Glacial in its pacing but beautifully, mournfully evocative of its subjects’ ethnic/psychic exile, “Odessa Odessa” is Michale Boganim’s hybrid docu about a city, the people it haunts, and their near impossibility of exorcism. A busy life lies ahead for film at fests, in ethnic-specialist bigscreen situations and in docu-friendly tube slots internationally.
Boganim might have titled it “Odessa Odessa Odessa,” as the film plays out in three distinct installments and all are inspired by the former Soviet city — a once multinational metropolis on the Black Sea that has slowly sent its populations back where they came from. For Jews, this implies Israel, although Brooklyn, as Boganim shows, has also served as a spiritual way station and a place where a mini-Russia has been born in Brighton Beach.
Regardless of where they are, however, Odessa’s expatriate Jews, like the city, are without a solid identity. “In Odessa, we were Jews,” says one transplant. “In Israel we are Russians.” The longing for Odessa may be palpable, but more palpable is the longing for a place to call home.
Never quite decisive about what she wants to says visually, Boganim nonetheless says it with panache: Odessa, shot largely in empty streets at dawn, is imbued with a blueness that heralds a dream; the old women she observes, who speak in Yiddish and Russian and seem trapped in a memory, suggest a “Grey Gardens” on the Black Sea.
In Brooklyn, too, the skies are bleak, the future on hold. It isn’t until Israel that one sees any children in Boganim’s film, or any sun, and the implication, although muted, is that only in the Promised Land is there reason to hope. Even there, however, disappointment provides the emotional mood.
But can any of these Odessa-philes ever find contentment? Boganim suggests the answer is no: “Our children will be Israeli,” says a woman in urban Ashdod, where the Russians maintain their spiritual tie to Odessa and pin their hopes on someone else’s future.