Screening nightly during the first week of the Pioneer’s “Homeland Insecurity” series, Michale Boganim’s Odessa . . . Odessa! is a modernist travelogue, at once impressionistic and precise. Gliding from locale to locale, émigré Jews dramatize a condition that might be termed “exilestentialism.”
Odessa, the object of their nostalgia, is represented as an abandoned Black Sea backwater whose remaining inhabitants oscillate between Russian and Yiddish in recalling the past. They are the last generation to live through World War II, and although the Soviet Union has withered away, they will always be its citizens. (“Was the Red Army the messiah?” someone wonders.) Boganim then visits Brooklyn, New York, and Ashdod, Israel, where the beachfront neighborhoods attracted substantial numbers of displaced Odessans. Just like back home, the inhabitants are highly performative. The boardwalk is filled with singing, dancing, and soliloquizing: “Brighton, dear, you are my Odessa.” (Local anthems including “I Will Survive” and “God Bless America” also get a workout.)
A found-Fellini quality, often prized by Russian filmmakers, is universal here—but Boganim does not view her subjects as grotesque. (Born in Israel, raised in Paris, and trained in London, she may well identify with their displacement.) But by juxtaposing the last century’s three Jewish utopias, Boganim makes a provocative point. Played out in Israel’s blazing white light, her film’s last movement is the most haunting. Even after making aliyah, Jews are still not at home: “In Odessa we were Jews; in Israel we are Russians.” The diaspora continues even in Zion.