Friday, October 14, 2011

Above, the aged Miri (Irit Levi) has a tense exchange with Oleg (David Hess) in Rob Nilsson’s The Steppes. Hess was supposed to accompany Nilsson to Syracuse for this screening, but passed away suddenly last week.

Film Review #244: The Steppes
2011 – Fiction, 107 minutes
Director: Rob Nilsson (USA)
Cast: Irit Levi, Nancy Bower, David Hess
SYRFILM Screening: Friday, 10/14/2011 @ 9:15 PM, Redhouse Arts Center, Armory Square/ Downtown

Nilsson’s The Steppes premiered a few months ago at the Moscow International Film Festival, which also presented a mini-retrospective of Nilsson’s body of work. Last weekend he premiered a related film, What Happened Here, at the Mill Valley Film Festival north of San Francisco. It’s a shame that the two films can’t be seen together, for their web of associations make that a natural double bill.

In the 70s Nilsson read the freshly released edition of My Life by Leon Trotsky and ever since he’s been captivated by the contradictory luminary of the Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the Russian Czar. Trotsky ran afoul of Stalin, who exiled him in 1929 and whose agents chased and finally assassinated him in 1940 in Mexico. Nilsson was captivated especially by Trotsky’s views on art, which he says few if any other Bolsheviks shared.

Ironically, as Nilsson was discovering Trotsky, the revolutionary’s home village in Ukraine was being abandoned and its houses and synagogue (built by Trotsky’s father, Davyd Bronstein) dismantled by area farmers for their materials. Last year, in part thanks to new connections made here in Syracuse, Nilsson was able to travel to Ukraine and seek out the story of Trotsky’s home village’s disappearance. That story includes the Holomodor, a scheme of Stalin’s that resulted in several million deaths by starvation in 1932-33, and the massacre of that village’s Jews by the Nazis in 1941. After a year's research, Nilsson also managed to locate the single survivor of that massacre in Isreal and traveled there to record his story.

The Steppes, on the other hand, is a fiction film centering on an aged woman living in a flea-bag in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District called the Odessa Hotel, whose name harks back to her own family’s flight from starvation and Germans in Ukraine in the same period that Trotsky hid out from Stalin’s agents and his home village fell in the Nazi tide. Having just lost her husband and having no plan and no resources, Miri seems close to collapse. Her niece Rachel (Nancy Bower) arrives, determined to save her aunt and get some answers about how come her mother – Miri’s sister Olga – could never love her. Reminiscent of the harrowing single night that a man and woman spent in Nilsson’s Imbued last year, The Steppes recounts how Miri and Rachel mightily resist one another until each budges just enough to let the stories out. Few tellings of an old mysterious trauma on screen manage to be quite as redemptive as this one. What Happened Here is the backstory of those events.

Nilsson’s DP, Mickey Freeman, has never been better than he is in The Steppes, and Nilsson moves away from his “direct cinema” approach with a scripted movie that seems to signal a new phase in his work.

Read more about Nilsson’s current projects early in 2012 in "Stone Canoe Journal" in the Moving Images section.