Slava Tsukerman's Personal "PERESTROIKA"

by Viktoriy Yudkin
"Almanac Panorama" "42 (1436)", October 15-21, 2008
Translated from the Russian

Slava Tsukerman's "Perestroika" is the first and only dramatic feature to explore the phenomenon of Jewish emigration from the USSR in the 1970s. And I doubt that a finer film on this subject will ever be made.

Slava Tsukerman is a director from whom we've come to expect the unexpected. Immediately upon immigrating to Israel in the 1970s, he shot a documentary about the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Holy Land—the last subject one would expect from a Jewish immigrant. To everyone's astonishment the film "Once Upon a Time There Were Russians in Jerusalem" won first prize at the Hollywood Festival of World Television -- marking the first international award in the history of Israeli television.

After moving from Israel to the United States and embarking on his first American production, Slava once again selected the most unexpected of topics for an immigrant: the New York punk scene. And once again, the effort was a triumph. "Liquid Sky" won honors at five international festivals and broke boxoffice records in several countries.

And now, a new surprise. The title, "Perestroika", suggests that Slava has made a Russian film. But that's hardly the case.

"I like paradoxes," says Slava. "All of my films, and my life, are full of paradoxes. But my latest project beats the record for the number of paradoxes involved.

"To begin with, this film, seemingly the most Russian one I've made, is actually a completely American picture. The funding was entirely American; the film is in English; and—although I believe that a good movie can be understood by
everyone the world over—nonetheless, in this one, I am addressing, first and foremost, an audience outside of Russia.

"Most of the leads are played by well-known American actors: Murray Abraham (who won an Oscar for his role as Salieri in "Amadeus"), Ally Sheedy. For the main character, I chose another American, Sam Robards. Sam, who's well known
for films such as "American Beauty" and "Artificial Intelligence: AI", is flesh of Hollywood's flesh. He was born in Hollywood and grew up there. His mother is Lauren Bacall and his father is three-time Oscar winner Jason Robards. But here too, we find a hidden paradox: Sam's life holds traces of Russia. One of his father's greatest roles was as Academician [Andrei] Sakharov, while his mother, best known as the young beauty starring opposite her first husband, Bogart in the classic films of Howard Hawks, is of Russian Jewish descent.

"And the main paradox of "Perestroika" is that—although the film's plot hews closely to actual events in my life, and many people consider it autobiographical—it is not about me at all."

That last statement requires some explaining. As it happens, Slava Tsukerman emigrated from the USSR in the early 1970s and then, 17 years later, first returned to Moscow for a visit during perestroika. Like Tsukerman, the film's main character, astrophysicist Sasha Greenberg, emigrates from the USSR in the 1970s and goes to Russia for his first post-emigration visit in 1992—to attend an international cosmology congress. There he meets friends old and new and reassesses his life. All this makes up the gist of the movie, which includes many details from Tsukerman's own life. Moreover, some of Slava's old filmmaker friends worked with him on the picture. So behind the director's back, crew members would whisper among themselves, trying to identify the real-life prototypes behind the characters. When Slava learned of this, he was
astounded. The last thing he'd intended was to shoot an autobiography.

"All writers," says Slava, "Use details from their own lives in their books and screenplays, but that doesn't mean all books are autobiographies. Sasha Greenberg is an astrophysicist and I'm a movie director; that alone makes it impossible for us to share the same biography."

"Perestroika" falls into two genres. On one hand, it is a philosophical parable about a man trying to understand the workings of the Universe, but realizing at the height of wisdom that he (and, as far as he is concerned, all of humankind) is incapable of understanding even himself or the meaning of his own life and of our civilization.

On the other hand, the genre of the film compares smoothly with biblical prophecy, the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. It is an impassioned, frantic plea to mankind, a plea to change the ways of our civilization, which are leading, in the eyes of the main character, to inevitable ruin.

Sasha Greenberg believes that everything in the world has gone awry: Science has become ruinous in myriad ways, from the creation of the atomic bomb to the destruction of the environment; and the same is happening with social ties—the family is disintegrating, social structures are crumbling.

The film's main characters are assertive men, boldly navigating their own fate. When they lived in a world split into two systems, they did not succumb to circumstance but managed to break through the Iron Curtain. Sasha's teacher and mentor, Professor Gross, emigrated in the 1950s from the U.S. to the USSR; his student did the opposite. Each thought that he was "choosing freedom", but neither bold move brought happiness. Albeit aware of his teacher's experience,
the student mirrors it—therein lies the ironic law of life. To learn the ways of the world, each man must reach a critical point in his own perestroika.

Not just Sasha Greenberg and Professor Gross, but the majority of the film's characters go through some sort of crisis. And it's no accident that they meet up in the Moscow of 1992. Individuals experiencing their own personal crises as a crisis of civilization, or even a crisis of universal proportion, collide in the capital of a country driven by a crisis of the same sort. It seems to Sasha that Russia, like he and Gross, is transitioning from one system to another. Perestroika-era Moscow is part of the movie's plot, a surreal backdrop reflecting the life unfolding inside each character.

Slava Tsukerman's film gives a broad picture of life in Russia at the time of perestroika. But its depiction of Russia is not reduced to an array of documentary footage. The Russia shown by Tsukerman is a symbolic country of perestroika, of crisis. It's as closely related to a concrete Russia as Lars von Trier's Germany in "Zentropa" is related to the real Germany, or the America in von Trier's latest films or in Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" is related to the real America, or Italy in Fellini's "8 1⁄2" to the real Italy. The Russian word "perestroika" has become an international word meaning revolutionary change of a country and a world. And that is precisely the sense in which it appears in Tsukerman's film.

I asked Slava why he decided today to make a film set mostly in 1992. "The world is changing with extreme speed," he replied. "In today's Russia, the flight of time is particularly easy to notice. It's been less than two years since my last visit to Moscow, and yet the city's changed so much during that time that it's impossible to recognize. Perestroika is a symbolic epoch, the starting point of a temporal explosion. Exploring it helps better understand the past and the present and the future."