Sharp Cookie

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-- Michael Sragow

Human Rights Watch Film Festival: Program 2

Monstrous behavior, on a large or small scale, defies comprehension as surely as it requires examination. When it exists on the magnitude of Stalin's systematic and brutal intimidation campaign against the Ukrainians in the 1930s and '40s, it must be confronted in exactly the calm, analytical manner of David Pultz's staggering Eternal Memory: Voices from the Great Terror. No images or words can adequately convey the atrocity of 20 million people killed and of thousands rounded up, put in local prisons, sent to labor camps, tortured and starved. Though not revolutionaries, these Ukrainians were deemed unworthy of living in a socialist society, whether they were capitalists, bankers, priests or peasants -- especially peasants, because Stalin considered all private ownership threatening and farmers difficult to control.

Meryl Streep's voice-over narration knits together remarkable archival footage, contemporary interviews and two noted historians' commentary. After briefly explaining the events of Oct. 25, 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took control of the Winter Palace, the focus shifts to exposing the tactics of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police. Firsthand accounts particularize the calculated brutality and bring the story to the present exhumation of mass graves. Prosecutors use feeble excuses for their failure to charge anyone responsible for the atrocities -- the statute of limitations has expired. Zbigniew Brzezinski calls this refusal to empower a commission "one of the great moral failures of the post-Communist phase." Acknowledging that many willing executioners perpetrated this pogrom, Eternal Memory presents instructive, illuminating insights into the Ukraine's history and many other horrifying, contemporary situations.

The second half of this program on the former Soviet Union consists of two videos, just under an hour each. The better one is Boy Hero 001, which examines the myth of 12-year-old Pavlik Morozov, "hero pioneer of the Soviet Union" for betraying his father to the secret police in 1932. Children learned to adopt Lenin as their father, putting the state first. But a different picture emerges as this fascinating work examines all aspects of the myth -- its official, propagandistic function and the lies it masks.

In his remote Tartar village, Pavlik's father, an enemy of collectivization, steals grain from the state, forges identity certificates and sells documents permitting exiles to return home. After officials change laws so children can testify, the court sentences him to 10 years of hard labor. He is never seen again. Meantime, Pavlik is brutally murdered in a forest by "enemies of the people" (probably his own grandfather, cousin and younger brother). But an even more complex story unfolds: Pavlik is not a Pioneer (no cell exists in the village), his father abandons the family, a tax collector appears and court records suggest the conflict revolves entirely around land ownership. This intriguing work reveals ways the representation of Pavlik's story shifted with the political winds.

Finally, An Ordinary President satirizes recent events in Belarus by visually and politically comparing President Alexander Lukashenko with Hitler and Stalin. Lukashenko vows to root out corruption and then maliciously and maniacally works the system. A clever juxtaposition of images says what Lukashenko won't.

Never merely academic exercises, these three works provide a chilling, important indictment of human abuse.

Eternal Memory (in Ukrainian and Russian with English subtitles) shows at 7 p.m. and Boy Hero 001 (in English and Russian with English subtitles) and An Ordinary President (in Russian with English subtitles) at 8:30 p.m. April 13 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

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