Sunday, January 9, 2011

NYJFF: Kevin McNeer's long-gestating documentary STALIN THOUGHT OF YOU

The near-irresistible title of Kevin McNeer's documentary STALIN THOUGHT OF YOU -- back in the days of the infamous, mustachioed dictator -- would have sent politically-aware Russians (along with any of us who knew current events) running for the hills. The recipient of Stalin's thoughts and the subject of McNeer's fascinating if necessarily incomplete documentary is one, Boris Efimov, a talented political cartoonist who, along with his journalist brother Mikhail Koltsov (who was the editor of Pravda for a time), caught the attention of Joseph Stalin early on. This became, for one of them, at least, his road to glory. For the other? Not so much. (Why these two related-by-blood brothers have different last names is one of the fascinating details explained in the film.)

Born in 1900, Efimov was already 103 years old when McNeer, shown at right, began filming in 2003. By 2008, when the ancient gentleman died, having reached 108, the filmmaker has managed a number of interviews with the cartoonist, who (up until 2006, at least, when the filming seems to have stopped) retained much of his brain function and was able to recall with surprising facility and speed the memories of his life from the 1920s onward. McNeer asks Efimov questions, and the man answers, sometimes with surprising honesty and perspicacity. A sheep-like fellow who, despite his great talent, never made waves of any kind, Efimov lasted out The Czar, the Revolution, Stalin, KhrushchevBrezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and was surviving even Putin, when he finally bit the dust. This continued success -- for a man who was prominent, "political" (this description cuts two ways) and in the public eye nearly his entire life -- has got to be some sort of record. Particularly in Russia.

Efimov, shown above in his younger years, had to have been crafty -- give him that. McNeer gives him a lot more, some of it rope with which to hang himself.  That Efimov does not is due as much to the history of Russia, and how its people survive, as to anything else. Much of the film is narrated by Boris himself, as he tells of the decades gone by. McNeer pipes up with questions from time to time, and historical footage from the various periods also make up much of the film. This footage -- which includes Boris and Mikhail in their early years, but only Boris in his later -- are particularly fascinating, as they come from the Russian State Film Archives and have not been much seen, I think, by Americans.

The most interesting part of this history, by far, is that devoted to the Spanish Civil War -- from the Russian perspec-tive. Brother Mikhail (shown at left), before he fell from favor, was sent to Spain as one of the top Russians-in-charge, and what we learn here should fuel yet more fire regarding what Stalin wanted out of this war and just how important were the Communists in the fight against Franco. From the time of Stalin's earliest purges, Efimov was asked to create political cartoons (one such is shown at bottom) against men both at home and abroad, from Trotsky and Lenin to Hitler and Eisen-hower -- some of whom he and his brother thought to be decent and innocent. How he managed to do the dictator's bidding and still live with himself comes up again and again during the movie.

Toward film's end, the cartoonist (shown above) goes to the studio of a younger and successful artist and sees the man's caricatures of the famous -- from Khrushchev and Kennedy to Castro and even... Putin.  "What do you think?" the artist slyly asks Efimov about his drawing of Putin.  "Was this done with 'love'?" There is a very long pause, during which it seems that all of the older artist's 104 years might be passing in front of his eyes.  "No," he answers at last. Do we detect a bit of shame in his eyes? Hard to say. Whatever, this fellow's life and career prove a gold mine of interest and oddness, of history, negotiation and concession.

Stalin Thought of You will screen at the Walter Reade Theater, Wednesday, January 12, at 3:30 and 8:30pm. See the entire NYJFF program listing here.

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