It’s Not New But It’s Timeless and Great: “My Perestroika”

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Below is a review I wrote for Murdoch’s “The Daily” in April of last year. It was not published. The editor said his editor had decided the movie was not “big enough” for them to cover. They paid me in full, not a “kill fee.” I liked that part. But the whole experience was typical of journalism’s profound dysfunctions.

I left the review intact, (in “real” journalism one would never allow people to read a review written a year ago, even though they can get the film on Netflix. One would above all never allow for this kind of “confusion,” as the assumption always was that people have to have things very very VERY ordered and predictable, or else they might freak out. But we (we who once were editors and journalists) never actually met anybody, a reader, say, who was confused or freaked out. It was a value system that just came ex nihilo, out of nothing, self generated. Nature has nothing but curvature. Or is there somewhere a whale’s tail bone that is entirely straight? Maybe. Thank you for following me even when I am hard to make sense of.

Here’s the review:

04/7/2011
Film Review

My Perestroika

There is still a chance, if you live in New York, to see My Perestroika– Robin Hessman’s triumphant documentary about the last generation of Russians to be fully indoctrinated as communists. The popular film continues to collect awards, dazzle critics and sell out movie houses across the country. It plays at IFC through April 14, or possibly longer.

“We’ve been totally amazed by the response,” said Hessman in an interview. “We just want to keep going, bringing the film to more and more people.”

Fans are even clamoring for a soundtrack of the communist era anthems—featuring unlikely hits like “Let There Always Be Sun,” sung by the Children’s Choir of The Central House Of Railroad Workers, USSR, 1962.

My Perestroika offers a deeply intimate, poignant, and fresh perspective on a history almost too surreal to contemplate—the collapse of a superpower, the implosion of its ideological system, and the problem of where to put the 800 pound gorilla of history—what to tell the kids. It follows five ordinary Russians, who are very moving in different ways, and provide a clear lens into the soul of a former enemy nation we never really knew.

Borya and Lyuba Meyerson— both history teachers, and parents to a 9 year old boy, grapple with the question of how to teach Russian history, while smoking ceaselessly. They also reflect on their own former communist faith—or in some cases lack thereof.
“What was there to feel so emotional about?” wonders Lubya, who was such a perfect Oktyabrati that she used to salute the TV set when the national anthem was played. “I have no idea. But I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.”

In 1988, Borya and Lyuba quit the Komsomol.
“They said, “that’s fine,” Borya relays with a smile.
It was already over by then, just not collapsed.

Borya—raised in an intellectual Jewish family that encouraged him to conform.

“Somehow, by 8th or 9th grade,” he says,
“ it became clear that people all around you were saying things that didn’t correspond at all with reality.”

In the background, the family’s pet turtle struggles, desperately, to gain a toe-hold on any surface in his rock free water-filled tank, and it touches off our anguish for freedom. Or is it security? The turtle has neither.
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“I loved the turtle,” says Hessman. “I named it.”

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As a 10 year old American girl, Robin Hessman didn’t care about the usual girly fare; Instead, she was so fascinated by the Soviet Union that she persuaded her parents to get her a subscription to Soviet Life, complete with scientific advances and grain harvest reports. By age 18, in 1991, she moved to Leningrad, just as the Soviet Union was coming apart. She remained there for eight years—completing a 5 year directing program at the All Russian State Institute of Cinematography.

In 2004 she began work on what would become “My Perestroika,” going through state archival films, collecting home movies, and interviewing “dozens of thirty somethings,” about their lives.

My Perestroika moves seamlessly and as if by way of a totally invisible camera between the five former Moscow classmates —two teachers, a single mother, a rock musician, and a business owner. Each narrates the painful transition from the blind, swaddled faith of the communist era to the open-eyed but empty post-transition years with a nothing-left-to-hide-or-lose honesty, inside an aura of abandonment. Nobody is listening anymore. Not the KGB or anybody else.

As a plastic fast food soda cup is swept into a gray slush by a Moscow street cleanup truck, you know in your heart that the Cold War ended in a meaningless and desolate truce. You see that we have become one another, the US and the USSR. Freedom is abundant but hope is scarce.

Still—the film inspires, in the end, rather than depresses. The characters are complex, funny, loving, and real. When the conversation gets too painful, Borya smiles and lifts his glass. “Let’s drink.”

You wish you were there, with them.

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—Celia Farber

(“My Perestroika” is playing at IFC, 323 Avenue Of The Americas, New York, through April 14, and a full schedule of upcoming venues across the country is available at the website www.myperestroika.com)

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