Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Dances With Films ’14: Karaganda (short)
you want to know why Russia held the Winter Olympics in a town without snow and
spent so much money on sub-standard construction, you might ask the Ganavim ba
Hok or Thieves By Law, but that probably would not be a good idea. They
survived the Czars and would survive the Communists, often plying their
criminal trades behind bars. Given their power, one Jewish gulag prisoner is
convinced joining the “Vors” represents his best chance to save his wife in Max
Weissberg’s short film Karaganda (trailer here), which screens
during the seventeenth edition of Dances With Films.
Stalin’s reign of terror, approximately 18 million Soviet citizens were
condemned to the gulag system of prison work camps. Like Siberia, Kazakhstan
was a prime location, because of its harsh climate and forbidding landscape. Smuggler
Vladimir Bershstein has been sentenced to such a gulag somewhere in the vicinity
of Karaganda, but it might as well be the dark side of the moon. At least he is
not a political prisoner, like work detail partner Aleksei, but his Jewish
heritage is nearly as reviled. Yet, knowing his wife Elena was also condemned
to a women’s camp not far from his own, torments Bershstein even more than his
spite of Aleksei’s warnings, Bershstein is convinced he can only save Elena by earning
an invitation to join the so-called Vors. Of course, it is easier said than
done. After all, the guards themselves are afraid to cross the heavily tattooed
gang, for good reason. To be considered for membership, Bershstein will need a
killing to his name, but that will be the easy part.
Thieves By Law are definitely a scary bunch, but Weissberg does not let the
Soviets off the hook either. What comes to pass in Karaganda is truly Russian style tragedy, portending future
repercussions that could be explored in a future feature length version. Still,
in just under half an hour, Weissberg covers more plot than a lot of slow
cinema indulgences, without skimping on characterization or atmosphere.
also has the benefit of a strong cast and crew. As the intense Bershstein,
Konstantin Lavysh is clearly a gold medal contender for brooding. While his
character is more outgoing, Nikita Bogolyubov really centers the film as the
decent but somewhat unpredictable Aleksei. Both have strong presences that
never wilt under the existential weight of Terrence Laron Burke’s striking
black-and-white cinematography and the bleak, forbidding backdrops.
There is more ambitious filmmaking in Karaganda than a festival full of
precious navel-gazing indies. Recommended both as a self-contained film and as
the start of a potential saga, Karaganda screens
this Saturday (5/31) as part of Competition Shorts Group 2 at this year’s
Dances With Films.
Labels: DWF '14, Short Films