Film Review: ‘The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev’

Jewish immigrants from Tajikstan to Israel, The Alaev Family are a multigenerational music act with offstage drama to match their onstage ebullience.

'The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev' Review
Photo courtesy of Hot Docs

In the tradition of the Von Trapps and the Jacksons, “The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev” profiles a long-running family musical act whose joyful musicality onstage is somewhat belied by the discordant notes hit behind the scenes. “Starring” the iron-willed titular patriarch, Tal Barda and Noam Pinchas’ delightful documentary sports more than enough dramatic intrigue to snare programmers not already swung by the world-music angle.

The eponymous Allo, AKA “Papa,” is the octogenarian chief of the Alaev Family, a multigenerational performing clan that emigrated to Israel from their native Tajikstan in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He may be shaped like Jabba the Hutt, and about as mobile, but don’t let the seemingly placid manner fool you — this snapping turtle can still take your head off with a curt decree. He is not shy about informing just which head of state declared him a “national treasure”; his Tel Aviv home has a plaque outside proclaiming (in rather awkward English) “The Internationally Artists Allo Alaev Family House.” Growing up under his roof is “to be in a marathon of achievement and music always,” says eldest daughter Ada, with Papa calling all the shots and accepting much of the credit.

Just how benevolent a dictatorship this is depends on one’s status within the family. Eldest son Ariel has taken the path of least resistance, deferring to his father’s every whim — even an excursion to the market to buy vegetables apparently requires the elder’s micro-management. As a consequence, Ariel is in practical terms now leader of the band, with aged Allo making just brief occasional stage appearances (during which he barely moves, yet emits a voice of startling, undiminished force).

Whereas Ada, a talented player of the zither-like qunun, has been more or less ostracized from the act for apparent crimes of willfulness against the “head of the tribe.” We never learn exactly what the causes of the fallout were; she says she was the first Alaev to get a job after their immigration to Israel, learning new skills “so the family could get back on its feet.” But apparently the independence of her decisions was too much for Papa, who has repeatedly said she should have been born a man. (One gleans this is not a compliment to her resourcefulness, but a criticism of her perceived failings in deferential womanliness.)

Born and raised in Israel, the talented grandchildren seem for the most part to tolerate Papa’s blunt control without necessarily seeing the sense of it — if time doesn’t resolve related problems soon enough, they might well rebel. Already Ariel’s son Amir has broken rank by refusing to rehearse or perform when it conflicts with his practice of a devout Orthodox Judaism other family members neither share nor fully understand. His teenage violinist sibling Aviva confides dreams of having a band “outside the family,” but she really seems to mean including all family save “Papa.” Ada’s son Zvika, who also plays with non-Alaev ensembles, says his greatest desire is to “reunite” his mother with the act. But in the film’s much-portended, somewhat anticlimactic setpiece (Allo’s 81st birthday banquet), her “surprise” performance is predictably greeted by grumpy grandpa huffing his way out of the room in protest.

Papa clearly relishes the company of his grandkids (and great-grandkids, whose musical instincts he can’t encourage fast enough), and it’s possible that “Wonderful Kingdom” makes him out to be more of a tyrant than he really is. Certainly all is forgiven whenever one confronts the thing his control-freakdom has largely shaped: Onstage, the Alaev Family is a high-energy delight whose virtuoso players turn traditional Tajik folksong and other idioms into music that can bring Western rock audiences to their dancing feet. (A fair point of better-known comparison would be Gogol Bordello, with whom they’ve collaborated.) Though its portrait may be a bit warts-and-all, this lively doc will doubtless increase their audience, as it’s hard to imagine any viewer who wouldn’t be left with a fervent desire to see them perform live.

Incorporating archival footage dating back several decades alongside its predominant vérité observations and concert footage, “Kingdom” is juicy without being disrespectful, the backstage dramas ultimately secondary to the thrill of the music itself. Assembly is aptly pro but casual, save in the all-important sound departments. If there’s an occasional sense of performing for the camera even in non-musical scenes… well, that’s showbiz, which clearly runs in this clan’s blood.

Film Review: ‘The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev’

Reviewed online, San Francisco, May 10, 2016. (In Hot Docs.) Running time: 74 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary — Israel-France) An Alegria Prods., The Wonderful Kingdom Films, Arte France presentation. (International sales: Go2Films, Jerusalem.) Produced by Christine Camdessus, Serge Gordey, Bruni Burres, Noam Pinchas, Tal Barda.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Tal Barda, Noam Pinchas. Camera (color, HD), Uri Ackerman; editor, Yael Bitton; music, The Alaev Family; sound, Asher Dahan; sound designers/re-recording mixers, Gil Toren, Yossi Appelbaum; sound editors, Erez Eina Shavitt, Nin Hazan.
  • With: Allo “Papa” Alaev, Ada Alaev, Ariel Alaev, Alan Alaev, Amir Alaev, Amanda Alaev, Avraham Alaev, Zion Alulay, Avri Borochov, Harel Shahal, Haim Laroz, Yosse Sassi, Hod Moshonov, Adina Alaev, Amin Alaev, Malka Alaev, Zvika Sivi Alaev, Aviva Alaev, Oshrat Alaev, Zippi Alaev, Yvonne Kahan, Tamir Muskat, Alon Amano Campino Iyar Semel, Jonathan Gitelman, Tom Elbaz. (Hebrew, Russian, English dialogue)