In Roots, the new film by Pavel Lounguine, a Ukrainian conman named Edik lures several wealthy North Americans on a heritage tour to their ancestral shtetl of Golutvin. The film, which will screen at the New York Jewish Film Festival opening today, could have been paired with last fall’s adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated. But Everything Is Illuminated was an earnest homage in the name of an eternally guilt-burdened American Jewry. Roots is a farce.
Golutvin, like Everything‘s Trachimbrod, no longer exists, having been wiped out by the Nazis. In a nod to his countryman Gogol, the enterprising Edik fixes the problem by recruiting residents from nearby Golotvin to play relatives who supposedly survived. This cow is less sacred to those who lived through the tragedy, and the low register permits Lounguine, who was born in Moscow but now lives mainly in France, to go higher as well. He has the restraint to depict the vanished Golutvin as just that: an empty field. (Apparently unable to bear the implications, Liev Schreiber, the director of Everything, gave us ex-Trachimbrod as a beatific field of sunflowers.)
Lounguine’s forged reunions cleverly recall the Soviet government’s designation of Jewish immigration to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s as “family reunions” to rationalize this embarrassing flight from the socialist utopia. Similarly, the locals’ invention of Jewish roots subtly evokes the rush by Soviet gentiles to discover even a trace of Jewish blood in order to qualify for an emigration permit. Otherwise, the film offers a fairly clichéd picture of post-Soviet provincial life, both Jewish and gentile—lots of shouting and unnecessary violence, and the Jewish grandmother only wants you to finish your food.
More regrettably, the tantalizing implication that the sacred cow has turned into a cash cow—that, in newly capitalist Ukraine, Jewishness has passed from stigma to marketable commodity—remains unexplored. The Ukrainian hosts are so grateful to have a profit opportunity that they happily fabricate the past that Grandfather, a gentile wartime collaborator who guided the narrator through Everything, wished to suppress. In that film, the young but righteous narrator, Jonathan Safran Foer, teaches the savage Ukrainians to value the difficult truth about their history. In Roots, Lounguine shows up the promise of the West; his heritage tourists—a Russian-Jewish émigré who lives in Israel, a gentile Ukrainian-Canadian—nurse clandestine agendas that put Edik’s fabrications to shame. One wants to reconnect with a certain “relative” only to murder him, for a wartime betrayal.
But the East’s promise may be empty as well, certainly more than Everything was willing to acknowledge. For Lounguine, the truth is only sometimes desirable, if only because it’s quite easy to invent. This is the greater truth, in fact. This isn’t to suggest that expatriates and their descendants have no business going home. But as Lounguine himself has suggested, they return in deference to an implacable, quasi-physiological impulse, not from any hope of making things better, for anyone.