J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 06, 2014

NYJFF ’14: Lonely Planet

It is easy to see why banishment to Siberia was a favorite method of punishment under the old Communist regime. It still seems like cold, isolated, economically depressed region, at least judging from the footage shot by an Israeli film crew.  Ostensibly, they are looking for Mishka Zilberstein, who as young Jewish boy reportedly took refuge from the National Socialists with the wolves in the Belarus forest.  Oddly enough, Zilberstein’s urban legend might be the only thing that is true in Edan Zeira’s docu-drama hybrid, Lonely Planet (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Zeira and his Israeli-French crew are determined to find the mythical Mishka, but each lead turns out to be a dead-end.  Supposedly, the real life Zilberstein eventually settled in a remote corner of Siberia.  Everyone seems to know his story, but the locals are not exactly welcoming.  At least all the trouble Zeira and his colleagues got into was presumably fictional, unless Zeira really did agree to a shotgun wedding to a provincial police chief’s pretty daughter, in which case, Mazel tov.

This is a very strange film, for obvious reasons.  Yet, despite its postmodern gamesmanship, it is worth listening up when the real Zilberstein finally enters the picture.  Indeed, Zilberstein is a fairly well documented historical figure and viewers have no reason to doubt it is really him consenting to tell his story (aside from all the meta-meta business that came before).  It is a powerful tale, involving torture at the hands of both the National Socialists and the Soviets.  Essentially, Zilberstein was reduced to an animal state, at a time when animals were more humane than humans.

Zeira illustrates Zilberstein’s story with highly stylized black-and-white re-enactments. Clearly, they had a terrific handler for the wolves.  While his (presumed) humor is sometimes questionable, it always comes at his own expense.  Some might understandably take issue with his mash-up approach in a film that directly addresses the Jewish experience during WWII, but Zeira is unfailingly respectful in his treatment of Zilberstein. Fans of Guy Maddin will probably enjoy his deconstructive and surreal inclinations, whereas general audiences will appreciate Zilberstein’s testimony. Recommended for the somewhat adventurous, Lonely Planet screens twice this coming Thursday (1/9) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYJFF.

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