SHTETLERS – Review by Emma Badame

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Community is an essential part of understanding who you are and where you fit in. As the world expands and grows ever more chaotic, there’s comfort and calm to be found in the strong ties that bind. They lift us up, give us purpose, and support us. But what happens when your community disappears? Forced apart or scattered to the wind by circumstance. That’s the question at the heart of Katya Ustinova’s debut feature documentary, Shtetlers.

The film traces the roots of a very specific type of settlement called shtetls, which were small towns inhabited for centuries by untold numbers of Jewish families. These villages could be found throughout Eastern Europe–in modern-day Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Belarus–and together they formed the largest Jewish population in the world. Then came the horror of the Holocaust and, unsurprisingly, very few shtetls remained. Those that survived continued to thrive to some extent, their populations continuing the traditional customs that were lost or wiped out elsewhere in Europe. From religion to language and from cooking to craftsmanship, practices were treasured and passed down through the family. Their tight-knit communities worked side-by-side with their non-Jewish neighbours, craftsman and farmer supporting one another through good times and bad. But then came the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain and most of the remaining shtetls broke down, their residents leaving for Israel or for even further afield.

Ustinova introduces us to nine different subjects from around the world, all of whom used to belong to or have a connection to a shtetl community. Not all are Jewish. The first man we meet, Volodya, is a Ukrainian Orthodox Christian who once lived across the river from a shtetl and learned his trade making men’s hats from one of his neighbours. He even remembers the names and professions of those who inhabited each and every home in the community. In fact, he and his wife now live in one of the old, abandoned Jewish houses, carrying on some of the traditions they were taught, decades after the teachers picked up and moved away.

To hear him speak, you would think there were never any problems between the two communities. That his community was little more than an Eastern European version of a Norman Rockwell painting. But those familiar with history know better. Cue Sofia, a woman who currently lives in the U.S. but was born and raised in a shtetl in Ukraine. She speaks eloquently of the fear her mother had about being too vocal about the Jewish traditions observed in their home. After all, those who survived the Holocaust were almost immediately faced with the advent of Stalinist Russia and the intolerance that came with it.

Shtetlers very deliberately presents and juxtaposes a variety of viewpoints and lived experiences just like Volodya and Sofia. There’s Vladimir, the Israeli-Ukrainian Rabbi who converted to Judaism after living alongside a shtetl as a boy, and Isaac, who adores his Brighton Beach home but paints to immortalize the shtetl he grew up in and the people he knew. Then there’s Emilia, a talented musician who speaks with tears in her eyes of the Ukrainians who turned on their Jewish neighbours to gain favour with the invading Germans during World War II. She describes the meticulous destruction of the shtetls–person by person at first and then by mass execution. She counts her escape with her young son as a miracle, and it’s not hard to see why.

Memories from each of Shtetlers’ subjects coalesce to form a bigger picture of what these small but plentiful centres of culture and community meant to their residents, and to the broader world of both the past and present. Their overwhelming sense of loss is tangible, and it is understandably still being felt and processed decades later. It’s clear too that history repeats itself in big and small ways because we have not yet learned from our failures.

It’s extremely sensitive ground to cover, and Ustinova treats each of her subjects respectfully. As a filmmaker, she expertly weaves each of their stories together to form an effective and empathetic narrative–one that easily sustains the documentary’s 80-minute runtime. Her visual choices are at once compelling and educational, including an opening animation that explains the history of the shtetl and a host of quiet, lingering shots that say far more than a talking head ever could. As a filmmaker, she has a clarity of vision that serves this long-form format very, very well.

It’s an impressive debut that clearly knows what it’s going for and delivers it too. A history lesson with humanity at its heart, Shtetlers acknowledges the importance of–and gives voice to–a whole Jewish way of life lost to time.

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Emma Badame

Aside from garnering for herself a one-time Jeopardy win, Toronto-based Emma Badame has parlayed her passion for film into a life-long career. Her work has been featured on Billboard.com, eTalk, The Mary Sue, Cineplex, CTV's PopLife, The Canadian Press and more. She is also a programmer with the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival.