Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead.

Director's Statement

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Stuart UrbanAs a child, I do not remember exactly how and when I learnt of my father’s full history. I do recall the telegram arriving, when I was five, confirming that my father had found the only surviving member of his family alive after 25 years – Uncle Menachem. So it dawned on me before the age of 13, when I made my “Brits vs NeoNazis” short, The Virus of War, that my father and his family had undergone immense suffering in World War Two but my main perception of him was as a supremely successful, confident and inspiring man who had fashioned a family and a luxurious life having escaped the Soviet Union with nothing. His book, Tovarisch I Am Not Dead, published while I was at university in 1980, was a powerful and hard-hitting account that sold well in many countries. My father revealed himself to be a survivor of not just the Holocaust, but the Soviet camps: one of the 20th century’s most remarkable escapers and survivors.

He was totally extraordinary, but also supremely smart and intelligent, and of course it was clear to people encountering the aggressive side of my father that they were dealing with someone who generated huge aggression.

Equally, his charm was immense.

Were his aggression, his intelligence and his charm the keys to his survival?

As the years went on, I felt that I should address these questions, and others, by recounting his life in a factual film. (I also want to do a dramatised movie on him, one day, but that is another story…).

The fall of the Iron Curtain and Soviet Communism meant that in 1992 we could travel, at last, into that world which he had escaped in 1946. The evolution of video technology meant that I could do it “on the run”. We started a series of trips, which exposed as much about my father’s character as they did about his past. It soon became clear that the version of my father’s life recounted in his book was just one aspect of the truth. This made him uncomfortable in the presence of facts which did not fit. On the other hand, tracking people down after 50 years often confirmed the accuracy of many aspects of his book and his stunning recall.

The filmed material went through many changes and re-edits. In 1998 my father simply decided that the whole subject was too painful for him to want to have it seen in his lifetime. My own efforts had perhaps been in vain.

When Garri died, however, after a long and heavy illness in 2004, I felt that the door was open once more, and I could complete the story. This took more investigation in the archives and a lot more filming, while I pieced together some of the mysteries and was able to interview my uncle Menachem (Garri’s brother) and Noka Kapranova (Garri’s former lover) without him looming over our shoulders. Was she, for example, imprisoned because of her love for my father? My uncle spoke out for the first time, making astonishing revelations about him and his brother. I was grateful to be able to add their testimony to that of my father, heroic voices from a cruel age whose strength will live on beyond their mortal existence in this film.

Clearly, this film is in a sense an extended home movie that simply took a lot longer than most home movies to make! But the growth of “first person documentary” arguably demonstrates that film-makers who offer interesting stories or viewpoints are attracting audiences beyond their own front rooms, and I hope that this film’s themes - reconciliation between those who suffered in the Holocaust and those who (arguably) profited from it, the power of love that outlasted war and Gulag, and what it took to survive the worst and the best of the twentieth century - can offer some universal appeal.

Stuart Urban, March 22 2007

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