, there is still an awful lot of him in Empire. He is not a bad chap
at all, but he is not exactly a riveting cinematic presence. Regardless, How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire
documents a fascinating intersection of commercial, political, religious, and
family history that goes down rather smoothly.
It is preceded by Jack Feldstein’s brief but
powerful Shards. An expressionistic, almost abstract
representation of Peretz Markish’s similarly titled poem, Feldstein’s
neon-animated short film serves as a stark elegy to the poet and the other
twelve Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin’s minions of terror in 1952. While only two minutes long, it powerfully conveys
the essence of the Soviet experience.
Both films are highly recommended when they screen this Thursday (1/10)
and Saturday (1/12) as the 2013 NYJFF gets underway at the Walter Reade
Labels: Animated films, Communism, Documentary, NYJFF'13, Peretz Markish, Short Films, Vodka