A powerful documentary on the kind of surreal, cruel subject that 20th-century Spanish history sometimes tosses up — the enforced exile to the Soviet Union of more than 3,000 Spanish children during the 1936-39 Civil War — Jaime Camino’s “The Children of Russia” opens up new perspectives on this overthumbed chapter. Pic earns points for its dispassion, its judicious blend of personal recollection and footage and its crystal-clear demonstration of how political decisions shape entire lives. Most of all, however, there are the bubbling personalities and wise perceptions of its carefully selected interviewees. Unusually for a docu, “Children” had theatrical release at home in early December and, even more unusually, is still playing two months later. Following its Berlinale outing, further fest showings look likely.
Franco’s attacks on northern Spain brought with them an unexpected offer by the Soviet Union to look after Spanish children of communist and socialist parents for the duration of the war. Many kids ages 9 to 15 were shipped off — scenes captured in jittering B&W footage — and greeted on their arrival as heroes. In Moscow, they were put up in “Children’s Houses” and offered the kinds of lives unimaginable in the Spain they’d left behind — good food, good education, good fun.
Republican defeat in 1939 meant the children’s return was delayed. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, they were shipped off again, to Central Asia, where they were forced to work, eat cats and live in temperatures 40 degrees below zero. With the German defeat, they expected to be allowed home, but the authorities did not permit their return to what was now a Fascist state.
When Spain and the Soviet Union negotiated a repatriation deal in 1956, the “children” — in fact, no longer children, and in some cases married — had the choice of staying in Russia (essentially a dictatorship by committee) or returning to life under a direct dictatorship, to families they hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years.
Camino’s 40-year filmmaking career has returned again and again to the Spanish Civil War, most effectively in 1977’s interview-based docu about its origins, “La vieja memoria” (Old Memory). “Children” is similarly compassionate in finding room for the voices of people whose opinions were long suppressed. Now in their 70s, the 20 or so interviewees are under no illusions that their lives have been anything but a series of painfully ironic misadventures. Some live in Spain; others have either returned to or stayed in Russia or gone to Cuba. The theme of misplaced personal identity comes through strongly.
Interviewed about every stage of the process, the recollections of these charming and warmly intelligent individuals — including one ex-KGB agent — vary between the affectionate and the bitter, but in every case their ability to re-create a scene in words is faultless, whether describing the taste of the caviar they were given on arrival or working for 20 hours a day in a tank factory in Siberia.
Occasionally, pic is extremely moving, as when an elderly woman reads a yellowed letter she received from her Republican father back in Spain, saying he is due to be executed the following day. Most interviews are straight to camera, though sometimes the subjects sit face-to-face or simply chat around a dinner table. Clever editing does the rest.