The obscure, awkward title of Alexander Rodnyansky’s 1992 documentary “Farewell USSR, Film I, Personal” can only hint at the frustrating shortcomings of this occasionally penetrating film. American audiences mining its 62 minutes for insight into the state of Soviet Jewry in the post-Gorbachev era almost certainly will be disappointed.
Film made its New York bow at the annual film series co-sponsored by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Poorly subtitled and burdened with an impressionistic style that befuddles more than it illuminates, “Farewell USSR” does little to communicate its theme of identity in time of flux.
Rodnyansky focuses his camera on five of his Ukrainian friends — a child-care worker, a Jewish activist, a folk singer, a politician and a pop music stage designer — who, by turns, ponder their commitment to a land that thousands of fellow Jews are fleeing.
Among the filmed interviews and too-lengthy segments of these friends at their respective jobs, Rodnyansky intercuts archival footage of several landmark events.
The images are definitely haunting: A devastating 1961 flood or the mass graveyard of Babyj Jar near Kiev, site of the 1943 massacre of Ukrainian Jews. But their significance will just as certainly be lost on American audiences. Rodnyansky clearly made his film (financed by German television) for an Eastern European audience well-versed in its own history, and pointedly does not provide even the slightest of historical information to accompany the archival footage.
Perhaps, as suggested by the final word of the title, Rodnyansky intended his film as personal musing. Perhaps the subtitles, which even Rodnyansky has conceded are abominable, are at fault. Whatever the case, “Farewell USSR,” well-received at last year’s St. Petersburg Film Festival, won’t find much of an audience Stateside.