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Light From the East
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by Chris Parry

"Sometimes the most interesting documentaries make themselves."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: On August 7, 1991, a gang of American actors got on a plane to the Ukraine, which at the time was more aaccurately called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, to stage a bilingual play in Kiev. The deal was supposed to be that they would share the stage with their Ukrainian counterparts and perform a play about a revolutionary theater director named Les Kurbas. Unknown outside his homeland, Kurbas was a thespian who was told by Stalin's goons to toe the party line or else. Acadmics, writers and performers were being rounded up across the nation and murdered en masse, so it was in Kurbas' best interests to do as he was told, but he refused to do so and instead put on plays lampooning the Great Leader. He was summarily dealt with, killed with 1000 others of his ilk, by firing squad. But this film is not about Kurbas as much as it is about the Americans. And it isn't about the Americans as much as it is about what happened in the months that followed, as the USSR fell, panic reigned, and a group of confused and panicked yankees wondered whether they shold stay and keep the cameras rolling, or hightail it home.

Amy Grappell thought she was going to have some fun, see a new country, make some connections with some people behind the iron curtain, and put on a show. When she joined a group of Americans headed to the Ukraine, she took along a camera to record things on the other side, and with Mikhail gorbachev's new policy of glasnost taking hold, she was at last free to do so. At the time, this was unprecedented. The west had long been told that the Soviet people were peasant-like, queueing up for bread crumbs and permanently drunk on fascism and home-brewed vodka. But things were changing...

When Grappell arrived, she was sent to stay with a strange local theater critic, who spoke decent English but seemed to have a complete loathing for her nation and people, while simultaneously refusing to hear anything negative about same. On the first few days of the trip, this odd bird had locked herself in the kitchen with Grappell's boyfriend, where she tried to ply him with wine as Amy waited impatiently outside. A constantly griping headcase, this woman actually provides the most amazing aspect of this entire film, as we grow to despise her, then hate her, and finally understand and sympathize with the woman as her nation crumbles around her ears.

Elsewhere we have a variety of characters, from the American who can't handle the local scene and feigns ill-health to get the next plane home, to the Kiev crowd who speak strongly against their land and situation, but seem almost unwilling to do anything about it but complain.

That is, until the day when the wall begins to fall. The Soviet Union's Committee for Extreme Measures announces that Gorbachev has gone on holiday, and that they will be running things for the next six months, which causes a groundswell of protest that culminates in Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, seizing control of the nation and finally breaking it up into smaller states.

That the cameras were on, and present, is really the extent to which you can credit Amy Grappell for the success of Light From the East. the events unfolding on screen are breathtakingly historic, and the insight into the 'other side' is definitely one that is of paramount importance, even now. But the greatest thing that can happen to a documentary filmmaker is for the world to explode while he or she has the lens cap off and the red button on - just ask the Irish guys who found themselves in the middle of a political coup for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - and that's exactly what happened to Grappell here.

It is an incredible story that unfolds on screen in front of you in The Light From the East, and you will come away better informed than you arrived, but in the end you can only give so much credit to happenstance.

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originally posted: 03/24/05 08:33:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/10/05 Mark Very Interesting 5 stars
3/06/05 rina beautiful film that takes a personal look from inside a revolution 5 stars
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