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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Film of Human Mystery

PARIS -There's no need to go to the movies to be reminded that prejudice, bigotry and bitter hatred live on in this world. But a remarkable new film by a sensitive young Frenchwoman makes the less-recognized point that otherwise quite good people are in no way immune, that oppression, ignorance and the fear for survival are almost natural causes as well as results of the terror people inflict on each other.


The writer-director is Yolande Zuckerman, a slightly-freckled, tawny-haired, graceful 35-year-old, and the film, her first after two prize-winning documentaries, is called "Me Ivan, You Abraham". It's about rural life somewhere on the Russian-Polish border. As it sounds, it's about Jews and local peasants.


It isn't about the war years, or the holocaust, but about everyday life, set in the early 1930s. Zuckerman, whose parents came from eastern Poland, says she chose the period because she found it harder to get people to talk about what had been normal than about the war. "To liberate yourself, you have to go back to origins", she says.


There is no preaching, no lessons delivered. But today, in the time of the worst war in Europe since 1945, a time of ethnic violence erupting in so many places where people at last have a chance for freedom, her insights are especially poignant. She is not sentimental at all. She shows that victims also victimize, that the vicious circle is without beginning, maybe without end.


Shot in black and white, spoken in Russian and Yiddish (which the actors had to learn for their roles), the film somehow has an immediacy and reality that modern full-color Hollywood violence or CNN disaster do not bring. No one is actually hurt, no one makes love on camera, and yet the fright, the emotion, the affection come through all the more intensely for that.


The heroes are two boys, Ivan, the Russian, and Abraham, the Jew, who have become inseparable friends. Ivan has been apprenticed to Abraham's family, as was frequent, but they want to send him away so that their son will grow up in an exclusively Jewish circle. Ivan wants to stay, he considers it his home, but Abraham - in revolt against his harshly orthodox grandfather - insists on running away.


The peasants in the village, about to be dispossessed by their dissolute landlord for whom the grandfather works as rent collector, are frightened, cruel, and yet curious. One young man, who decides to warn the family of an impending pogrom, breaks into their shabby home on a Friday night demanding to see "what you Jews really do on the Sabbath". He sees a normal dinner table, but with candles.


The runaways seek work on a distant farm, where a pretty young girl befriends them but tells them in awed belief of how the Jews are the children of the devil, an authentic local story Zuckerman heard in the Ukrainian countryside where she shot the film last year.


It won the grand prize at the Moscow Film Festival last month, and is to be shown at the New York festival this fall.


On location, she also heard the local tradition that to see a Jew or a gypsy on the day crops are sown is good luck and means a good harvest. "There is always inclusion and exclusion", she says, "the urge to demonize the other, always an overlap. The door is closed from the inside as well as from the outside".


Some of the actors are professionals, but Ivan is a 15-year-old Russian orphan named Sasha who impressed her with his eagerness to act, and Abraham is a 12-year-old gypsy boy named Roma whom she found in a gypsy camp. They giggle and they play, two spirited boys in a world they can't understand and can't change.


Zuckerman's documentaries were made in India and South Africa, but it's not exoticism that draws her to places so different from those she knows, she said. "I look for the things we can say to each other. They are a mystery for me, but then I realized I am a mystery for them, too".


Her aim is to probe the mystery of how people deal with each other, with their hidden memories "which must not be idealized. To idealize is to kill, to bury. To live and to go on, you must be from somewhere real".


There are no answers in her film, but there is an honesty in her questioning of the dark urges leading to the acts that make our ugly headlines which is enlightening and encouraging. To understand should not mean to forgive but to set on guard against our indifference. She seems to say it is possible to break out of the circle, perhaps even in Bosnia, if we know where we come from.


1993 Flora Lewis