Twenty years before the birth of the state of Israel, another Jewish homeland was founded—by that noted friend of the Jewish people, Joseph Stalin—in the far corners of eastern Siberia, near the border with China. Stalin meant, as someone observes in Yale Strom's terrific documentary about the ominously named Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR), to "strangle Jewish culture at its roots." Instead, a flourishing Yiddish culture emerged in the region's capital, Birobidzhan, populated at its peak by 45,000 Soviet Jews and a few mad idealists from Palestine, Argentina and the United States who are remembered in the film with rueful affection by their now-aging children.
We follow Strom on his 2000 journey on the Trans-Siberian railway (accompanied by a robustly anti-Semitic interpreter) to Birobidzhan, where he finds a community of mostly old men and women who reminisce about the theater, music, schools and synagogues that blossomed in the region until it was decimated first by Stalin's anti-Jewish purge, then by the policy of Russification that squelched so many ethnic aspirations. Strom's encounters with the locals are intercut with archival footage, as well as with scenes from a giddy 1936 Russian propaganda film about the JAR, traditional songs (some of them sung by his collaborator, Elizabeth Schwartz) and music composed by Strom.
The story of the JAR can be read as tragedy, but the exuberant Strom, who made The Last Klezmer and Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years, is by artistic temperament an optimist. Among the younger members of the tiny Jewish enclave, now numbering only 6,000, he finds seeds of Jewish revival cultivated since perestroika—a small but significant voice raised in answer to Stalin's Jewish question.
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L'Chayim, Comrade Stalin screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880. www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. April 7, 5 p.m. $8.