Tovarisch, I am Not Dead

Cyclops Vision
Stuart Urban/United Kingdom 2008

Stuart Urban made his mark as an adult with Preaching to the Perverted, but age 13 he made a short film called The Virus of War. It not only screened at Cannes in 1972 – making him the festival’s youngest ever director – but also is included in Britain’s National Film Register. Urban’s childhood choice of subject becomes even more interesting when we learn that at the time he knew almost nothing of his father’s history, the subject of Tovarisch, I am Not Dead.

Harry (originally Garri) Urban was a Jew, a doctor, and a man of ferocious personal will. After being shot attempting to flee Soviet territory in 1939, Harry spent years in a gulag in modern Uzbekistan before escaping to Moscow in 1943, where he was re-imprisoned before escaping again and making his way to Germany in 1946. When the Iron Curtain came down, Harry returned in 1992 to demand his prison records and KGB file. Stuart followed, filming as his father argued with officials and cried over his mother’s grave, although Harry frequently claimed the journey was all his son’s idea.

While this documentary is a loving tribute, its tactfulness leaves the audience spluttering in frustration. Stuart never stopped being his father’s son, which unfortunately prevented him from fleshing out the engrossing issues raised. For example, the father and son eat dinner with the Ukrainian family who have taken over Harry’s childhood home without asking if they were complicit in the liquidation of the local Jews, including Harry’s family. Stuart’s mother appears only in the first shot and is inexplicably neither seen nor mentioned again. We learn nothing of Harry’s life outside this quest; his international importance as a doctor and humanitarian is not even hinted at. The interview with Harry’s long-lost brother Menachem reveals glimpses of a story even more jaw-dropping than Harry’s, but Stuart is such a poor interview he does not ask even the obvious immediate questions. It’s clear his main concern was not to upset his elderly interviewees.

What’s worse is that Stuart does not appear to have done even the most basic independent research, leaving the film feeling half-finished. How can an exposé on someone’s life based only on their word hope to discover the whole truth? The only external interview, with journalist Anne Applebaum, provides needed background on gulags, as well as verification that some of Harry’s stories were plausible, but it’s not enough. The rest of the mostly handheld footage was shot by Stuart himself, who also provided the voice-over narration; Emily Harris’ editing conventionally intercuts this with typical talking-head interviews and old home movies.

The recent The Champagne Spy covers similar territory, and both documentaries are inspired by sons finally telling the stories of their fathers’ hidden lives. The important difference is that the son in The Champagne Spy was not the director. Whereas Stuart seems content to make astonishing discoveries, wave paperwork at the camera, and ask “Is this true? I guess we’ll never know,” The Champagne Spy’s Nadav Schirman probed and poked, based on plainly extensive research, until the truth came into the light. That film left you feeling the son was released from his father’s shadow. Tovarisch, I am Not Dead is about a son who is either incapable of or unwilling to be similarly released. Why did Stuart decide not to share this project with someone who could ask the questions he couldn’t bring himself to? Was he so afraid of the truth about his father that he could not bear to delve any deeper? I guess we’ll never know.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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